Van Gosse: American Democracy (the Lack Thereof)





[Van Gosse is associate professor of history at Franklin & Marshall College and specializes in American political development, the African-American struggle for citizenship and American society in the Cold War era and since.]

For more than two hundred years, the rest of the world has listened to Americans boast about our "freedom," our "liberty," and, most of all, how we are the model for a perfected democracy, which everyone else should emulate.

This was always been a pretty rank claim -- even in 1775 the British man of letters, Dr. Samuel Johnson, asked "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" But we have kept it up, over the years, to Mexicans, Haitians, Vietnamese, Cubans, Salvadorans, Iraqis, Afghanis, and even to our allies, like the French and Germans.

Over time, we became more self-aware, and stopped pretending that slavery was an afterthought easily rectified, or the extermination of Native American nations an unfortunate byproduct of our "manifest destiny." But, even now, most Americans assume that in the fifty years since the civil rights revolution, we are at last a complete democracy -- meaning that, if they bother to wake up and vote, the people rule here.

Not so. We are still a partial, blocked, half-way democracy, for the simple reason that our constitutional system incorporates central features intended to frustrate the will of the majority. You probably know what I'm talking about, but if you're like me, you were brought up to believe that these profoundly undemocratic structures -- federalism, the Senate, the Electoral College, and so on -- have an internal logic that somehow protects our freedoms. Again, not so. They are undemocratic by design, and they have been preserved by interests who wish to frustrate the will of the majority. So, in the interests of clarity, here are a few reminders.

First, "We, the people" do not choose our chief executive. Certainly, we vote for a presidential candidate, but he or she is selected by a mechanism that has allowed minorities to choose him or her. I don't just mean the farce of the 2000 election, where the people's will was manifestly violated, but on a much more ordinary basis, in the fact that there is no proportionate relationship at all between the number of people who actually vote in a state, and the number of "votes" it ends up casting in the Electoral College.

Maybe you've heard of the bad old days of Jim Crow, and the one-party Democratic South where hardly any blacks and not many whites voted. In 1916, for instance, 907,669 men, nearly all white, voted in six Deep South states where Woodrow Wilson gained 75 of the 277 electoral votes he needed for re-election, while almost three times that number (2,545,883) voted in five northern states where Republican Charles Evan Hughes won his 75 electoral votes.

Jim Crow is gone, but we still have a gross imbalance between states in the Electoral College, and therefore the actual power of individual voters. It no longer automatically favors one party, but it still makes the principle of "one person/one vote," meaning the equal weight assigned to all votes, look absurd. Think of it this way: in 2008 the seven smallest states, with 2,510,980 voters, cast 21 electoral votes -- exactly the same number as Pennsylvania, with its 6,015,476 voters. As a Pennsylvania native, I have and do feel gypped, but so should most of the rest of us who aren't lucky enough to live in Alaska, Delaware or the Dakotas.

Second, we do not elect the more powerful upper house of our national legislature by any kind of properly representative process. Sure, we vote, but again in such a grossly disproportional way as to make the idea of a Senate elected by popular choice absurd. My favorite way of understanding this is to compare the population of Wyoming with that of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I teach. They have about the same number of people (a little over half a million) but Wyoming voters are represented by two United States senators, whereas voters in Lancaster County are a tiny fraction of the statewide electorate (3.7 percent in the 2006 senatorial election--this is a corrected figure, I was mistakenly told "less than half of one percent" by someone else, which made it into the earlier version of this piece); we are not "represented" in a fashion remotely comparable to voters in small states, which makes us much less powerful in national politics. Once again, Pennsylvanians, like New Yorkers, Californians, Texans and the residents of other large states are grossly disenfranchised, which was the point in 1787 -- "protecting" smaller states -- and remains the point today.

As has been obvious for well over a century, those smaller states are in most cases the homelands of native-born white people, and that what the Senate exists to protect now. You don't believe me? The 25 least-populated states contain only 16% of the U.S. population (49,787,302 people in 2009) but together control the rest of us with their fifty Senators, and (with a few obvious exceptions like Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Hawaii), there are very few African-Americans, Latinos, or Asians in those states. Hell, there are almost no cities! So, while it would be ridiculous to assert a racial conspiracy, who needs a "conspiracy" when super-advantaging the small states protects white people in constant, small ways?

Put it another way: minus the Senate, the citizens of Wyoming, Idaho, Arkansas, Delaware, Alaska, Nevada, Utah, the two Dakotas, and Montana would receive exactly the same weight of representation as the rest of us have, instead of those 8,856,319 (nearly all white and rural) Americans, 2.9% of the population (in 2009), sending twenty senators to Washington. How is that worthy of the name "democracy," unless you want to assert that the vast expanses of the Rockies and the Ozarks somehow deserve representation?

Another block on democracy is an aspect of "federalism," as designed in the 1780s: our antiquated, locally-controlled system for registering voters, and organizing how, when, and where they vote. In the guise of a very good thing -- local government controlled by local people -- we perpetuate a structure that frustrates the most basic guarantees of equal rights, like the right to vote. How do I know this? Residency requirements! For most of our history, they have functioned to exclude poor people, young people, and immigrants. Think about it: why should you be required to live in Des Moines, Manhattan, Boston, or Tuscaloosa for some required period of time before you get to decide between John McCain and Barack Obama? You're a citizen, and you should be able to vote, even if, like many Americans, you recently moved -- from one part of town to another, or to a different city or state. The way I know about this is through F&M Votes, the voter registration campaign my college runs to make sure our students vote locally, instead of relying on the vicissitudes of absentee balloting (remember the mess in Florida in 2000?). From 2004 on, we have faced angry resistance from local residents who assert, rather vociferously, that since our students only "live" in Lancaster -- but don't pay taxes, buy property, or make a commitment to stay long-term -- they should not be allowed to vote where they live.

Residency rules, arbitrarily enforced (since many localities, unlike Lancaster County's professional and nonpartisan Board of Elections, refuse to register full-time college students), are the tip of the iceberg in terms of a voting system designed to frustrate active participation. We have approximately three thousand counties in the U.S., and that is the level where voter registration is actually organized -- or not. This is a nineteenth century system, random and often amateurish, and extremely susceptible to partisan interference. Why? That is the question we should all be asking. Any politician committed to democracy here at home instead of preaching it abroad would demand a transparent, uniform easy-access national voter registration system -- especially in a country as large as ours. Many countries have same-day registration: you walk in, register with any approved identification, are entered in a single database to block fraud, and vote.

The steps to democratization are not hard to sketch out. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave the federal government the authority to override local and state authorities that kept black people from voting, and the 24th Amendment a year earlier permanently banned poll taxes, one of the South's favorite ways of disfranchising poor black people (and lots of poor whites). The results were dramatic, and in 1968 for the first time, a majority of African Americans voted. We need a new Voting Rights Act paired with the necessary constitutional amendments to provide for genuinely representative democracy (one-person/one-vote proportionality) for every American citizen. We should radically change the way we elect the Senate, so it still represents the states, but is at least moderately representative of population -- perhaps each state should get one Senator for the first million people or fraction thereof, and one for every million after that. As for the Electoral College, get rid of it one way or another, and guarantee that the President is the person who has gained the most votes. Finally, let's think about when "federalism" actually strengthens local democracy rather than empowering entrenched elites.



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