Politics & Policy

It’s Not the System, It’s the Democrats

Voters at a polling place in San Diego, Calif., in 2016. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
The Economist’s writer on democracy in America is no threat to Tocqueville.

Kevin D. Williamson, in his usual masterly fashion, has dismantled The Economist’s clueless assessment of American democracy. As it happens, I was working on a similar piece myself, in my usual poky fashion, but Kevin, industrious as always, beat me to it and has since moved on to discussing sex dolls, and in his next piece will probably write about refried beans or Hindu scripture (though truth be told, the Economist piece that Kevin and I are commenting on was published in July, so neither of us is exactly Speedy Gonzales). I won’t revisit all the points Kevin made, but I do have some further remarks on The Economist’s many highlights of illogic.

In an article filled with hidden assumptions and misleading statistics, this may be the most impressive bit of sleight-of-hand:

But in the 1960s the Democratic Party embraced racial equality. Over the generation which followed, the Republicans were able to take the South from it. By 2010 congressional delegations from white districts in the South were uniformly Republican.

Hmmm, post hoc ergo propter hoc much? An honest version of this of-repeated tale would go something like this:

But in the 1960s the Democratic Party embraced racial equality, which the Republicans had already long since embraced. Over the generation that followed, with Democratic voter suppression removed from the equation, and thanks also to Voting Rights Act–imposed packing of African Americans into supermajority districts, the Republicans were able to take the South from it. By 2010, with Obama’s leftist, big-government policies becoming unmistakably clear, congressional delegations from white districts in the South were uniformly Republican.

As Kevin points out, the article traces all the purported problems of American democracy to population density: Democratic voters are clustered in a small number of populous areas while Republican voters are more spread out, and political-science research has shown that this will put the clustered party at a disadvantage in any system based on districts.

Maybe so, but there are two ways you can go with this. You can say, “Let’s fix the rules to be ‘fair’ to Democrats” (to this end, The Economist trots out the usual remedies — ranked-choice voting, multi-member districts, the unworkable National Popular Vote plan, etc.), or you can say, “Democrats, it’s time to expand your appeal in rural and suburban areas.”

But The Economist clearly believes the second suggestion is impracticable:

One response to all this is to say that the problem is the Democrats’ to solve. They used to appeal outside the cities, towns and denser suburbs; if they were to do so again the constitutional bias towards less populated places would no longer trouble them. But although this may seem like sound politics, it is more to wish away, or paper over, the problem than to solve it. The distribution and make-up of America’s population really has changed. More people live in cities than have ever done so before, and they want, and believe in, different things from those who don’t. Adapting policies to appeal to an ever-shrinking share of the population — just 19% of Americans lived in rural areas in 2016, down from 25% in 1990 and 36% in 1950 — against the wishes of the party’s urban base cannot be a stable long-term strategy. Nor is it a recipe for a healthy democracy.

In other words, city and country will never get along, so there’s no use trying. But this requires you to believe that the East–West, North–South, urban–rural divide is greater today than it was in, to pick just one example of many, 1896, when William Jennings Bryan made his defiantly rural Cross of Gold speech. Americans worked things out then as they always have — through compromise, which is in fact the very essence of a healthy democracy. You build a coalition by bringing together disparate groups and finding ways to mediate their differences; this is how the Democrats have been making a living for more than two centuries. But The Economist proves it to be impossible by assuming it to be impossible.

Moreover, for all The Economist’s gloom and doom, the Democrats’ plight is far from hopeless; in three years they may very well control the presidency and both houses of Congress. Yet the author seems to consider it axiomatic that the natural balancing processes of American democracy have suddenly and irrevocably stopped working and the Democrats are doomed to be the Washington Generals to the GOP’s ever-winning clown show.

The article continues, in one of the more awkwardly written sentences you’ll encounter this week:

Now that the rural has a party, a constitution that favours the rural favours that party.

Which of course confuses cause and effect. A more accurate assessment would be: “Now that the Democrats have abandoned ‘the rural,’ a constitution that discourages narrowly based factions favours their opponents.” And there are plenty of Left-imposed structural factors that keep cities from becoming more inclusive: Legal barriers to new-housing construction, for example, do a good job of keeping the middle-class riff-raff out. But the real problem is not that Democrats isolate themselves geographically, but that they isolate themselves ideologically. One way the party could widen its appeal would be by running the occasional pro-life candidate, but when they tried that in last year’s Omaha mayoral race, the grass-roots reaction was swift and furious.

A few more excerpts:

In 2014 [the GOP] converted a 51% two-party-vote share into 55% of the seats.

Somehow this does not strike me as an outrage. Nor does this:

As of the census of 2010, the five most rural states wielded about 50% more electoral votes, and three times as many senators, per resident as the five most urban ones did.

“Per resident” is the key phrase. Yes the Electoral College is somewhat disproportionate, but there are too few of these supervoters to make much difference. If you look at the seven states (plus D.C.) with three electoral votes, they break only 5–3 Republican, and in any case they add up to just 24 votes. The practice of giving all of a state’s electoral votes to the winning candidate is a much greater distortion, and one that favors densely populated areas. California, with 12 percent of the nation’s population, has 10 percent of the electoral votes, and every single one of them is reliably Democratic. And the U.S. is hardly alone in this practice; many countries give extra seats in their legislatures to less-populated areas, including the U.K. and Canada.

In the 2012 redistricting cycle, the boundaries of 48% of House districts were drawn entirely by Republican officials, compared with just 10% by Democratic ones.

This has nothing to do with population density; it’s because in 2009–10 the Democrats rammed a massively unpopular Obamacare law down the voters’ throats and as a result they got creamed in the 2010 elections, which chose the legislatures that redrew the boundaries. Once again, there are two ways the Democrats could look at it: “Hey, maybe we should stop treating voters with contempt” or “Basic principles of simple justice demand that America must rig the rules so we can keep treating voters with contempt.”

Congress has approved around 40% fewer laws per session since 1994 than it did from 1975–94.

They say this like it’s a bad thing. And even if it is, the best way to generate more laws would not be artificial consensus but filibuster reform.

The Economist clearly believes that tinkering with the voting laws will bring the nation closer to some political scientist’s ideal of perfection. But all its proposed solutions are answers to the question “How can we achieve greater proportionality in the legislative branches for high-population-density areas without requiring the Democrats to loosen up?” They have nothing to do with the much more important, and much more difficult, question: “How can we achieve better government?”


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