America has a democracy problem. Take a look at this chart. Over there on the left, that’s how many people each member of the US House represented in 1790. There’s now one representative for every
747 thousand Americans. That makes the US a crazy undemocratic outlier internationally. But it also makes us different than what we were supposed to be. The founding fathers, they wanted that number to stay small. James Madison wanted to make sure that it would never be more than one House member for 50,000 people. I bring this up because it’s one of a lot of ways in which our system has become different than what the founders intended. Which maybe is ok – I think it’s ok – but it’s also different than what we may have intended or what we may want. People ask me sometimes what I actually worry about in American politics – what makes me afraid – and it’s this: A political system needs to be legitimate to be stable. People need to feel that it’s fair. But is that true right now? Two out of the past three presidents lost the popular vote for the first term in office – two out of three. House elections are utterly warped by gerrymandering and geography. The Senate gives six hundred and twenty-three thousand people in Vermont as much power as more than 19 million people in New York. And meanwhile, five dudes in robes,
who are politically appointed, by parties looking for ideologues – they made it legal for billionaires to spend as much money buying elections as they want. And here’s where undemocratic becomes actually dangerous: The American political system was built around the fear of disunity. The fear was that the states would pull apart. We weren’t supposed to have political parties. The founding fathers thought they were bad – or at least they did before they started some. But now we do have political parties, and the competition, the core competition, the disunity in this country, is between them. We don’t worry about the political divisions between big states and small states, we worry about the ones between red states and blue states. And the particular ways in which America is undemocratic is making that core competition less fair, is making that political disunity more serious. The reason for that is not one anybody saw coming. Democrats cluster in big cities.
Republicans are more concentrated in rural areas. The average state is six points more Republican in the country as a whole. Which gives that party a huge advantage in the Senate. and in the House, well Democrats are feeling pretty good about the House right now. But to win the House, they couldn’t win by one or two or three percent. They had to win a landslide – six or seven or eight percent. Or else they’d still be in the minority because of gerrymandering and geography. And Republicans, they’re using that advantage in elections to write the rules to give themselves more advantages in elections. They’re using it to win the Supreme Court for a generation, and that Supreme Court in turn is giving them rulings on gerrymandering, on money in politics, on
unions, on voter rights that are helping them with more power. As the left realizes it’s playing a rigged game they’re already becoming determined to rewrite the rules. If you want to see where this is going, look at this book by David Faris called ‘It’s Time for Democrats to Fight Dirty.’
It’s a playbook the left can use to get more power without having to change the Constitution – and they can do a lot. He recommends statehood for DC and Puerto Rico, he recommends breaking up California into seven states in order to add at least a dozen new Democratic Senators. He tells Democrats to pack the
Supreme Court by increasing the number of justices in order to crack the
conservative majority. He wants winner-take-all elections to be replaced with ranked-choice voting in the House and to increase the number of Representatives to 870. And look – some of these ideas they’re actually just good ideas. It would make politics more representative – I mean DC and Puerto Rico should clearly be states that’s just fair. And then some, like the California thing, they’re just power grabs. But that’s the thing, as Democrats feel the right has been engaged in one long power grab, they’re starting to feel like suckers for not
grabbing more power themselves. And it’s why you see the rise of street fighter, do-anything Democrats like lawyer Michael Avenatti. When they go low I say we hit harder. Even Eric Holder, President Obama’s
former attorney general, has taken up the battle cry. When they go low we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party’s about. But imagine just imagine Democrats take power and run some version of the Faris playbook in 2020 or 2024. There will be an equal and opposite reaction among Republicans. Now the system will feel unfair to them. And you could just see a cycle of escalation here that destroys the basic legitimacy on which American politics rests. We need something better than that. We need more than power grabs on both sides. We need actual principles we can use to build a political system that works better. We treat our political system as if it were etched on stone tablets and carried by George Washington down from Mount Sinai. But it wasn’t. We’ve changed it a lot, but we haven’t changed it recently. It’s weird – the further we get from the founding, the more afraid we are to touch the system. There are 27 amendments to the Constitution before ’92. There have been zero since
then and there’s not like this one on the horizon. That’s not how we do things
anywhere else. States routinely amend and even rewrite their constitutions. On average each state has had three constitutions and Louisiana, they’ve had 11. It’s only at the national level that we’ve come to believe our political system should be frozen in amber. That however we’re doing things is how we should keep doing them. And puzzlingly, we’ve decided that not when we think our political system is great, but at the exact time that Americans are losing faith in our political institutions. I suspect our true belief is not that our
system of government is performing so well that it should be immune to change, but that we that we are performing so poorly that we don’t trust ourselves to change it. Which is sad, but this is our political system. We can’t run away in self loathing. It needs to work for the country we actually have. We can’t have an old compromise between states leading to a civil war between parties, but to change it we need a theory of what makes a political system legitimate in the first place and that means we need some criteria by which to judge it. Robert Dahl, one of the most respected political scientists of the 20th century, he believed the ideal US Constitution would one, maintain democracy. Two, protect fundamental rights. Three, ensure fairness among citizens Four, encourage forming consensus and five, provide a government that is effective in solving problems. I like that as criteria. I think that would make sense. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. What you need then is to come up with something better. The one thing we can’t do is just stay still. America is in an unstable equilibrium. Its current political system is producing outcomes they feel illegitimate to the left. Any effort to reform that system, feels like it would produce outcomes that feel illegitimate to the right. We need something deeper than that. We need something that would feel legitimate it to both sides and would actually work. We can’t stay right where we are, so that means the answer is simple. We must move.