Democracy: Use it or lose it

The Constitution does not mention democracy. But despite fits and starts the U.S. has become more representative since its founding

US Constitution

Volunteers unfurl a giant banner printed with the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution during a demonstration against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall Oct. 20, 2010, in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

By Hugh Jackson

Republicans, as they continue to call themselves, have good reasons to be against democracy.

Their nominee lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. And yet on two of those five occasions, their candidate ended up in the White House anyway.

And the framers of the U.S. Constitution, in an unsavory compromise, decided that the state of Wyoming (population 584,309), should have just as many U.S. senators as another state they didn’t even know about at the time, California (population 39,237,836).

The 100 U.S. senators are grouped into three classes so more or less a third of the seats are selected every two years. Over the last three elections, which is to say accounting for all 100 Senate seats, Democratic candidates received a total of 141.6 million votes, to 115.4 million for GOP contenders. But until last year Republicans controlled the Senate all that time anyway.

The 2018 Senate elections were an especially stark reminder that democracy in America doesn’t extend to control of the U.S. Senate. Democrats got 52.2 million votes to the GOP’s 34.6 million that year, yet Republicans managed not only to retain their majority in the Senate but pick up two additional seats.

Republicans can get far, far fewer votes than Democrats and still control Congress.

The system that determines who “wins” control of the executive, congressional and, through ensuing appointments, judicial branches of government is severely anti-democratic.

Republicans literally wouldn’t have it any other way.

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It is true that most of the founders hailed from the 18th century’s fancy pants wing, and tended to distrust rabble. They didn’t even put the word “democracy” in the Constitution. And even if they would have, precious few of them would have suggested that women should participate in it.

Some will argue that not only did framers leave out the word “democracy,” they also left out the concept. The electoral college, state legislative selection of U.S. senators, and the appointment of judges are not democratic.

In the early 20th century, the 17th Amendment provided that senators would be chosen by popular vote, and the 19th Amendment granted women the constitutional right to vote. The 21st century is still disastrously encumbered by the Electoral College, though, as well as the obscenity wherein the average Wyomingite’s vote for a winning U.S. senator is roughly 75 times more powerful than the average Californian’s. And about six times more powerful than a vote for a Senate candidate cast in Nevada.

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There were some decidedly democratic features in the Constitution. “Representative democracy,” if you will. That’s what Hamilton called it, anyway.

For instance, Article I, Section II — we’re less than a hundred words into the original 4,543 word document — says “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second year by the People of the Several states…”

Despite fits, starts and some ugly reversals, democracy in the U.S. has become more and more representative ever since.

Common when the Constitution was ratified, none of the states after the first 13 established property requirements to vote. (North Carolina was the last state to abolish property requirements, in 1856.)

Though the Constitution didn’t call for it, states pretty early on established that their Electoral College votes for president would be determined by popular vote.

Nevada’s fake electors may think the state’s Electoral College votes should be determined by a gonzo legal theory cooked up by an extremist right-wing ideologue law professor working for Donald Trump. Jim Marchant, the fake elector-adjacent Republican candidate for secretary of state, by contrast, thinks the Electoral College votes should be determined by Jim Marchant.

All those people appear to be outliers.

For now.

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Hugh Jackson is the editor of the Nevada Current, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this piece first appeared.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.