All of the recent post-election Republican shenanigans—baseless accusations of fraud, shouts of “stop the count” in some states while demanding bogus recounts in others, and dozens of lawsuits aiming to allow a handful of Supreme Court justices the power to overrule the popular vote—lead to one conclusion: US democracy is broken. And yet, predictably, it’s the Republicans who are on offense, demanding the rules be twisted even harder in their favor. Instead of defending democracy as it currently exists (which is, in effect, defending the indefensible), Democrats need to respond by calling for changes of their own on the basis that the political system is, indeed, rigged—in the Republican Party’s favor.
The US political system effectively offers Republicans a form of electoral affirmative action. The Electoral College gives them an edge, the Senate is weighted in their favor, gerrymandering means they can win a majority of seats in Congress and in state legislatures without a majority of votes, and they now control the Supreme Court. But for contemporary conservatives, even these structural advantages are not enough.
We live in a winner-take-all two-party system. In different ways, both parties are hostile to democracy, but only one has become openly contemptuous of majoritarian politics. Each party is constrained by a donor base of wealthy individuals and corporations, which obliges representatives to prioritize ruling class interests in order to stay in office. But where the Democrats embrace a neoliberal, technocratic let-the-experts-run-things approach to politics and support a basic social safety net (however piecemeal and inadequate), Republicans leaders want to destroy the “administrative state” and have spent the last month trying to sabotage legitimate election results. No longer content to fume about socialism, they now rail against democracy itself.
That’s because democracy is a losing proposition for conservativism. Before the election, Donald Trump flatly admitted that high levels of voter turnout would ensure we’d “never have a Republican elected in this country again.” After the election, Lindsey Graham went further still during a Fox News appearance: “If Republicans don’t challenge and change the U.S. election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again.”
Conservative diehards lie about their policies and pursue strategies of voter suppression and gerrymandering because they know they’ll never win a plurality of voters over by saying they want to make corporate America richer and more powerful at the expense of everyone else. They’ve given up on winning majorities, and have dedicated themselves to further entrenching minority rule.
The day after Trump trounced Hillary Clinton in 2016 (even as he lost the popular vote) I interviewed a group of College Republicans, as I recount in my book, Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. I expected the students to tell me that democracy and capitalism were mutually reinforcing, since that’s the Cold War rhetoric I grew up with. Instead, they insisted the two were opposed: democratic demands, whether for progressive taxation or for liberal immigration policies, would diminish their social and economic distinction. They had come of age in a post-Cold War framework in which capitalism and democracy were splitting up, and they valued capitalism more.
‘The phrase that inspires me,” a Republican political science major said, “is the American dream and that ability to climb.” “Opportunity” mattered to her more than inclusion. “In capitalism, there are going to be people at the bottom,” one young man enthused, confident of his place at the top and aware that his position was antidemocratic.
The Republican students regarded the ideal of democracy with scorn and derision—the young man mocked it as a “buzzword.” Members of a privileged economic minority, they recognized that impediments to popular sovereignty were necessary for the continued dominance of their class. They heaped praise on the Electoral College (after all, it was the reason their candidate had won) and warned that political equality would lead to wealth redistribution. “We’re a republic, not a democracy,” they told me.
It’s a phrase that’s grown more common in recent months. In October, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah expressed a similar sentiment on Twitter: “We’re not a democracy.” He continued: “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
Sadly, there is a lot in the US tradition for conservatives like Representative Lee to draw on. The founding fathers warned of “mobs” and “majorities.” James Madison promoted the idea that the Senate should protect the “invaluable interests” of “opulent” landlords against expropriation by the more numerous masses. For years, a cohort of Republicans, including Lee and Ted Cruz, has been pushing for a repeal of the 17th Amendment, which allows for the direct election of Senators. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that some Republicans have been calling for state legislators to subvert their state’s popular vote and assign Electors who are faithful to Trump to hand him a second term.
The chances of Democratic Party leaders boldly fighting to expand and strengthen small-d democracy are, admittedly, slim. After all, they are skeptical of democracy too. Many liberal pundits wasted the last four years blathering on about “populism,” implying that the unruly masses are the cause of the present crisis. But if you look at polls, the majority of people want decent health care, higher wages, action on climate change, a chance to join a union, etcetera. Unfortunately, regular people’s preferences have virtually no influence over public policy. Right now, the problem isn’t populism or the so-called tyranny of the majority, it’s that we live in a system where a small minority holds disproportionate power and sets the governing agenda. That’s why progressives need to begin a concerted campaign to push establishment Democrats to fight for electoral reform: abolishing the Electoral College, compulsory voting, lowering the voting age to 16, independent redistricting, statehood for Washington DC, multi-winner ranked-choice-voting, and getting money out of politics. All of the other political problems we want to fix, whether we’re talking about providing quality health care or preventing climate catastrophe, flow from there.
Republicans will no doubt cry “socialism,” as they always do. And they won’t be wrong. Like the country’s founders, contemporary Republicans understand that real democracy involves a redistribution of wealth. Democracy doesn’t exist when a handful of billionaires possess huge fortunes, and the enormous influence those fortunes can buy. You can’t have political equality without economic equality. That means we can’t democratize our electoral system without democratizing the economy as well. True self-government, it turns out, is indeed equivalent to socialism.
This is a dangerous time, but it’s also a clarifying one. Fully aware of the stakes, and unwilling to share their wealth or lose status, Republicans have declared war on government by and for the people, embracing revanchist minority rule instead. In response, corporate Democrats will try, or pretend to try, to find middle ground with a party that refuses to budge an inch—a fool’s errand if there ever was one. If we leave it to them, we’re doomed. The only hope is regular people doing what they have always done. We need to redouble our efforts to organize and fight in the hopes of one day creating a democracy worthy of the name.