Politics & Policy

A Built-In Bias toward Peace

A voter looks over her ballot at a polling station in Steubenville, Ohio, March 6, 2012. (Jim Young/Reuters)
The Economist makes a peculiar complaint.

Over the weekend, CBS News revisited the 1968 Democratic convention, that great, ugly, vicious coming-out party showcasing the passions of the modern progressive tendency: Chicago mayor Richard Daley ensured that the convention opened under what Walter Cronkite described as “police state” conditions, while the left wing of the party chanted “pigs are whores” and pelted police with bricks and concrete. Connecticut senator Abraham Ribicoff denounced the “Gestapo tactics” of the CPD from the stage, and Mayor Daley replied with a sentiment not entirely unknown in the contemporary Democratic party: “F**k you, you Jew son of a b**ch!”

Reports CBS News: “Richard Nixon ran on a ‘law and order’ platform, and won the presidency in a close election.”

That is not correct — it was not a close election. It was not even close to close.

Nixon carried 32 states and 301 electoral votes to Hubert Humphrey’s 13 states (plus the District of Columbia) and 191 electoral votes, with George Wallace carrying five states and 46 electoral votes. Nixon won 43.4 percent of all votes across the country, while Humphrey won 42.7, which means that it might have been close if we had a national popular election for the presidency, but — pay attention now, Mrs. Clinton — we don’t.

There is a good reason for that.

Over the summer, The Economist did two things of interest: One, it began a series exploring the great thinkers of liberalism — liberalism in the “broad classical sense, rather than the narrow American left-of-centre one” — with a suggested-reading list including important liberal thinkers from members of the Surname-Only Club (Mill, Hobbes, Spinoza, Tocqueville, Locke, Montesquieu, Paine, Smith) to a few who may not have been on your undergraduate syllabus, such as Frédéric Bastiat, Salvador de Madariaga y Rojo, and Mary Wollstonecraft. (No, friends, Frédéric Bastiat is not on very many undergraduate syllabi, even though he should be. Not everybody goes to Hillsdale, King’s, or Grove City.) This is a genuine public service, one of the many things that make The Economist an invaluable voice in public affairs.

The other interesting thing The Economist did was publish an uncharacteristically stupid essay about the “built-in bias” of the American electoral system. “In no other two-party system does the party that receives the most votes routinely find itself out of power,” the newspaper said. That’s true enough. There isn’t another two-party democratic republic very much like the United States, and that is intentional. One of the important reasons for that is the fact that Jefferson et al. were up on The Economist’s reading list well before James Wilson (the Scottish one, who also appears on the reading list, not the American Founding Father) got around to launching The Economist. Perhaps the essayist here should peruse the works of some of those great liberal thinkers. A good place to start would be in The Economist, which intelligently included an essay on the father of modern liberalism, John Stuart Mill, which bears the title “Against the Tyranny of the Majority.”

As it turns out, there is a relationship between these two items of journalistic curiosity.

Mill, who was born in 1806, was not in a historical position to exercise the intellectual influence on the American founding that Locke and his contemporaries did. (Locke was a champion of inalienable rights; one of his great philosophical opponents was Bishop Berkeley, for whom the California university is named. Berkeley misinterpreted Locke. The more things change . . . ) He was an exponent of the same political tradition, and, like many of the founders, he was deeply read in the Greek and Roman classics (he is said to have written a history of Roman law at the age of ten) and his terror of the “tyranny of the majority” — like the American founders’ dread of democracy per se — was rooted in part in the example of Roman ochlocracy. Mill, like F. A. Hayek after him, understood and feared both the hard and soft versions of mob rule.

The Economist writes:

Democracy itself threatened the free exchange of ideas in a different way. Mill thought it right that ordinary people were being emancipated. But once free to make their own choices, they were liable to be taken in by prejudice or narrow appeals to self-interest. Give the working classes a vote, and chaos could result.

That in turn might cramp society’s intellectual development, the views of the majority stifling individual creativity and thought. Those who challenged received wisdom—the freethinkers, the cranks, the Mills—might be shunned by “public opinion”. Expertise could be devalued as the “will of the people” reigned supreme.

The upshot was frightening. Paradoxically individual freedom could end up being more restricted under mass democracy than under the despotic sovereigns of yore. Mill famously refers to this as “tyranny of the majority”. But he worries just as much about middle-class “respectable” opinion as working-class ignorance.

John Adams described these chaotic currents as “passions,” and he feared them. He memorably argued that, absent an enlightened moral culture, even the most cleverly constructed machinery of government would fail — that only a “moral and religious people” could thrive under self-government. Otherwise, “Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net.” It’s the Chief Brody model of government.

We often describe our mode of government as “liberal democracy.” (As opposed to illiberal democracy, or militant democracy.) We usually think of liberalism and democracy as things that go naturally together in a harmonious fashion, and they often are. But their relationship is the opposite of what is generally supposed: In a liberal democracy, the role of liberalism very often is to prevent democracy from doing what democracy wants to do — liberalism is the grown-up who tells democracy, “No.” That is why the items discussed in the Bill of Rights were put in a special place beyond the reach of voters. Voters often are full of ignorance and rage (see the Democrats in 1968, above) and in the best of times are guided by very little other than tribalism and poorly calculated short-term self-interest.

The need to keep democracy on a leash is why we have a Bill of Rights, why we used to have unelected senators, why we have an unelected Supreme Court, three branches of government, etc. It is also something that is critical to the very structure of our country, which The Economist inexplicably does not quite seem to understand, writing:

This imbalance is partly by design. The greatest and the smallest states each have two senators, in order that Congress should represent territory as well as people. Yet the over-representation of rural America was not supposed to affect the House and the presidency. For most of the past 200 years, when rural, urban and suburban interests were scattered between the parties, it did not. Today, however, the 13 states where people live closest together have 121 Democratic House members and 73 Republican ones, whereas the rest have 163 Republicans and just 72 Democrats. America has one party built on territory and another built on people.

Congress does not — and the Senate in particular emphatically does not — represent territory. Senators represent states, and states are not “territory,” nor are they administrative subdivisions of the federal government. States are sovereign entities that have joined together in the cooperative goal of instituting a shared federal government to see to the projects that the states have trouble seeing to on their own: matters such as war, immigration, and diplomatic relations, matters in which the states wish to pursue a common policy, and matters of relationships and disputes between and among the states. The 13 United States of America created the federal government — not the other way around. The states are distinct entities with their own powers and their own interests, and that — not ranchland in Wyoming — is what senators are there to represent.

As a purely practical matter, the American system of dual sovereignty was necessary for the less populous states to ensure that their interests were not overrun by those of the more populous states — and, to that extent, the system is working as designed, irrespective of whether the editors of The Economist approve of the outcome.

The Economist complains that “the over-representation of rural America was not supposed to affect the House and the presidency.”

That is an odd objection. With the exception of a few states with small populations and only one House seat (those being a fairly diverse bunch: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming), House districts have roughly the same number of people (on average 710,767), population being how we decide to add to or reduce the number of House members a state has. The existence of single-member states can either advantage or disadvantage a Republican or Democratic state depending on how exactly the numbers break. In Rhode Island, 527,624 people share a member of the House; in Montana, relatively disadvantaged by its current position, 994,416 people share a single House member. The last time around (the 2000 Census), Wyoming was in an advantaged position, with fewer than 500,000 people having a House member. These small states are far from monolithically Republican — or monolithically rural. Rhode Island (91 percent urban) and Delaware (83 percent urban) are among the least rural states in the country, and even Wyoming and Alaska are slightly more urban than Iowa and Alabama, according to the Census. Of the four states that are less than half urban, two went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (Maine, Vermont) and two went for Trump (West Virginia, Mississippi).

The Reapportionment Act of 1929 fixes the number of House seats at 435, meaning that states add or lose representatives (and, hence, Electoral College votes) as they add or lose population relative to the rest of the country. Texas went from 30 to 36 House seats in the early 21st century not because of its geographic footprint but because its population grew. New York had 45 House members at its peak, but it has declined to 27 because of its stagnant population, and it probably will lose another after the 2020 Census.

Among the large states, there is no clear pattern of House apportionment advantaging those that lean Republican. With 786,111 residents per House seat, Texas is disadvantaged relative to California, which has only 746,037 residents per House seat. Florida has 777,037 residents per House seat, while New York has only 735,185.

Comparing each party’s total votes to its final tally of elected representatives can provide misleading results. Let’s say you have ten congressional races, and Democrats win five of them by an average margin of 100,000 votes while Republicans win the other five by a much closer average margin of 25,000 votes. Democrats will have the same number of seats as Republicans, even though they won, collectively, 375,000 more votes. (Check my English-major math.) That tells us almost nothing. Republicans don’t win a heck of a lot of votes in Philadelphia, and so Democrats win lopsided victories there, which has exactly zero relevance for Lancaster. Up in the Texas Panhandle, Representative Mac Thornberry represents the most Republican district in the United States, but we don’t repurpose his surplus votes to Democratic-leaning districts in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Economist gets even more peculiar:

Today, however, the 13 states where people live closest together have 121 Democratic House members and 73 Republican ones, whereas the rest have 163 Republicans and just 72 Democrats. America has one party built on territory and another built on people.

What population density should have to do with congressional representation is, to say the least, not obvious. If 720,000 people spread out over a geographically large space in Texas have a representative, and 720,000 concentrated in a relatively small area in New Jersey also have a representative, then where, exactly, is the injustice? Some people dream of 1,000 square feet and a view of Central Park, others want 40 acres and a little bit of frontage on Priest River. There is no real imaginable reason to politically disadvantage people who choose the latter. Or the former. And in the matter of House races, we don’t.

Weirdly, even while it sneers at territory-based politics, it’s The Economist that is here making an argument based on territory rather than population. If the editors of The Economist want to argue that we should factor in density of population rather than population per se, then they should make that argument, if only for the sake of adding to the merriment of our political discourse. I, for one, could use the laugh.

In reality, if we look at the states by the more relevant metric of population, the big states are a little bit overrepresented. The 13 most populous states (no, I don’t know why the writers picked 13, either, but I’ll follow The Economist here) have 57.9 percent of the population, but they have 61.8 percent of the House seats. As a matter of party representation, that’s not especially relevant, either, since the most populous states are pretty mixed-up in terms of their partisan tilt: California, Texas, Florida, New York, etc.

The House of Representatives is the most democratic institution of the federal government. Unsurprisingly, it is also the worst part of the federal government. It wasn’t democracy that freed the slaves or ended legal segregation. Democracy was on the other side for most of those fights. And democracy is not our form of government, but an aspect of our form of government, a procedure that we rely on to choose representatives because there isn’t another good way to ensure reasonably accountable government. It is useful and necessary, but the Founders were right to dread democracy per se, democracy unchained. As John Adams put it:

It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.

There is much that is wrong with American government, and with the American method of selecting officeholders. There are many good people in Congress, in federal agencies, and serving the Trump administration. But if that’s your best, your best won’t do. We give them goofy incentives, impossible demands (“Let’s spend like Democrats, tax like Republicans, and balance the budget!” “Let’s turn Afghanistan into a stable, liberal democracy —but not if it takes more than three weeks!”), and, at the moment, expect them to operate in a political culture dominated by malice and stupidity. But the basic American constitutional architecture is awfully good, and has shown itself robust in the face of many perils. It outlived Woodrow Wilson’s dream of adopting the equivalent of martial law as an economic-organizing principle, it outlived Franklin Roosevelt’s patrician autocracy, and it will, God willing, outlive the sundry demagogues and aspiring caudillos of our time.

One of the reasons for the success of the American order is that it keeps the mob at bay, and one of its great failures has been its inability to keep the federal government from arrogating the powers of the state in matters that are not inherently federal, thereby foreclosing opportunities for informal national compromise and the emergence of a stable modus vivendi in the matter of divisive social issues. And that, of course, is one of the reasons for that poisonous political culture: If Wyoming has to do things the same way as New Jersey, then the battle over federal power — and especially the metastatic power of the ever-more-princely presidency — must be understood by partisans and culture warriors as existential. That, and not the endangered state of what remains of American federalism, is what most deeply ails the body politic.

We have 50 states for a reason — and it is not collecting sales tax. It is part of our constitutional order’s built-in bias for domestic peace and stability, which has served us well in the past and could serve us well in the future, if we would let it.

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