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Attempting to entrench minority rule in the USA

by Hans Dembowski


Amy Coney Barrett will be the third Supreme Court Justice nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and appointed by a Senate majority that only represents a minority of US citizens.

Amy Coney Barrett will be the third Supreme Court Justice nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and appointed by a Senate majority that only represents a minority of US citizens.

Some observers say one should not overestimate the relevance of next week's elections in the USA. According to them, it is an exaggerated to see democracy at risk, as there have always been ideological polarisations of some sort or another. I think that they overlook an important aspect. Donald Trump's Republican Party is increasingly pursuing minority rule.

Robert Reich, a former labour secretary under President Bill Clinton, spelled out things precisely in The Guardian this weekend.  I'll briefly summarise: Trump became president even though he got almost 3 million fewer votes than his competitor Hillary Clinton thanks to quirks of electoral law. In 2016, the Republicans also won majorities in the Senate as well as in the House of Representatives even though more voters had opted for Democrats. The reason is that rural areas and states with comparatively small populations are over-represented in Congress.

The background is that system is indeed rigged – but in Republicans’ favour. Every state has two senators, Democratic-run California with almost 40 million people as well as Republican-run Wyoming with not even 600,000. Things are distorted in the House of Representatives too. The states are organised in districts, and whichever candidate gets the most votes in a district becomes the representative. There are many rural districts where Republicans are normally narrowly ahead, while Democrats tend to win urban districts with big majorities. Compounding the problems, Puerto Rico with 3.2 million people and Washington DC with 700,000 are not states – so their people are not represented in Congress at all, even though they are US citizens.

Two years ago, the Democrats nonetheless retook the House thanks to unusually strong voter turnout, but Republicans kept their Senate majority, even though their senators now represent about 15 million fewer people than their Democratic opponents. If things go as planned, this minority-rule Senate will today appoint Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. She was nominated by a president who lost the popular vote. He and several Republican senators, moreover, are likely to be voted out of office next week. Barrett will be the third Supreme Court justice appointed by senators who do not represent the majority of US people. They are likely to stay in office for decades, and Republicans hope they will leave their mark on public life and public policy.

Reich is not alone to express such concerns. The New York Times, which has a pay wall, recently ran a short essay by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two prominent political scientists. The core message of their essay was: “End minority rule.” Their assessment is basically the same, and it is equally worth reading. Indeed, many authors are coming to similar conclusions. With regard to the Supreme Court, for instance, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. argues that “enlarging the Supreme Court is the only answer to the right’s judicial radicalism” (paywall).

In a democracy, all branches of government must enjoy the trust of the majority of people. Elected officers, moreover, must represent majorities too. While minorities deserve some kind of legal protection so they will not be abused by the majority, attempts to install minority rule and deny legal protection to majorities, however, are inherently antidemocratic. The depressing truth is that this is what is at stake in the USA next week.

To entrench principles of majority rule, Democrats will have to win overwhelming majorities at all levels. If they do, they could make Washington DC and Puerto Rico states, so the people living there would finally be represented in Congress, for example. So far they are not, and there is a reason why Republicans do not want them to be. DC has a huge black population and Puerto Rico is predominantly Hispanic.

The USA is not just any other country. For good reason, it has been called the indispensable nation. The international community needs responsible leadership in Washington. That is equally true of the American people of course – and only majority rule will ensure it. As I argued in a blog post not quite three weeks ago, powerful forces prefer something rather different. They want special interests - their own - to prevail over the public good. If you don't trust me on this, please check out what the editorial board of the New York Times has to say about the depressing state of the Republican party.

Correction: In the initial version of this blog, I posted population numbers for US states and territories without checking them. Puerto Rico's population is only 3.2 million, 300,000 fewer than I thought. The numbers are now correct.