Rural v. Urban Representation and the Quality of Democracy
Minority rule and self-reinforcing cleavages are not a a healthy combination.
This post is related to my recent series (and I am sure it is a theme I will pick up again later).
Let’s consider the following facts:
- Two of the last five presidential elections (2000 and 2016) were won by candidates who lost the popular vote contest.
- Two members of the US Supreme Court were appointed by a president who lost the popular vote by almost 3,000,000 votes and two others were appointed by a president who initially came to office with a popular vote loss (Bush’s appointees were in his second term).
- The most recent seat on the Court was confirmed by a Senate majority that represented only 44.2%of the population. As Jamelle Bouie noted recently in an essay at Slate: “With Kavanaugh’s confirmation, an electoral minority is now essentially dictating the terms of constitutional interpretation, thanks to two institutions: the Electoral College—which favors the geographical distribution of supporters, not the total number—and the Senate, which creates huge disparities of representation.”
- In 2012 the party that won the national popular vote did not win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives (and such spurious majorities have happened a handful of times over the years–see here). Indeed, as analysis at FiveThirtyEight shows (fourth chart down), one party has a built-in advantage: they need a smaller share of the popular vote to win the chamber than does the other party (and, indeed, can lose the national popular vote and still win the chamber). Again, Bouie: “Democrats will have to win the House by at least 7 points to claim a majority of seats. At least one report says Democrats need to win by double digits to gain a majority. By contrast, Republicans could win just 45 to 46 percent of the overall House vote and still hold on to the lower chamber.”
- The size of the House, 435 seats, has been set in law since 1912 when the population was ~92 million and each congressional district held 210,328 residents. Now (using 2010 census data, those numbers are ~324 million and 710,767. This creates inadequate representation (and favors, as do all our rules, rural voters and low population states relative to urban voters and large population states). Theories of representation suggest that the US House should be 687 seats.
- A Senate majority can be obtained with Senators representing only 17% of the population (i.e., the 25 least populated states contain just under 17% of the overall population).
In other words, our current system doesn’t do a very good job of representing the population and of late has put us in a position of minority rule. This affects all three branches of the federal government. I know that many see this observation as a partisan point, since the systematic advantage goes to Republicans over Democrats. However, the concern here is not about party, but about the long-term health of the system as well as a concern for basic fairness and the fact that, as a general proposition, a representative democracy is supposed to be representative of the people in some significant fashion.
Not to sound overly dramatic, but a system that on the one hand promises “government of, by, and for the people” wherein “all men are created equal” and then produces government by the minority is a system headed for serious crisis. Our system diffuses power, and it even makes pure majority rule difficult, but the goal was never minority rule.
All of these factors are a direct result of the over-representation of rural voters over urban voters. This violates the notion of the equality of citizens. This is especially problematic as we have increasingly seen one party predominantly represent rural voters/states and the other party represent urban voters/states. Such a self-reinforcing cleavages will exacerbate the potential for crisis.
Some readings on this subject: