David Benfell

Mitigating the democratic deficit in the United States

Not Housebroken -

I tend to blame the presidency of Donald Trump on the Democratic Party’s nomination of Hillary Clinton. She was, according to some polls, the weaker candidate,[1] and Bernie Sanders better appealed to an electorate sick and tired of the neoconservative and neoliberal hegemony in U.S. politics that Clinton exemplified.[2] But some folks blame the electoral college, whose vote overrode the popular vote.[3]

It’s easy to see why. The electoral college exists to keep rural, more conservative (and, originally, slave-holding) states politically relevant. But the United States is a bigger country than it was in the 18th century when all this was cobbled together and two recent conservative presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, have won despite losing the popular vote.[4] Similarly, each state, regardless of population, gets two U.S. senators and the Senate has accordingly become less representative of the country as a whole and is becoming still less so.[5]

Without this kind of arrangement, you have a problem like the one conservatives face in California, where they’re effectively frozen out of statewide office and consigned to superminority status in the legislature. I generally despise conservative policies—indeed, my dissertation is as comprehensive a refutation of them as I could put together.[6] But we’re talking about a portion of the state’s population that is effectively disenfranchised. That’s a problem.

The trouble at the national level is the opposite. Here, people in more populous states, like California, are effectively disenfranchised because the electoral college and Senate are both heavily weighted in favor of less populous states, like Wyoming. This is also a problem.

The electoral college and the Senate both exist as part of a republican, anti-democratic project in the U.S. Constitution, which was designed to protect the minority rights not of any subaltern group, but rather the property rights of wealthy white males, especially slaveholders, from a populace presumed to be jealous of their status.[7] Even after slavery was abolished, wealthy Southerners (with Northern complicity) protected their own position by keeping poor whites and poor Blacks from joining forces by promising the whites that they at least would be better off than Blacks.[8] That project continues today,[9] belying any conservative imagination that their allegedly principled ends justify their means of disenfranchising voters.[10] Yes, there are differences between the rural heartland and cosmopolitan urban centers,[11] that frankly need not to be further exacerbated, which is why I wouldn’t abolish the electoral college or the Senate. But we need to be clear that a lot of this is about sheer greed.

One possibility for changing the system is the National Popular Vote bill. The Constitution says states may decide on their own how to allocate their electoral votes, and a reform group is calling for states to agree by law to allocate all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. So far, 11 states, including California, New York and Illinois, have said they would support this proposal. But the idea has won little traction in the Republican-leaning red states.[12]

Because of that greed, I simply don’t buy that efforts such as the National Popular Vote bill can ever gain “traction in the Republican-leaning red states.”[13] This bill also would fail to address the problem of an increasingly unrepresentative Senate, which potentially does even greater damage by, for example, confirming Supreme Court justices and cabinet secretaries.[14]

I don’t particularly expect my idea to gain traction either, but to me, the obvious thing to do is to break up each of the more populous states into multiple smaller states. Because each resulting state would have its own pair of senators, and because “[e]ach State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress,”[15] this would help solve the problem with both the electoral college and the U.S. Senate.

I’ve not been a fan of either of Tim Draper’s proposals to break up California. To me, it is self-evident that California’s Bible Belt (the Central Valley) and other strongly conservative regions of the state should not be lumped in with more socially liberal coastal areas, but Draper keeps doing this.[16] His earlier plan to break the state up into six states failed to make the ballot,[17] but his latest plan to break it into three states[18] will be on this November’s ballot[19] and would increase the population’s representation in the Senate from two senators to six, probably all Democrats,[20] and the electoral college representation (based on the 2010 census) from 55 to 59. Repeat this for other high population states (figure 2) and we begin to mitigate, but, by design, not eliminate the democratic deficit.


Fig. 1. Red (Republican) versus Blue (Democratic) states in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, from Mark Newman, University of Michigan, used under a Creative Commons license.
Fig. 2. Cartogram of Red versus Blue states in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, weighed for state population, from Mark Newman, University of Michigan, used under a Creative Commons license.

In the present arrangement, “the ratio between Wyoming’s [Senate] representation and California’s is 66 to 1,” which is to say a Wyoming resident’s voice in the U.S. Senate counts for 66 times as much as a California resident’s voice. “[T]he size and importance of the gap [in representation] has grown markedly in recent decades, in ways the framers probably never anticipated.”[21]

There needs to be a balance. Weigh more populous states too heavily and “flyover states” will be ignored. They already feel ignored,[22] which is a major impetus for Trump’s election. But weigh them too little and you get Trump anyway.

  1. [1]H. A. Goodman, “Almost Every Major Poll Shows Bernie Sanders Challenging or Defeating Clinton and Republicans. Here’s Why,” Huffington Post, August 5, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/h-a-goodman/almost-every-major-poll-shows-bernie-sanders_b_7937906.html; Zaid Jilani, “Latest National Poll Shows Bernie Sanders Beating Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush,” Alternet, July 27, 2015, http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/latest-national-poll-shows-bernie-sanders-beating-scott-walker-donald-trump-jeb-bush
  2. [2]Patrick Healy, “Bernie Sanders, Confronting Concerns, Makes Case for Electability,” New York Times, November 19, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/11/19/bernie-sanders-defends-democratic-socialism-calling-it-route-to-economic-fairness/
  3. [3]David G. Savage, “For the fourth time in American history, the president-elect lost the popular vote. Credit the electoral college,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-pol-electoral-college-20161110-story.html
  4. [4]David G. Savage, “For the fourth time in American history, the president-elect lost the popular vote. Credit the electoral college,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-pol-electoral-college-20161110-story.html
  5. [5]Philip Bump, “In about 20 years, half the population will live in eight states,” Washington Post, July 12, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/07/12/in-about-20-years-half-the-population-will-live-in-eight-states/; Adam Liptak, “Smaller States Find Outsize Clout Growing in Senate,” New York Times, March 10, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/03/11/us/politics/democracy-tested.html
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  7. [7]James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills (1982; repr., New York: Bantam, 2003), 50-58.
  8. [8]W. E. B. Du Bois, “Black Reconstruction and the Racial Wage,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 242-245.
  9. [9]Chris Hedges, ,”Let’s Get This Class War Started,” Truthout, October 21, 2013, http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/19527-lets-get-this-class-war-started; Michael Lind, “Slave states vs. free states, 2012,” Salon, October 10, 2012, https://www.salon.com/2012/10/10/slave_states_vs_free_states_2012/
  10. [10]Rick Perlstein, “Why Conservatives Think the Ends Justify the Means,” Nation, April 8, 2013, https://www.thenation.com/article/why-conservatives-think-ends-justify-means/
  11. [11]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  12. [12]David G. Savage, “For the fourth time in American history, the president-elect lost the popular vote. Credit the electoral college,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-pol-electoral-college-20161110-story.html
  13. [13]David G. Savage, “For the fourth time in American history, the president-elect lost the popular vote. Credit the electoral college,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-pol-electoral-college-20161110-story.html
  14. [14]Philip Bump, “In about 20 years, half the population will live in eight states,” Washington Post, July 12, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/07/12/in-about-20-years-half-the-population-will-live-in-eight-states/; Adam Liptak, “Smaller States Find Outsize Clout Growing in Senate,” New York Times, March 10, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/03/11/us/politics/democracy-tested.html
  15. [15]U.S. Const., art. II, § 1, cl. 2.
  16. [16]Andrea Diaz, “3 Californias? The initiative to break up the state may be on the ballot in November,” CNN, April 13, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/13/us/california-closer-to-split-into-three-states-trnd/index.html; Gregory Ferenstein, “Tim Draper Wants To Split California Into Pieces And Turn Silicon Valley Into Its Own State,” December 19, 2013, http://techcrunch.com/2013/12/19/tim-draper-six-californias-secede-silicon-valley-ballot-initiative/; Reuters, “Tech billionaire says his plan to break up California ready for voters,” April 12, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-california-partition/tech-billionaire-says-his-plan-to-break-up-california-ready-for-voters-idUSKBN1HJ36D
  17. [17]Jim Miller, “Six Californias initiative fails to make 2016 ballot,” Sacramento Bee, September 12, 2014, http://www.sacbee.com/2014/09/12/6702457/six-californias-initiative-fails.html
  18. [18]Andrea Diaz, “3 Californias? The initiative to break up the state may be on the ballot in November,” CNN, April 13, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/13/us/california-closer-to-split-into-three-states-trnd/index.html; Reuters, “Tech billionaire says his plan to break up California ready for voters,” April 12, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-california-partition/tech-billionaire-says-his-plan-to-break-up-california-ready-for-voters-idUSKBN1HJ36D
  19. [19]Taryn Luna, “Californians to vote on splitting state three ways,” Sacramento Bee, June 12, 2018, http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article213068964.html
  20. [20]Phillip Reese, “‘Three Californias’ would likely mean four more Democrats in U.S. Senate,” Sacramento Bee, June 14, 2018, http://www.sacbee.com/site-services/databases/article213195344.html
  21. [21]Adam Liptak, “Smaller States Find Outsize Clout Growing in Senate,” New York Times, March 10, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/03/11/us/politics/democracy-tested.html
  22. [22]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).

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