The System Isn’t Broken, It’s Just Not a Democracy

“The only reason to vote Democrat is if you’re tired of winning!” Donald Trump exclaimed to a triumphant MAGA crowd at a Kansas rally this weekend, mere minutes after the confirmation of his second nominee to the Supreme Court. And unlike a lot of what he says, there’s some real substance to that. Republicans control Congress and the White House, and Trump is doing what he promised his base he’d do as president: cement a conservative Court for what may be decades to come. Complete the devil’s triangle, you might say. In all seriousness, that’s how he galvanized voters — the “silent majority,” baby!

But let’s talk for a minute about that term, which was perhaps most famously employed in presidential politics by Richard Nixon in 1969 when roughly two million Americans organized a mainstream protest against the Vietnam War. Until that point, Nixon had enjoyed what was mostly a honeymoon period of his young presidency; his administration quickly went to work to discredit this outpouring of discontent with his policies. In a November speech, he referred to anti-war protesters as a minority trying to loudly impose its point of view on the majority, and then implored the “silent majority” — those who Nixon believed tacitly endorsed his policies in the war and beyond — for their open support. Was labeling anti-war and civil rights activists an unruly “minority” a racist appeal to constituents — a facet of his Southern strategy? That’s likely, though it’s been contested. What’s not contested is who won the next election: Nixon by a landslide, carrying forty-nine out of fifty states.

And now the “silent majority” is used quite often to refer to Trump’s base. But it’s a particularly deceptive word pair in the twenty-first century. His base is far from silent, to be sure, but what I’d really like to talk to you about is how it’s also not a majority. We’re all aware of this, on some level. In 2016, we saw Trump receive three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton and be elected president. In 2018, we’ve now seen Brett Kavanaugh, a judge opposed by more than half of the nation, elevated to the Supreme Court. In fact, the senators who voted to oppose him represent roughly forty-million more people than those who voted to confirm him. Forty-million!

What’s going on here? How is a non-majority landing a majority of electoral votes and a majority of senators and a majority of Supreme Court justices? Many people are seeing how undemocratic this all is and calling the system broken, but it’s not. The House of Representatives, aptly named, is composed of representatives allocated in proportion to population based on census data, but it’s not the most influential federal body. The Electoral College determines the president, the Senate has the final say on SCOTUS appointments (among many other things) and they were designed, proportionally skewed, to work this way.

The distorted constituent representations allowed for in the Electoral College and in the Senate are relics of the eighteenth century. Euphemistically, you will hear them described as designed to ensure that less populous states would not be rendered inconsequential by those with big cities and industries. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? My twelfth grade government class textbook sure thought so. But that explanation rests on the premise that white supremacy is the cornerstone of democracy.

Because what did the implementation of the Electoral College and the Senate actually look like back then, in terms of power distribution and constituent representation? It looked like the bolstering of Southern white male voters, who counted hundreds of thousands of silenced and disenfranchised women and people of color (POC) in their population tallies to garner electors, and then voted on those demographics’ behalves and against their interests. It looked like the appeasement of agriculturally-driven slave states, who were nervous that the industrious North would sweep elections as long as the popular vote determined outcomes, and decide policy as long as senators were assigned in proportion to state populations.

Today, the Electoral College and the Senate remain massively disproportionate in favor of less populous states, which minimizes the influence of urban areas and inflates that of the heartland. But most people of color live in urban areas, and mainly white people live in the heartland. The Electoral College and the Senate, by design, prop up white supremacy. The “majority” in Trump’s “silent majority” doesn’t refer to actual constituent numbers — it refers to white people, and the amplified power they hold.

What does this mean for power and policy in the 2010s? It means POC felon disenfranchisement turning states red that would otherwise turn blue in a landslide. It means the first time in fifty years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, blocking POC from the polls by exploiting restrictions like cuts to early voting, obstacles to registration, and nebulous voter-ID laws. It means increasingly manipulative gerrymandering, redrawing district boundaries to ensure the political advantage of Republicans. It means three branches of government composed of people who are increasingly demographically and ideologically removed from what the majority of Americans want and need (gun control, healthcare, climate change regulation, etc.).

This is what the system was designed for — it doesn’t produce outcomes that are in step with what we imagine the integrity of our democracy to be, but that’s just business as usual. As long as rural America remains a conservative stronghold, Republicans won’t need a majority of citizens to agree with their ideologies in order to win elections, pass legislation, and set precedents. Which is good news for them, because most of us don’t.

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