Over that last couple of weeks, a lot of commentators are beginning to write about an important issue. Here are a few examples.
White men are at the center, our normative citizen, despite being only around a third of the nation’s population. Their outsize power is measurable by the fact that they still — nearly 140 years after the passage of the 15th Amendment, not quite 100 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment, and more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts — hold roughly two-thirds of elected offices in federal, state, and local legislatures. We have had 92 presidents and vice-presidents. One-hundred percent of them have been men, and more than 99 percent white men.
But it’s not just in the numbers; it’s also in the quotidian realities of living in this country. The suffocating power of our minority rule is evidenced by the fact that we’re always busy worrying about the humanity — the comfort and the dignity — of white men, at the same time discouraging disruptive challenge to their authority.
The Republicans have consciously leveraged their minority power. In state after state after state, Republican governments have made voting more cumbersome, in order to winnow out the disproportionately poor and minority voters who such restrictions would discourage from the hassle. The conservative judicial agenda has increasingly focused on reading conservative policy preferences into the law.
The Republican Party represents a minority of the American electorate, yet it controls not only all three branches of the federal government but also most state governments, as well…our entire political system is built to give the Republican Party a series of advantages, even when they represent a minority of the public, as they now do. In some cases that’s by their design, and in some cases it’s a happy accident, but it all points in the same direction.
Republicans have given up on the idea of persuading a majority to agree with them. Instead, conservatives plan to rule from the minority. I listed a number of the tactics they had been using: voter suppression, gerrymandering, and judicial activism among them. I didn’t expect these tactics to work nearly so well as they have…
In summary, minority rulers in Congress, the White House, and state capitals keep changing the rules to make it possible to rule with ever-smaller minorities.
It’s time to give Zachary Roth some chops. Two years ago, just as the 2016 election was heating up, he published a whole book on this topic: “The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy. I had the pleasure of writing a review of the book for the Washington Monthly titled, “Being Outnumbered Doesn’t Have to Mean Losing.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham actually teed up the issue when he complained that the GOP was not “generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” Roth identified how the problem developed for the Republicans, not simply with the election of our first African-American president, but how he won.
Beginning in the 1970’s, Richard Nixon referred to the “silent majority.” Through the Reagan years we heard a lot about the “permanent Republican majority.” As Roth says, “Today’s conservatives have no such confidence that the people are on their side. In fact, they are beginning to perceive that they’re in the minority – perhaps more glaringly than ever before. And yet this realization has brought with it another more hopeful one: being outnumbered doesn’t have to mean losing.”
As Roth and others have noted, some of the tools of minority rule were actually written into our constitution, like the make-up of the Senate and the electoral college. Others have historical roots like voter suppression and gerrymandering. Over the last thirty years or so, the role of big money in politics has skyrocketed and eventually led to the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United. To these examples, Roth adds a couple that we don’t hear about as much: preemption and judicial engagement.
The most publicized example of preemption happened recently when the North Carolina legislature rushed to pass their infamous HB2 bill against the city of Charlotte’s ordinance affirming the rights of LGBT people. But it is actually a tactic that was developed by tobacco companies to overturn local anti-smoking ordinances. More recently, Roth describes a fascinating case in Denton, Texas where organizers were able to successfully pass a ban on fracking – only to find it overturned by the state legislature and the courts. Preemption has also been used to overrule minimum wage increases and paid sick leave in states like Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Michigan. Roth explains why this kind of effort has been so successful: “Corporate lobbyists can usually use their influence to stymie or water down serious attempts at regulation coming from Washington and state capitals. But in cities and towns, it’s often a different story.”
Judicial engagement turns the whole concept of judicial restraint (something we used to hear a lot about from conservatives) on its head. It suggests that, rather than giving the benefit of the doubt to the elected branches of government, judges should strike down laws that they think violate the Constitution. We saw that most notably with Obamacare. But as Roth explains, the deeper issue at work here is to elevate property and economic rights to be on par with other rights, like free speech. The goal is to strike down laws that regulate business or protect workers in favor of “liberty” for corporations. Or as Roth puts it: “All of a sudden activist judges are the last line of defense against the mob.”
All of this is a direct assault on democracy and the truths we hold to be self-evident: “that all men (and women) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Muder does an excellent job of defining the stakes.
We know where this process can go: The end result is plainly apparent in Putin’s Russia, where Potemkin elections are held on a regular basis. The path is laid out by authoritarian “democracies” in Hungary and Poland, whose rulers have not yet achieved Putin’s level of security against the People, but are on their way.
None of that is inevitable, but it gets harder to turn things around the further we go…
If a majority ever regains power, it shouldn’t be shy about using it: We need a constitutional amendment that controls corporate political spending. Voting rights need protection, and gerrymandering has to be stopped — by legislation if the Supreme Court will allow it, and by amendment if it won’t. The Electoral College has to be abolished. Citizens without representation in Congress need to get it: Puerto Rico needs to be offered statehood, and the District of Columbia needs representation. Breaking up the big states needs to be on the table.
The sovereignty of the People is a principle that runs deep in the DNA of American voters, even those who might favor conservative social policies. We need to make them understand the trade-off they’ve been making: An American Putin would do many things they’d like, but is it worth surrendering the Republic?
Barack Obama summed it up well during the 2016 campaign when he said, “Democracy is on the ballot.”
That wasn’t just true in the 2016 election. It will be true in every election from now until that list Muder compiled is completed.