American Democracy Wasn't Built to be DemocraticHistorians in the News
tags: democracy, Gerrymandering
To look on the bright side for a moment, one effect of the Republican assault on elections—which takes the form, naturally, of the very thing Republicans accuse Democrats of doing: rigging the system—might be to open our eyes to how undemocratic our democracy is. Strictly speaking, American government has never been a government “by the people.”
This is so despite the fact that more Americans are voting than ever before. In 2020, sixty-seven per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot for President. That was the highest turnout since 1900, a year when few, if any, women, people under twenty-one, Asian immigrants (who could not become citizens), Native Americans (who were treated as foreigners), or Black Americans living in the South (who were openly disenfranchised) could vote. Eighteen per cent of the total population voted in that election. In 2020, forty-eight per cent voted.
Some members of the loser’s party have concluded that a sixty-seven-per-cent turnout was too high. They apparently calculate that, if fewer people had voted, Donald Trump might have carried their states. Last year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, legislatures in nineteen states passed thirty-four laws imposing voting restrictions. (Trump and his allies had filed more than sixty lawsuits challenging the election results and lost all but one of them.)
In Florida, it is now illegal to offer water to someone standing in line to vote. Georgia is allowing counties to eliminate voting on Sundays. In 2020, Texas limited the number of ballot-drop-off locations to one per county, insuring that Loving County, the home of fifty-seven people, has the same number of drop-off locations as Harris County, which includes Houston and has 4.7 million people.
Virtually all of these “reforms” will likely make it harder for some people to vote, and thus will depress turnout—which is the not so subtle intention. This is a problem, but it is not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is that, as the law stands, even when the system is working the way it’s designed to work and everyone who is eligible to vote does vote, the government we get does not reflect the popular will. Michael Kinsley’s law of scandal applies. The scandal isn’t what’s illegal. The scandal is what’s legal.
It was not unreasonable for the Framers to be wary of direct democracy. You can’t govern a nation by plebiscite, and true representative democracy, in which everyone who might be affected by government policy has an equal say in choosing the people who make that policy, had never been tried. So they wrote a rule book, the Constitution, that places limits on what the government can do, regardless of what the majority wants. (They also countenanced slavery and the disenfranchisement of women, excluding from the electorate groups whose life chances certainly might be affected by government policy.) And they made it extremely difficult to tinker with those rules. In two hundred and thirty-three years, they have been changed by amendment only nine times. The last time was fifty-one years ago.
You might think that the further we get from 1789 the easier it would be to adjust the constitutional rule book, but the opposite appears to be true. We live in a country undergoing a severe case of ancestor worship (a symptom of insecurity and fear of the future), which is exacerbated by an absurdly unworkable and manipulable doctrine called originalism. Something that Alexander Hamilton wrote in a newspaper column—the Federalist Papers are basically a collection of op-eds—is treated like a passage in the Talmud. If we could unpack it correctly, it would show us the way.
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