Democracies can die with a coup d’état, a quick seizure of power — or, they can die a little at a time.
It happens most gradually and deceptively with the election of an authoritarian leader, enablers who abuse governmental power, and finally the complete repression of the opposition.
Perhaps the “canary in the coal mine” indicating a nation is slipping toward the death of democracy is when a minority group seizes power and keeps it by any means necessary.
The Republicans have won the popular vote for president only once in the last 20 years but have controlled the presidency for 12 years of those two decades.
The fact is minority rule, Republican or Democrat, is bad for our American experiment.
“I’m a firm believer in protecting minority rights. It’s at the heart of liberal democracy. That’s why we have the Bill of Rights and judicial rule,” says Daniel Ziblatt, professor of political science at Harvard. “But while our nation’s founders sought to protect small states, they didn’t want to empower a smaller group at the expense of a larger one.”
A recent example is the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. He was nominated by a minority president (Trump) who lost the national popular vote by 3 million ballots, confirmed by a narrow majority of the Senate representing just 44 percent of all Americans, aligned with four other conservative justices—including one nominated by the same minority president (Trump) and two others by a president (Bush 43) who also entered the White House with minority support.
Kavanaugh will likely back cases that enable voter suppression and extreme partisan gerrymandering, allowing the Republicans (minority party) to strengthen its anti-majoritarian hold on power.
According to a New York Times article, “Democrats easily won more overall votes for the U.S. Senate in 2016 and 2018, and yet the Republicans hold 53 of 100 seats. The 45 Democratic and two independent senators who caucus with them represent many more people than the 53 Republicans.”
Exhibit A: North and South Dakota have four senate votes representing 1.6 million people. California has two senators representing almost 40 million people.
The Senate was designed to protect small states, but the population of the four biggest states — California, Texas, Florida, and New York — grew by a combined 8.2 million over the past decade. The combined population of the four smallest — Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, and North Dakota — grew by 124,000. That is a serious design flaw.
The House of Representatives does represent by population, but the number of representatives was capped at 435 in 1929 when the population of the U.S was one-third the current size. Each congressperson should represent 708,000 citizens. Instead each serves anywhere from 989,000 to 526,000.
And then there’s the Electoral College.
The number of electors in each state is equal to the sum of the state’s membership in the Senate and the House. This gives an advantage to smaller population states. Again North Dakota has about one electoral vote per 224,000 people, while California gets about one vote per 677,000 people.
So, the “winner-takes-all” (except Maine and Nebraska) Electoral College model dramatically enables minority rule. No other established democracy has an Electoral College.
Remedy? Elimination of the Electoral College. The House voted in favor of such a constitutional amendment in 1969, but the proposal died in the Senate, by old segregationist interests.
As Senator James Allen of Alabama put it: “The Electoral College is one of the South’s few remaining political safeguards. Let’s keep it.”
The GOP has benefited greatly by this minority rule, but it goes against Republican’s core principles of supporting free markets.
Dr. Ziblatt, explains: “The Republican party is [like] a protected firm in a marketplace, artificially benefiting from the political system in a way that allows it to win even when it doesn’t win a majority. If we had free democratic competition, it would have to change its strategy. When Republicans cannot win a majority of votes nationally and still retain power, the free market of ideas is diminished.”
If we continue down this path, this leads us from minority rule to one party rule. (See Kentucky). That is not what the founders intended.
When there is no competition of ideas in local, state, and federal elections, intelligent progress becomes impossible. Research and compromise disappear, and decisions are made on ideology only.
Autocratic principles creep into the system from the likes of Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and the Republican party.
Levitsky and Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, lay out the principle in simple yet stark terms:
A political system that allows minority [party] rule to control the most powerful offices is not legitimate for long.
Without majority rule, there can be no democracy.