Biden won thanks to 23,000 voters in three states
The drama of Trump supporters storming the Capitol in Washington has made many people wonder about how strong the US democracy really is. Donald Trump has now left, and quite likely, things will look normal again quite soon under President Joe Biden.
In truth, the foundations of majority rule in the USA are still quite weak nonetheless. The problem is that the Republican Party, which does not represent the majority of American voters, has an outsized role, and its leaders know that the chances are good that they may win office without winning a majority of votes.
In 2016, Donald Trump won a majority in the electoral college even though Hillary Clinton, his opponent, had won almost 3 million more votes than he did. However, he was narrowly ahead in three decisive states. Because of those thin majorities, electors from Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin voted for him. All summed up, he had 306 electors on his side. To win, he needed 270.
More like a lottery
It is an irony of history that, in 2020, Joe Biden won 306 electors. This time, 7 million more voters had voted for him than for Trump, but the margin in the electoral college is the same. These figures show that US democracy does not rest on the principle of one person one vote. It is actually more like a lottery.
In actual fact, Biden’s victory did not depend on those 7 million votes. It depended on 23,000 voters in three states. Biden was 21,000 votes ahead of Trump in Wisconsin, 12,000 votes ahead in Georgia and 11,000 votes ahead and Arizona. Together, these three states have 37 electors in the electoral college. Had 11,000 voters in Wisconsin as well as 6000 in Georgia and another 6000 in Arizona opted for Trump instead of Biden, the electoral college would have been tied. In that case, state delegations in the House of Representatives would have decided who would become president. There are more Republican led state delegations in the house than Democrat state delegations. Trump would have stayed in office.
It was that close. The popular vote margin of 7 million more votes for Biden would not have made the difference. Obviously, some people would have disputed Trump’s democratic legitimacy, but his staying in power would have been constitutionally valid.
From 2000 to 2016, the USA had five presidential elections. Only once did a Republican win the popular vote. That was George W. Bush in 2004. Twice, however, Republicans won the electoral college in spite of losing the popular vote. That was Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016. In spite of winning the majority of votes only once, they won the presidency three out of five times.
Conservative-dominated Supreme Court
Of nine Supreme Court justices, moreover, six were nominated by Republican presidents. Indeed, three were nominated by Trump, who is now thoroughly discredited. They were approved by a Republican Senate majority, which only ever represented a minority of US citizens (see my blog post on our website)
The Senate is currently tied because two Democrats won this month’s runoff elections in Georgia. However, 50 Republican Senators now represent about 40 million fewer people than 50 Democratic senators do. The reason is that Republicans, on average, represent less populous states. Moreover, Washington DC, the capital city, is not represented in the Senate at all, even though it is more populous than the two smallest states. If it were a state, DC would certainly have two Democratic senators.
For similar reasons, Republicans are at an advantage when it comes to electing the House of Representatives and state legislatures. Democrats tend to win huge majorities in urban districts, while Republicans win much smaller, but nonetheless safe majorities in rural districts. As a result, their share of legislators tends to exceed their share of the vote, what is the other way around for Democrats. Compounding this problem, Republicans have used their control of state legislatures to redesign voting districts in ways that are even more favourable to them.
Hoping to entrench minority rule
In recent months, several media pundits and scholars have pointed out that Republicans are not even trying to win popular majorities anymore. Instead, they are trying to exploit constitutional rules (the electoral college, the disproportionate over-representation of rural areas in legislative bodies et cetera) that allow them to control power without convincing a majority of voters. Two of the scholars are Jakob S. Hacker of Yale University and Paul Pierson of the University of California, Berkeley. Last year, they published a book with the title “Let them eat tweets – How the right rules in an age of extreme inequality”. It assesses the Republican aspiration to minority rule. It also spells out that this aspiration long predates the surprising rise of Trump in the primaries in 2016.
The starting point of the book is what Hacker and Pierson call the “conservative dilemma”. It is that conservative parties tend to serve the interests of prosperous elites and thus have difficulties to rally those who are worse off. The conventional solution is to cater to identity politics to some extent, but also to build coalitions with various interest groups and emphasise specific sets of values. They know that they will be unable to form governments if they merely promote plutocratic interests.
As Hacker and Pierson argue, the Republicans in the USA have taken a different course. They are unambiguously devising policies that make the rich even richer – tax cuts and reductions in government spending. The irony is that most Americans want the rich to pay more taxes, not less, but divisive Republican rhetoric distracts voters’ attention from these matters.
Typically, Republican leaders do not offer coherent policies to tackle daunting societal challenges. They deny anything can be done about climate change and agitate against universal access to health care. They discredit Democrats as corrupt or irresponsible. They stoke outrage as best they can (hence the title “Let them eat tweets”). More often than not, such agitation has anti-Black and anti-minority connotations. One standard example is to keep declaring that more needs to be done to stop voter fraud, without ever providing any evidence of massive voter fraud. This has been going on for years, and it helped Trump to make many supporters believe he won an election he actually lost. The full truth is that Republicans have passed laws in many states that make voting harder for poor people – for example by requiring IDs poor people are unlikely to have.
To a large extent, the Republicans are now a party that fits Jan-Werner Müller’s definition of a populist party. The Princeton professor says that such parties claim to directly represent the people, which they define as a homogenous unity to which nobody who dissents or is different belongs. They deny the legitimacy of all other political forces and, once they gain public office, try to manipulate rules and institutions in ways that they will not lose power again. Trump’s version of populism fits in well. More established Republican leaders, such as Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, did their best to use him for their purposes. It fits the picture, of course, that right-wing populists around the world tend to rail against elites rhetorically, but endorse policies that serve the superrich (see my blog post on our website).
Trump not only lost the election, he is now a thoroughly disgraced person. Republicans are now split, with some wanting to abandon Trump, but most still hoping to be able to hold onto his base. This divide may actually be a good thing for US democracy. If the party splits into two viable political forces, either of them will struggle to win elections. The minorities they can attract will be too small to exploit constitutional loopholes the way they have been doing so far.
Those loopholes, by the way, were designed to protect minorities from the tyranny of majorities. Hacker and Pierson, however, leave no doubt that Republicans have learned to use them to impose minority rule on disenfranchised majorities. They also point out that the conservative-dominated Supreme Court has a track record of entrenching minority rule – for example, by permitting private corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to candidates of their choice or making it harder for trade unions to organise inside the company.
In the Senate, Democrats are proposing new legislation, "taking urgent and long overdue steps to renew our democracy by making it easier for all eligible Americans to vote; ending the dominance of big, dark money in politics; and ensuring that public officials work in the public interest". How Republicans will react will show how they feel about making minority rule less likely.
Hacker, J. S., and Pierson, P., 2020: Let them eat tweets – How the right rules in an age of extreme inequality . New York, Liveright/London, W.W. Norton