Putting a name to something makes it so much more tangible. Names make everything more real, whether it becomes scarier, or easier to deal with, or more visible. My brother calls this “Grad School Syndrome” because when people go through higher education, they constantly give niche problems names in attempts to solve them. So in order to avoid the self-aggrandizing nature of Grad School Syndrome, I’ll call my problem by the name someone else gave it: America’s Democracy Problem.
The name comes from a Vox video called “The roots of America’s democracy problem,” which explains how underrepresented U.S. citizens really are. “People ask me sometimes what I actually worry about in American politics,” says Ezra Klein, editor at large for Vox. “And it’s this: A political system needs to be legitimate to be stable. People need to feel that it’s fair.” But we live in an unfair country, full of systems that benefit some over others.
In partisan politics, the day in and day out fights are for seats in the House and Senate. The two houses of Congress were created so that neither big states nor small states would feel underrepresented in the legislative branch. Before political parties, the tension between states like Virginia, with large populations and significant political pull, and states like Rhode Island, which had much smaller populations, was the focus of the founders who were designing the two-house system. “But now we do have political parties, and the competition … is between them,” says Klein. “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.”
Thanks to the old system we still have, Democrats have a harder time gaining majorities in both the House and the Senate. Democrats got 12 million more votes for the Senate in 2018 than Republicans did, and yet they lost two seats. “The reason for that is not one anybody saw coming,” explains Klein. “Democrats cluster in big cities. Republicans are more concentrated in rural areas. The average state is six points more Republican than the country as a whole, which gives that party a huge advantage in the Senate.” Where Democrats live diminishes their political representation in that part of Congress. Even in the House, which is meant to be proportionate to population, Democrats face a disadvantage. As Klein puts it, “To win the House, [Democrats] 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 the minority because of gerrymandering and geography.”
This one is obvious and simple: only rich people get to spend money on politics. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), 68 percent of congressional contributions come from only 0.26 percent of Americans. That overly impactful group are the only ones who give more than 200 dollars, and they have about 262 times the influence of everyone else in the country. Political donations are considered speech, creating a country in which the rich have more speech than everyone else.
And money really does help. According to data from the CRP, while the exact number varies from year to year, campaigns that spend more, win more. In the House, the chance of the higher-spending candidate winning is above 80 percent. In the Senate, the rate hovers around 80 percent, never dropping far below.
Again, the facts show that Republicans benefit from this more than Democrats. The biggest donor for the Democratic party in 2012 was Fred Eychaner, who gave just over 14 million dollars. But this pales in comparison to the Republican mega-donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who that year gave over 92 million dollars to conservative candidates and causes. The top ten Democratic donors of 2012 combined didn’t give more than the Adelsons. Of the top ten “dark money” groups, only one was liberal.
The Electoral College
We’ve all heard enough about the electoral college, but here’s a refresher: it’s the system we use to select our president rather than what’s called “direct democracy,” where each person gets one vote.
According to Slate, Wyoming has three electoral votes, one for every 142,741 eligible voters, making it the state with the highest “vote power.” It’s followed by Vermont, Washington DC, North Dakota, Alaska— states with tiny populations. They all have around 150,000 people per electoral vote. By contrast, Florida, New York, and California all have over 500,000. So it takes roughly three Californians to equal the vote of one Wyomingite, or as Adam Conover, host of Adam Ruins Everything, puts it: “as a result of this system, your vote could count for less just because of where you live.”
It would be irresponsible to not bring up the beginning of the electoral college in a piece about undemocratic practices. The goal of the Founders was to put a check on the power of voters. They were worried about a demagogue, a politician who speaks to fear and hatred rather than reason, being elected by the masses, who weren’t trusted by the elites in charge of writing the Constitution. From its very beginning, the electoral college was meant to give some people less of a say in government.
The Supreme Court
Currently, the Supreme Court has five conservative justices (including the somewhat centrist Chief Justice, John Roberts) and four liberal justices. Of the five conservative judges, four were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote. These are Roberts and Alito, appointed by George W. Bush, and Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, appointed by Donald Trump. On the liberal side, both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer were put into place by Bill Clinton, who won a plurality when he was elected to his first term but only because the conservative vote was split between two candidates.
While the Supreme Court was meant to be the branch with the least amount of public input, it relies on representatives to create a court that U.S. citizens trust. But because of the misrepresentation in Congress and the presidency, the highest court in the land doesn’t speak for most Americans.
Underrepresentation exists throughout our federal government, and is worrying to anyone whose job is to pay attention to Washington. What makes Ezra Klein afraid? “A political system needs to be legitimate to be stable. People need to feel that it’s fair. But is that true right now?”