Note: This is an edited “blog version” of an essay published on Medium. For the full version, including evidence for each of the eight points list below, click here. For my response to some criticisms of the essay, click here.
On all of the important political issues of the day, a majority of Americans agree with the position of the Democratic Party over the position of the Republican Party: gun control (61 percent of Americans want stricter gun laws; only 8 percent want them less strict), abortion rights (71 percent support Roe v. Wade, and only 23 percent want it overturned), gay rights (67 percent of Americans favor same sex marriage, and 23 percent think homosexual relations should be illegal), climate change (59 percent are concerned or alarmed about it, only 18 percent dismissive or doubtful), taxes (62 percent think the rich pay too little, and only 39 percent approve of the Republican 2017 tax cuts), the environment (57 percent believe the environment should be given priority over the economy, even at the risk of curbing economic growth; 35 percent believe the opposite), healthcare (57 percent think the government should ensure that all Americans have coverage), labor unions (62 percent approve), and so on for every core issue facing Americans today. If you line up the political opinions of the majority of Americans, you see the Democratic platform.
Yet Republicans hold 52 percent of the governorships, 61 percent of state senates, 57 percent of state houses, 53 percent of the seats in the U.S. Senate, and the presidency. Republicans appointed 55 percent of the circuit court judges and 56 percent of the Supreme Court. Democrats hold the House of Representatives, which they just gained in the “blue wave” of 2018, but on every other national political measure, Republicans beat Democrats.
How did a minority of the population exert more political power than the majority? Why do Democrats keep losing elections and policy battles, if their policies reflect the opinions of most Americans?
The standard response to those questions is that Republicans simply do better at winning elections. Democrats can’t get their messaging right, nominate unelectable candidates, focus on identity politics, over-reach in office, are too far to the left or too far to the right. But those explanations do not withstand scrutiny. One could say comparable things about Republican politicians, yet Republicans continue to win elections, despite that their policy positions represent the values of a relatively small conservative minority.
The reason Democrats have less power than their policy positions would warrant has little to do with the reasons we normally hear. The belief that Democrats somehow blow it at election time does not match the facts, especially when one considers how many Republicans seem to blow their elections (with poor candidates, scandals, falsehoods, gaffes, extremist views, and shocking statements) yet still manage to eke out victory. The tendency for Republicans to succeed politically results, rather, from several structural advantages that favor Republican politicians in elections and governing. Consequently, Democrats must win elections overwhelmingly, just to gain power proportional to their numbers in the country.
In what follows, I offer eight structural advantages that enable Republican politicians to win elections and policy battles that the core principles of democracy say they should lose. (In this blog entry, I have excluded supportive evidence that can be found in the full essay here.) Some of these advantages are consequences of our Constitutional design and of recent trends in population density that favor the Republican party, and others result from actions by Republican politicians and Republican-appointed judges that subvert democracy. These advantages distort the proportional division of political power in our country and unfairly favor the Republican Party, putting those who believe in the values promoted by Democrats at a strategic political disadvantage. Together they subvert majority rule.
- Republicans tend to live in states with smaller populations, while Democrats concentrate in more populated states, exaggerating Republican political representation in the Senate.
The Constitution affords each state two senators, meaning that the Senate represents the states, not the American people. Because Republicans now dominate most of the 25 least populous states (which house only 17 percent of the population), one half of Congress will necessarily lean more Republican than the country as a whole.
- Democrats are packed into fewer districts, diluting their power in the House of Representatives.
Aren’t House seats doled out according to population density? Not exactly. Two factors cause the House to represent Republicans in greater proportion than is warranted by the number of votes. First, the Constitution affords each state, no matter the size, at least one representative in the House, magnifying the political power of voters in the seven smallest states, five of which have a Republican congressperson. More significantly, Democrats tend to live in concentrated districts, mostly densely populated urban areas. To maximize political power in the House as whole, it’s better to have a slight advantage in many districts (the Republican norm) than an overwhelming advantage in fewer districts (the Democratic norm).
- The Electoral College has favored Republicans in recent presidential elections.
In their first electoral victories, the two most recent Republican presidents received fewer votes than their Democratic rivals. The electoral college penalizes voters in states in which the presidential candidate wins by large margins, and most of those voters are Democrats. Moreover, since each state receives a minimum of three electoral votes, the smallest states (mostly Republican) enjoy more political power per voter in the electoral college.
- Republican policies on taxes, corporate regulation, the environment, worker’s rights, and unions favor corporations and the wealthy, who have disproportionate influence on political platforms and election outcomes.
The economic positions of Republican politicians address the desires of the wealthiest Americans, at the same time that conservative news media works to convince working-class Americans that they and the rich share the same real interests. Whereas all eligible Americans have the power of the vote, wealthy Americans have an additional political power—their greater wealth. That wealth biases election outcomes toward Republicans and compels a fiscal policy in both parties more friendly to corporations and the wealthy.
- Democrats build government programs, whereas Republicans destroy them, and it’s easier and quicker to destroy things than to build them.
The Republican agenda of “smaller government” is by nature destructive and easier to enact compared to the incremental constructions of Democrats. Republicans can quickly destroy legislation, regulation, agreements, and institutions that took Democrats years, sometimes generations of lawmakers, to enact, either through quick, devastating legislation or through their nominees to the Supreme Court. Destruction can happen fast. Republicans enact their agenda of smaller government in two ways: They can kill a program directly or they can cut off funding through underfunding, a practice known to Republicans as “starving the beast.”
- Republicans can win elections by appealing to their extremist base and the wealthiest Americans, pulling the Republican party to the right and the government along with it. Democrats have no comparable effective strategy available to them.
Republican political rhetoric speaks to people invested in conspiracy theories, engages in racist propaganda, nativism and white nationalism, and targets hot-button cultural issues for the far right. If only the wealthy and their extreme base support them, they can still succeed at election time because they need fewer votes than Democrats in order to win office. This extremist strategy does not work for Democrats, who must appeal instead to a significant majority of the voting population (well over 50 percent), not an extreme left that has almost no representation in federal government.
- Republicans favor simple solutions to problems, making their policies easier to understand. By contrast, Democratic Party solutions require Americans to address complex, hard-to-face facts.
Unlike Republicans, Democrats seek balance between the competing pressures of the economy and the environment, border security and a compassionate immigration policy, individual liberty and gun regulation, the free market and financial regulation, job growth and climate change, economic growth and income inequality, a sensible tax rate and government services, fighting crime and addressing the over-incarceration of people of color, aggressively combating terrorism and maintaining our country’s moral values. Republican positions on such issues are simple, consistent, and accessible, whereas Democratic positions are nuanced, evidenced based, scientific, difficult to face, difficult to implement, tailored to each problem individually, and not always intuitive. Republicans, therefore, have an easier job selling their positions, even in the face of empirical contradiction.
- Republican politicians today have demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to sacrifice their own principles and principles of American democracy—principles that stabilize our political system, ensure continuity and comity, and enact the will of the American people—for the sake of political gain. Democratic politicians, by contrast, cannot engage in unprincipled behavior without risking the support of Democrats.
Republican behavior indicates a disrespect for democracy and the will of voters that affords undeserved advantage to the GOP in elections and governing. Time and again, Republicans sacrifice their own policy positions for the sake of political gain, tailoring their principles for immediate political advantage. The true principle is victory and its attendant qualities (aggressiveness, militancy, force, winning). The Republican brand is victory, adapting principles to suit whatever victory they are seeking at the moment, unconcerned about contradiction, morality, norms, principles, or facts. Democrats, by contrast, cannot behave like Republicans and still maintain their political authority. Democrats are not, for instance, rewriting voting laws and purging Republican voters, because seeking to keep eligible voters from voting, for the sake of political gain, would violate the Democratic brand. The Democrat brand is principle itself and its attendant qualities (fairness, compassion, morality, democracy, decency, respect for norms, institutions and people). To behave unscrupulously and unpatriotically would violate some of the key reasons Democrats are Democrats (“When they go low, we go high”). But the emphasis on morality and patriotic behavior creates political weakness. While Democrats focus on raising the level of discourse, Republicans focus on winning. The two parties are engaged in two different activities: Democrats are engaged in a serious debate to determine the future of the country, and Republicans are at war. And in a contest between debaters and soldiers, one side has an advantage.
Most news commentators see the battle between Democrats and Republicans in symmetrical terms: Left vs. right offers a tidy, intellectually pleasing frame that accords with the news media’s efforts toward balanced coverage. Left vs. right makes politics seem fair. But the metaphor of a fair fight does not pertain because the opposing sides do not mirror one another. The extreme right (those with beliefs far to the right of the country as a whole) is the right, the right that is in power, whereas the extreme left is a mostly disenfranchised group with no real prospect of financial support and almost no voice in government.
Republican victory results not from their popularity or superior ability to field electable candidates and persuade voters but rather from the eight structural advantages enumerated above. Any one of those advantages would tilt elections, but the combination—a result of the accidents of political demographics and unprincipled behavior by Republican politicians and judges—has led our democratic system of government to warp in favor of a conservative minority with extremist political views, far beyond the views of the majority of Americans.
We should regard American politics not as a battle between two equal forces, one pulling left and one pulling right, fighting over the heart of the country, but rather as a battle between a party committed to democratic rule and an extremist minority that exploits flaws in our Constitution in order to win power and subvert democracy.
Todd Berliner is a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He has received two Fulbright Scholar awards, including the Laszlo Orszagh Distinguished Chair in American Studies, and holds a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley.