Making American Democracy a Triumph of Equality
|Mar 6, 2019|
As the numerical majority of white people dwindles, white conservatives are increasingly admitting that white supremacy and capitalism won’t survive if our government represents the will of the people. Just last week, former Maine governor Paul LePage was asked about a bill that would allow states to opt out of the Electoral College and commit to awarding all their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.
“If they do what they say they’re gonna do, white people will not have anything to say,” he said. “It’s only going to be the minorities who would [have power.] It saddens me that we’re willing to take everything that we stand for and throw it away.” The arguments in favor of the Electoral College are rarely put in such starkly racist language, but it’s clarifying to hear the stakes named so clearly.
In 2017, former GOP senator Orrin Hatch said that if we got rid of the filibuster, “This country would have been gone a long time ago — would have gone straight to socialism." Indeed, the popularity of proposals from the Green New Deal, to Medicare for All, to Elizabeth Warren’s Wealth Tax and “ultra-millionaire tax” suggests that a national legislature that accurately reflected the popular will would radically shift wealth and power away from the corrupt oligarchy and toward working people. Today, people of color represent 39 percent of the country — a number that will only continue rising over time. But Hatch and LePage are right; the Electoral College and the filibuster are necessary to defend capitalism and white supremacy as America transitions to a narrow white plurality. Conservatives can’t use white nationalism to win a majority in an increasingly multiracial America, so they need to learn how to get by using the tyranny of the minority.
It’s no secret the American political system is stacked against the popular will. Today, the Senate, Supreme Court, and the Presidency are represented by parties that lost the majority of votes cast in the elections that put them in office. “The rise of minority rule in America is now unmistakable,” said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University.
Under Trump’s leadership, the Republican Party has increasingly embraced an authoritarian agenda to defend the political power of white nationalists and the economic power of the corporate elite. Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are well documented at this point: his hatred of the press, disregard for the law, casual indifference for the rights of all, and his embrace and inflammation of political violence. The majority of Republicans in Congress have stood firm behind him, and state GOP leaders have ramped up voter suppression, ignored the outcomes of elections, and used all available means to stay in power. As a whole, the GOP depends upon the same anti-democratic aspects of the American political system that were used to defend the slave power in 1850 and Jim Crow in 1950 to protect its racist oligarchy today. And it’s not just the politicians who are becoming white nationalist authoritarians; a significant number of Republican voters care more about defending white supremacy than they do about the fundamental rights and freedoms afforded in a democracy. Political scientists Steven V. Miller of Clemson University and Nicholas T. Davis of Texas A&M released a working paper that shows, “When intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy.”
From most of our history, the majority of white people’s commitment to democracy has been limited to other white people. Our political system has been occasionally reformed, but it’s still the same system that was designed as a compromise with slaveholders. The filibuster, the Electoral College, the two-party system, and the unrepresentative Senate are all anti-democratic holdovers from an era in which women were not granted the full rights of citizenship and Black people could be owned as property. If America is ever going to become a real democracy in which all of us have equal rights and equal say, we will have to remove the anti-democratic parts of our political system once and for all, starting with the filibuster and the Electoral College.
Break Up the GOP (and the Two Party System)
While Trump is not a historically unique figure, he does pose a unique threat to our democracy. He has completed the transformation of the Party of Lincoln into a full-blown white nationalist party that’s applauded by leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, and publicly supports right wing nationalist parties across the globe. Trump has shown a plurality of Republicans will support him no matter how far he goes — his famous suggestion that he could "stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and [he] wouldn't lose voters” has proven largely accurate. He has only 40 percent of the public’s support, but the 90 percent of self-identified Republicans who support him means that no Republican in Congress dares defy him, for fear of losing a primary election to a Trump-backed challenger.
The threat of a white nationalist GOP can’t be dealt with by merely defeating them in future elections. The GOP poses a systemic threat to the existence of our democracy.
Each time the GOP comes to power, they could use the opportunity to make future elections irrelevant. A poll taken in 2017 shows 56 percent of Republican voters would have supported postponing the 2020 election — a number that could certainly rise in the event of a security crisis (real or imagined). During testimony before the House Oversight Committee this week, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen said he feared that “there will never be a peaceful transition of power” should the president lose the 2020 election. If he did lose, there is no reason to think the next Trump won’t be more disciplined, strategic, and just as authoritarian; he or she could succeed at using the emergency powers of the presidency to suspend the rule of law and elections indefinitely, or abuse the powers of the office to make national elections even less free and fair.
We have to break up the GOP, so the 30 percent of voters who support white supremacy above all else can’t come to power. The two party system gives this white nationalist plurality control of a major party, and the ability to govern if they can defeat a weak Democrat. We can’t let that happen ever again. Breaking up the GOP will require moving to a multiparty system. Our Congress is the most diverse of all time, but it’s still extremely unrepresentative of the American people in terms of beliefs and demographics. Our Congress is so unrepresentative, in part, because elections require 50 percent of the vote to guarantee any representation. In most democracies, there are many parties, each of which earns seats in the parliament based on the percentage of the vote they win. If you win 25 percent of the vote, you get 25 percent of the seats. In the US, if you win 49 percent of the vote in most elections, you gain nothing. This makes it even harder for people of color to get into Congress.
Our winner takes all system mashes together people of many different interests and outlooks into huge, unwieldy, coalition parties. Theoretically, having such a broad mishmash of voters in the same party means both Republicans and Democrats compete for swing voters, which moderates the power of extremists and authoritarians. However, the way it actually works is to allow a Nazi sympathizer to win the White House despite huge concerns about his fitness for office from senior members of his party.
Fortunately, there are good proposals that would move the US away from a two-party system and toward better representation. The FairVote proposal would create opportunities for more parties to emerge in Congress by creating multi-member districts in each state. Multi-member districts would make it possible to vote for candidates that represented your political views without being worried about handing the election to someone truly horrible. Instead of electing a single member of Congress for your district, you’d vote in three to five members per district. Each state would have the same number of Congresspeople as it does currently, but candidates could get into Congress with as little as 20 percent of the vote. Moving to multi-member districts doesn’t require a constitutional amendment — there is nothing in the Constitution that requires states to have single-member districts.
Moving to a multi-party system would force Democrats to compete for the votes of people of color with more progressive parties. For generations, people of color — especially Black voters —have given more to the Democrats than they’ve received. But, due to the extreme hostility of Republicans to racial justice, there was nowhere to go. Creating a multiparty system would give people of color more options for who to vote for and make it easier for women and people of color to run and win. A multiparty system would also isolate and marginalize the white nationalist faction of the GOP. The “Never Trump” Republicans could form their own party and break with the GOP. Further splits in the white nationalists would likely emerge: between right wing white nationalists who want to align with corporate America, and true Bannonists, who are opposed to Wall Street and a multiracial America.
A (Real) Democratic Revolution
We need social movement leaders, the socialist left, and progressive politicians to push for transformational political reforms. If Democrats win in 2020, they need to be prepared to get rid of the filibuster and propose adding Puerto Rico and Washington, DC as states to make the Senate more representative — but they can’t stop there. We need political revolutionaries who are willing to call for much more significant changes to how we elect our representatives and how they govern. We can’t just change the leaders, we need to change the rules of the game.
In most eras of significant progress in American history, those who were leading the changes came into conflict with the anti-democratic obstacles imposed by our slaveholding founders. In response, leaders were forced to fight for changes to our democracy, so they could win on the issues that mattered to their people. Today, it is impossible to imagine we could ever win the Green New Deal, reparations, an end to mass incarceration, immigration reform, or taxing the wealthy without structurally transforming our democracy. We can win the majority of the people over to our side, but it will be nearly impossible to use our corrupt and broken electoral system to pass any of the people’s choices into law. While it might sound difficult, it’s also impossible to imagine our democracy withstanding the transition to a multiracial America without it.
We can win this fight, but right now no one is leading it. Just as Bernie Sanders turned Medicare for All from a pipe dream into the de facto stance of the Democratic Party and #MeToo shed light on how the epidemic of sexual abuse and harassment is part of every aspect of our society, we need leaders who will make structural changes to our democracy a real possibility. We need progressive champions like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to begin calling for much more revolutionary changes.
America needs a political revolution to finally become a democracy that belongs to all who call this land home. We can change our political system into one that’s designed to reflect the diversity and beliefs of the American people for the first time in our history — if we fight for it.
About the Author
Max Berger is a writer, consultant, and strategist in Brooklyn. He is a co-founder of the Momentum Trainings, a social movement training institute, and IfNotNow, a Jewish American movement to end our community’s support for the occupation of Palestine. He’s worked for virtually every organization working to push the Democratic party to the left, including the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats.