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We are facing a danger to democracy, as the media are constantly reminding us.
It’s Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans, says the press, the current president and the Democratic Party, who refused to accept the results of a fair election, are perpetrating the big lie and electing people to steal the next election.
For his part, Trump uses equally dramatic rhetoric, making unsubstantiated charges about the 2020 election and how he should be reinstated, and accusing his opponents of the big lie.
“For six straight years,” he said at his Ohio rally over the weekend, “I’ve been harassed, investigated, defamed, slandered and persecuted like no other president. And probably like no one in American history… These people are sick, sick.”
All this unfolds under the shadow of Jan. 6 – Trump says he plans to pardon some of those convicted – and the Justice Department probe of the former president, who took many top-secret, classified documents to Mar-a-Lago.
So we’re inundated with warnings about the threat to democracy – as well as Trump, in a radio interview, saying there will be “big problems” in this country if he’s indicted.
But what’s increasingly happening is that this debate becomes conflated with ideological goals.
When President Biden gave his Philadelphia speech – the one the White House insisted was not political – he pivoted from attacking Trump World to saying that “MAGA forces” would take the country backwards “to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.”
In other words, you’re an outlier if you don’t agree with the Democratic agenda on abortion rights, birth control and same-sex marriage. But those, unlike the importance of democracy, are the subject of legitimate political debate.
I see the same two-step in a big front-page New York Times story titled “‘A Crisis Coming’: The Twin Threats to American Democracy.”
The first, “acute” threat is the familiar one: a growing movement inside one of the country’s two major parties – the Republican Party – to refuse to accept defeat in an election.”
Then comes number two:
“The power to set government policy is becoming increasingly disconnected from public opinion.”
And what that means, according to the piece, is that Democratic goals, and the ability to elect Democrats, are being frustrated by our structure of government. The complaints here, some of which are familiar, are ultimately partisan, but smuggled in the Trojan horse of defending democracy.
The piece is by David Leonhardt, a former Washington bureau chief, a smart guy who makes some smart points. But he has to acknowledge that some of what he’s complaining about is “written into the Constitution.” So now the Constitution is a threat to democracy?
Every schoolkid knows that America was created as a republic, and that the compromises that favor small states were adopted not just because they feared being overrun by the big states, but because it was the only way to pass the Constitution in 1787.
That’s why each state has two senators – to offset the advantage for the big states in the House, where the number of seats is awarded by population.
The problem, the Times says, is that “in 1790, the largest state (Virginia) had about 13 times as many residents as the smallest (Delaware). Today, California has 68 times as many residents as Wyoming; 53 times as many as Alaska; and at least 20 times as many as another 11 states.” So when Biden won California by 29% and New York by 23%, the huge margins are “wasted votes” from the Democratic point of view.
And that gives the Senate “a pro-Republican bias,” the paper declares.
Well, as JFK said, life is unfair. And good luck amending the Constitution on the makeup of the Senate, given that two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states would never go for it.
The same goes for the Electoral College. I wouldn’t be upset to see it abolished tomorrow, though then presidential candidates wouldn’t waste time campaigning in smaller states.
“In seven of the past eight presidential elections, stretching back to Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory, the Democratic nominee has won the popular vote,” says Leonhardt. And yet, “two of the past four presidents have taken office despite losing the popular vote” – namely George W. Bush and Trump. So that, ipso facto, is unfair to Democrats.
Except everyone campaigns to get to 270. And again, good luck getting enough support to junk the Electoral College.
Geographic trends have also contributed, with Democrats tending to cluster in urban states and metropolitan areas, limiting their impact in the winner-take-all Electoral College.
As for the House, gerrymandering is a factor, and both parties have shamelessly played that game. But Leonhardt says Republicans have been “more forceful about gerrymandering” than the other party. Really? In April, New York’s top court – in the state where the Times is published – threw out the Democrats’ attempt at gerrymandering.
Then we get to the Supreme Court, so out of step with popular opinion that it threw out Roe v. Wade. “Every current justice has been appointed during one of the past nine presidential terms, and a Democrat has won the popular vote in seven of those nine and the presidency in five of the nine. Yet the court is now dominated by a conservative, six-member majority.”
There’s one legitimate beef here: The Republican essentially hijacked a SCOTUS seat by refusing to give Merrick Garland a hearing, then rushed through Amy Coney Barrett at the end of Trump’s term.
But luck is also involved: Jimmy Carter didn’t get a high court appointment during his term. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg refused to retire when Barack Obama could have named her successor. Ah, but if only “Senate seats were based on population,” maybe none of Trump’s three appointees would have been confirmed. Seriously?
What’s more, the Supreme Court is periodically out of step with public opinion in ways that can be good. Did a majority of the country favor integrated schools at the time of the Brown v. Board of Ed in 1954? Of course not.
In only one instance does Leonardt take a swipe at his own side: “Some on the left now consider widely held opinions among conservative and moderate Americans — on abortion, policing, affirmative action, Covid-19 and other subjects — to be so objectionable that they cannot be debated.” That is stifling open debate – and here comes the qualifier – “in the view of many conservatives and some experts.”
So: If we awarded Senate seats based on population and threw out the Electoral College, Democrats would win more presidential elections and be able to appoint more Supreme Court justices – the real agenda here. Too bad the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia were so misguided.
These are all points that have been debated for a very long time, and given that pesky Constitution, are not going to change. But does that kind of help-the-Democrats argument really constitute a threat to democracy?