In 1787, when the nation’s Founding Fathers created the Constitution, with all its checks and balances to protect against autocracy, they could not have envisioned the way their system would make America nearly ungovernable far into the future. One of their concerns was that an uninformed majority, perhaps led by populist demagogues, would trample on the rights of minorities and overturn some Constitutional guarantees, such as freedom of speech, the press, religion, and so forth.
However, the checks and balances within the structure of the federal government, and between the federal government and the states, have actually curbed the rights of the majority by providing the minority with too much power, which has limited the federal government’s ability to functioneffectively. The Constitution allows the states to draw their Congressional districts as they see fit, as long as the population of these districts are approximately equal in size. Because Republicans controlled more state legislatures and governorships after the recent census, they were able to gerrymander Congressional districts to provide major advantages to candidates from their party. Voters who tended to vote Republican or Democratic were relegated to districts in a way that many “safe districts” were established for Republicans. These were generally more rural and more conservative than if they had been created in a fair and independent manner.
Because of this, the House of Representatives is dominated by conservative Republicans, even though the Democrats won a plurality of the nation’s Congressional vote in 2012, 49.1% to 48.1%. Recently, these conservative Republicans have blocked Democratic initiatives to reduce the
budget deficits by a combination of spending cuts and increased revenues. They have refused to consider eliminating tax loopholes for the wealthy and for corporations, insisting that the deficits be curbed only through cutting government spending. Thus, the sequester has become the law of the land even though its original intention in 2011 was to force Republicans and Democrats to compromise on the formula necessary to reduce the budget deficits. Immigration reform and gun control legislation will likely also be held hostage to the beliefs of this conservative minority and not accomplish what Democrats and the electorate would prefer.
Besides outpolling Republicans nationally in Congressional elections, the Democrats won an absolute majority of the presidential vote and 23 of the 33 Senate seats that were in contention in 2012. But though the Democrats won a plurality or majority of the total votes nationally for all federal offices, a minority of conservative Republicans in the House prevents the enactment of Democratic programs. These programs were the ones that Democratic candidates proposed during the election and why they were able to win the national vote. However, conservative Republicans from “safe districts” do not care about overall public opinion and Democratic programs. They play to the conservative voters in their districts, afraid of primary challenges that might arise from the right wing of their party. Because the creators of the Constitution were afraid of investing the majority in government with too much power, they have instead allowed a tyranny of the minority to control the legislative process and bring government to a halt when they so desire.
Though a minority in the Senate can also block legislation or confirmation of executive appointees through a “hold” or a filibuster, these actions are not constitutionally based, but simply the rules of the Senate. If Senators were so inclined, these rules could be overturned by a vote of the Senate and do not require a Constitutional amendment to be repealed.
Can the tyranny of the conservative minority in the House be ended, and if so how? Since the members of the House from these “safe districts” don’t care about what the nation as a whole thinks or desires as far as legislation is concerned, it would be necessary to eliminate as many of these gerrymandered districts as possible. This would mean having independent redistricting commissions drawing the boundaries of all Congressional and legislative districts after each census in a fair and equitable manner, rather than having the process controlled by political operatives to favor their parties. Since a constitutional amendment that mandates independent redistricting commissions is unlikely, referenda in individual states may be able to bring this about. However, it would require a concerted effort and large sums of money to support these referenda and to educate the populace about why they are needed. If this occurred, there would certainly be kickback from the Tea Party and other conservatives who are delighted with the power they have achieved, disproportionate to the number of voters who identify with them.
The framers of the Constitution were probably right to worry about a tyranny of the majority, but should have also considered how to prevent a tyranny of the minority. Bringing about fair redistricting and eliminating many of these safe districts in this era will not be an easy task to accomplish.
em>A VietNam vet and a Columbia history major who became a medical doctor, Bob Levine has watched the evolution of American politics over the past 40 years with increasing alarm. He knows he’s not alone. Partisan grid-lock, massive cash contributions and even more massive expenditures on lobbyists have undermined real democracy, and there is more than just a whiff of corruption emanating from Washington. If the nation is to overcome lockstep partisanship, restore growth to the economy and bring its debt under control, Levine argues that it will require a strong centrist third party to bring about the necessary reforms. Levine’s previous book, Shock Therapy For the American Health Care System took a realist approach to health care from a physician’s informed point of view; Resurrecting Democracy takes a similar pragmatic approach, putting aside ideology and taking a hard look at facts on the ground. In his latest book, Levine shines a light that cuts through the miasma of party propaganda and reactionary thinking, and reveals a new path for American politics. This post is cross posted from his blog.
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