Why Do Americans Put up With Their Wildly Undemocratic Political System?

by Micah Uetricht

@micahuetricht
30 October 2020
  • Estimated read time: 6 mins

For a country that loves to proclaim itself the embodiment of democracy, the United States doesn’t have very much of it. 

This was the case even before Americans elected a president who’s shown no scruples about violating the most basic tenets of liberal democracy, from continuous vocal support for voter suppression, to refusing to commit to leaving the White House if he loses next week. 

That said, there doesn’t need to be a brazen crook in the White House for the election to be stolen; America’s uniquely undemocratic political structures could lead to Trump winning the fewest votes yet still becoming president. 

Given this very real possibility, both leftists and liberals must be willing and ready to take to the streets, not just to register discontent with their undemocratic institutions, but also to put major democratic political reform of such a brutally dysfunctional system on the agenda.

The absurdity of the electoral college. 

Perhaps the most likely of the possible legal but undemocratic outcomes from next week’s presidential election is that Trump will badly lose the popular vote but win the electoral college. This is what happened in 2016, when he took 304 electoral college votes to Hillary Clinton’s 227 — despite Clinton winning nearly 3m votes more than him.

I have no love for Clinton. Quite the contrary: I worked very hard to see her lose in the Democratic primary to Bernie Sanders. But my blood still boils when I think about the disconnect between the popular vote and electoral college. Even with the massive voter disenfranchisement that constantly takes place in the US, mostly against poor and working class voters, and voters of colour, Clinton won far more votes than Trump. And yet she is not the president.

This is because of the electoral college, an institution which must be abolished in order for the US political system to even come close to calling itself democratic. The electoral college is an indirect voting system, which sees each state allocated a certain number of electoral votes based on its level of representation in congress. Every state receives two electoral votes corresponding to the two senators which represent it. This in itself is a democratic travesty, as tiny states like Wyoming (population: 578,000) are given the same number of senators as states like California (just shy of 40m) in the upper house of congress. 

 

 

From there, states are divvied up additional electoral votes according to the number of representatives they send to congress’ lower chamber, the House of Representatives, which is based on population size. In all but two states, the candidate who wins the popular vote gets all of its electoral votes, whether they won that state by one vote or millions. 

With states’ share of electoral votes inflated by their senate seats, a system is created in which electoral college votes fail to fully reflect (or sometimes grossly misrepresent) the popular vote. In this, the electoral college allows rural, and often conservative, voters to have outsized influence over urban voters — despite only a small minority of the country living in these areas — resulting in the system strongly favouring Republican candidates. Between 2000 and 2016, Republicans won three presidential elections; in two of them, the party won the electoral college while clearly losing the popular vote.

What possible reason could there be for the system functioning in such a blatantly undemocratic way? The answer is partly rooted in slavery. Back when the US constitution was being written, the idea of having a direct presidential election was put forward; something which Southern politicians like James Madison were quick to oppose. Since enslaved people were not allowed to vote, the slaveholding South was basically guaranteed to be outvoted by non-slaveholding states in a national direct election. By way of compromise, it was decided that enslaved people would be included in an indirect system, which would see each one of them counted as three-fifths of a human being. This was the basis for the electoral college system. 

More than two centuries later, despite its unpopularity, profoundly racist origins and many attempts throughout history to alter or abolish it, America still favours a voting method that distorts presidential campaigns into battles over a handful of states rather than a contest which values every single vote. 

 

 

Given what’s at stake in this election, while I have no love for Joe Biden either, if Trump once again cruises to victory, despite losing the popular vote, it is vital that the left form a united front with liberals and other defenders of democracy in order to take to the streets to declare the electoral college an illegitimate political institution and demand that the outcome not stand.

We should have done it in 2016; and we should have done it in 2000, when George Bush lost the popular vote by more than half a million votes. If history has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t keep choosing presidents like this.

The unaccountability of the supreme court. 

Like the electoral college, the supreme court is another highly undemocratic political institution that could end up playing a deciding role in the outcome of the 2020 election —  as it also did in 2000. 

The judiciary is the least democratic of the three branches of government, as there are the fewest opportunities for average Americans to hold judges to account — particularly at its highest level, the Supreme Court, where judges are appointed for life, are not subject to recall, are not voted on by the electorate and lack any democratic accountability mechanisms whatsoever. 

 

 

It’s no coincidence that the judiciary has become a cornerstone of the right’s strategy for political dominance, culminating in the recent successful appointment of rightwing justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, now giving it a six-three conservative supermajority. (Incredibly, five justices on the court were appointed by rightwing presidents who lost the popular vote.) 

And crucially, Barrett may not have to wait long to cast important votes: she has been appointed just in time to join that supermajority in any of the possible scenarios in which key decisions about who won the election are sent to the court. 

 

 

Looking at the right’s reliance on the judiciary in maintaining its grip on power in recent years, historian Matt Karp argues that its “resort to judicial supremacy is not a sign of strength, but an admission of weakness: a beleaguered regime calls upon the authority of the court only to achieve what it cannot accomplish through electoral politics”. While this may be the case, the right’s weakness won’t translate into the left’s gain without the left being willing to take on the court and reduce its power – a challenge it was unwilling to wage the last time the court held the presidency in its hands. 

Labour strategist Jane McAlevey recalls how the 2000 Gore versus Bush election was decided not by following democratic procedure, but by old-fashioned street muscle. With a recount in Florida’s Miami Dade County deciding who would win the state, the stakes were raised even higher when it emerged that, since the electoral college vote count (again, not the popular vote) was so close, whoever won Florida would win the election. 

Sensing they were about to lose, Republicans stoked upheaval in vote recount centres and on the streets — most infamously during the “Brooks Brothers riot”, which saw Republican staffers in expensive suits (many of whom would be rewarded for their tactics with positions in the Bush administration) cause chaos at polling centres, while rank-and-file party members protested in the streets. Democrats, by contrast, refused to even call a rally and shunned attempts by figures like Rev. Jesse Jackson to get organised in the streets. Such conservative upheaval helped lead local officials to shut down the count and the decision was soon moved to the supreme court, which ruled — again, brazenly and undemocratically — in Bush’s favour. 

McAlevey rightly blames the Democrats for throwing the election: “By putting their faith in the legal process, the Gore campaign and the national Democratic Party leadership handed the election that Al Gore won to George W. Bush.” 

The American left can’t make that same mistake again. If Democrats are yet again unwilling to fight back against a blatant rightwing power grab via the courts, then a grassroots upsurge will be needed to force their hand.

Challenging the system. 

I’ve only scratched the surface of America’s undemocratic institutions here. The rot runs deep: the senate is one of the most unrepresentative and undemocratic legislatures in the world; the gerrymandering of political districts and massive and shameless voter disenfranchisement of millions are both national disgraces; while the astonishing amounts of corporate money in US politics distorts everything. 

 

 

All of this culminates to produce a grotesquely unequal political system and economy, in which popular will is constantly blocked and reactionary ghouls and useless liberals ensure that nothing ever changes — even as the world burns. 

Why do Americans put up with such a blatantly undemocratic system? They shouldn’t. If they’re asked to endure such antimajoritarian absurdities yet again next week, this time, they must respond in the streets with a resounding “hell no”. 

Micah Uetricht is the deputy editor of Jacobin magazine and host of its podcast The Vast Majority. He is the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity (2014) and coauthor of Bigger than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism (2020).

Published 30 October 2020

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