Is this a Democracy?

America has a wonderful democratic constitution.  But it’s not working anymore, at least not the way it was designed to.  The Senate was intended to give each state an equal weight in deliberations, to ensure that a majority did not ram through legislation that was repugnant to more than half of the states.   The election of the President similarly was set to work through an electoral college that vested electoral power in states, rather than in a national majority of voters.

But those intentions assumed that the majority would be fairly represented in the House of Representatives.  The House was required to be redistricted every decade, based on the current U.S. census, so that the same number of people (or as near as possible) would be represented in each Congressional district.  The outcome of Congressional voting was therefore expected to be the closest thing to a mirror of popular preferences anywhere in the U.S. government.  For that reason, a number of critical powers, such as the power to proposal all tax legislation, were given to the House.

Yet today, the politicization of redistricting has resulted in a House whose composition no longer reflects the preferences of the majority of American voters.  In the current, 2012, elections, the national vote for members of the House were nearly evenly split, with Democrats holding a slight edge — 53.95 million to 53.40 million who voted Republican.

Yet the composition of the House did not reflect this vote — Republicans will hold a solid majority, of 235 to 200 seats (six races are still not fully decided; this count is based on how those races are leaning).  In other words, despite getting just under 50% of the popular votes for Congress, Republicans will have a 54% majority in the House.

Ordinarily, a slight difference between a Party’s popular vote totals and their representation in a legislature is normal — even in proportional representation systems, parties with smaller votes tend to be over-represented.  That is normally good and helps to protect minority rights.  Indeed, the usual risk in first-past-the-post systems is that they tend to exaggerate the influence of popular majorities, much as President Obama won an overwhelming electoral college victory of 332 to 206, despite winning only a slim majority of the popular vote, at 64.41 million vs. 59.96 million for Gov. Romney.

But what has happened in the House of Representatives in 2012 is rather unusual; a minority of the popular voters have captured a substantial majority representation in the legislature.

This is directly the result of gerrymandering of electoral districts by Republican state legislatures.  That is, Republicans who won state governments in 2008 were able to redraw district boundaries to put Democratic voters together in a few districts, while redrawing others to create local Republican majorities.  The result was a wild distortion in some states.  For example, in Pennsylvania and Ohio, both states where Obama won a majority of the popular vote, Republicans were winners of 13 out of 18 House seats in Pennsylvania, and 12 out of 16 House seats in Ohio.

We are thus stuck with what is, in fact, unconstitutional government — a government in which the House no longer performs the role in our divided government that the Founding Fathers intended.

Curiously, it is the same Republicans who now control the House who claim they are the true defenders of the basic constitutional principles of the Founders.  They claim that they have a right and duty to block Democratic-backed legislation.

If they do so, they will be going against a clear majority of American voters, majorities that increased the Democratic count in both the Senate and the House and elected a Democratic President, and that registered more votes for Democrats than for Republicans in the House, and the Senate (aggregate popular vote in Senate races: 41.89 million Democratic, 36.51 million Republican).

One might think, or hope, that such a clear Democratic majority vote would lead Republican leaders to grant a certain amount of leeway and respect to Democratic party leaders and not obstinately block legislation backed by the Democratic party.  After all, American voters made clear that they support the Democratic party over the Republican party at every level in the recent elections.

But don’t hold your breath.  Even though polls show that majorities of Americans want more investment in infrastructure, more support for education, and higher taxes on high earners,  and even though a majority of Americans voted for politicians who supported those policies, we are not likely to get them.  We don’t live in a constitutional democracy any more — and the results of our government increasingly show that.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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