The birthday of our undemocratic democracy

The birthday of our undemocratic democracy

When were kids, July 4 was a day to celebrate the nation that we learned in school was the world’s greatest democracy and a model for the rest. 

My mood on this July 4 is more mournful than celebratory in the wake of recent Supreme Court decisions about abortion, the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency, and concealed carry of firearms. 

Polls show most Americans favor gun control, action against climate change, and at least some right to choose abortion, but our preferences are thwarted by a polarized Congress and a politicized Supreme Court. 

Our democracy’s undemocratic aspects are evident in the inability to move the country in the direction most people want. Never a pure democracy — protection for minority rule was written into the Constitution — the United States grows less democratic. Consider:

US Senate: Democrats represent around 41.5 million more people than Republicans, but the Senate is split 50/50 due to equal representation for every state. The 39.6 million citizens of California have the same representation as the 581,000 citizens of Wyoming. Based on current population trends, 70 senators will represent just 30 percent of Americans by 2040. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to get the 60 votes needed to override a filibuster. Nothing gets done — as citizens complain — when a party that represents a minority of voters can block legislation.

Electoral College: Because the Electoral College gives each state an elector for each member of the US House and Senate, small states have disproportionate voting power. Of the six times a president did not win the popular vote, two have been recent: Republicans George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. 

Gerrymandering: Both parties draw legislative districts to their advantage, but Republicans have benefited more. A 2021 Associated Press analysis of gerrymandering showed that Republicans in recent years won more seats in the US House and state legislatures than would have been expected from the percentage of votes they received. They now have a greater political advantage in more states than either party had in the past half-century, and redistricting after the 2020 census has increased their advantage.

Lobbying: Think of the role the National Rifle Association has played in blocking gun control legislation and you understand how lobbying affects Congressional action and inaction. The opinions of the 90 percent of Americans who lack the money to bankroll politicians have no influence on the political process, a study by Northwestern and Princeton University professors found. 

Supreme Court: The three newest justices were nominated by Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote, and were confirmed by a minority-constrained Senate. The court now has a conservative supermajority committed to an originalist interpretation of the Constitution. There are needs 235 years later that the founders couldn’t have anticipated.

The Constitution: Undemocratic facets such as the Electoral College and an unrepresentative Senate were written into the Constitution, which is difficult to amend. Since the Bill of Rights in 1791, only 17 amendments have been passed, none in the last 50 years.   

With the current Senate and Supreme Court, Democratic control of the White House and Congress matters little. Minority protection has slid into minority domination. Would it bother me if I were on the minority side? I hope I’d be honest enough to admit that democracy means equal representation for every citizen. A government controlled by a minority isn’t truly a democracy.

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Marianne Goss

A retired university publications editor and journalist, I live in the South Loop and volunteer as a Chicago Greeter. Getting the most out of retired life in the big city will be a recurrent theme of this blog, but I consider any topic fair game because the perspective will be that of a retiree.

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