When Is Democracy Undemocratic

Jonathan BernsteinThe consistently brilliant Jonathan Bernstein was answering questions yesterday. And one of them really caught my eye, So What If Majority Parties Lose? In the article, he claimed, for example, that the Republicans holding the House in 2012 despite losing the popular vote was more due to a Democrat being in the White House than any built in advantage for the Republicans. He also claimed that it is most democratic to not allow small majorities to do whatever they want (as can happen in a parliamentary system). I have problems with both claims, even if I don’t fully disagree.

Let’s start with the idea that there is no built in advantage for Republicans — a claim that Bernstein seemed to imply, but in fairness, never said. In the article, Bernstein noted that the Democrats did very well in 2006. That’s true, but so what? In the House that year, Democrats won 15% more seats than the Republicans did. But they also won 20% more of the popular vote. Compare that to 2012 when the Democrats got 14% less of the seats, even though they won 2% more of the vote. Or 2010: Republicans got 25% more seats but won the popular vote by 15%. Or 2014: Republicans got 31% more seats but won the popular vote by less than 13%. That seems like an extremely troubling systemic bias. And this is the House of Representatives! The Senate is far less democratic — by design. But it is clear that we have problems that go beyond the design of our system and the fact that liberal voters live in high density areas.

This brings up something that really bugs me. It is the idea that there is a “natural gerrymandering” because liberals live in high density places like cities and states that aren’t backwaters. I don’t have a huge problem with the Senate. It is, as I mentioned, designed that way. Similarly, there is a smaller effect in low population states in the House. But there is nothing natural about putting making districts strictly urban or rural. The only thing that is natural is that it is to the advantage of various political actors to do that. These same political actors have no problem creating the most unnatural districts when that suits them.

Bernstein’s main point in the article is one that I’m not totally against. It goes back to Karl Rove’s idea that if you got 50% plus one vote, that gave you the ability to do anything you want. Of course, it doesn’t. It is more true when Republicans are in the majority because, in general, Democrats are spineless pussies. But in some ways, it is good that our system is set up to make change proceed slowly.

But there is another aspect of this that I think is quite poisonous. Because political parties never get to do what they really want to do, the voters never get to see clearly what they are voting for. For example, as much as the Republicans may whine, Obamacare is still a fairly conservative plan. So the people never got the opportunity to see a truly liberal idea: Medicare for all. Similarly, the economic policy these last six years has been more conservative than the policies we saw of any Republican going back to Hoover. I don’t mean tax policy here. I mean government spending. So we’ve had a very slow recovery. But that isn’t the fault of liberal policy.

The question is whether allowing voters to see what their actual votes mean would make up for the absolutely disastrous policy that the Republicans would push when they did get into power. And I have to admit: I don’t know. But it does bug me that the American voter still depends almost entirely on the vagaries of the economy to determine who to vote for. It all seems quite random. And in this way, Bernstein was right when he noted, “In other words, it’s a problem if a party that takes 49.5 percent of the vote gets to run the government, but it’s almost as big a problem if a party that wins 50.5 percent gets to run it.” But maybe if people were able to see what their votes mean, we wouldn’t have a political party as crazy as the modern Republicans.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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