Anyone who pays even passing attention to American politics is familiar with the map (Figure 1) of the United States showing states in which a majority of voters favored President Obama (colored blue) and those where Romney garnered the most votes (in red). This map conveys three dominant messages: first, that states can be meaningfully described as either red or blue; second, that the West Coast, the upper Midwest, and the Northeast are solidly blue, and the rest of the country is mostly red; and third, that, geographically speaking, more of the country is red than blue.
Those concerned about how Romney lost in what appears to be a mostly red country should refer themselves to Figure 2, in which the states are distorted to reflect their populations. More populous states have more votes in the Electoral College than do sparsely populated states.
But a third map (Figure 3) showing the nation’s 3,035 counties in the same color scheme reveals that portraying states as either blue or red obscures much of what we might want to know about the states and the voters who inhabit them. On this map, we see that most of the blue states are in fact mostly red. The reality of vast expanses of red in some of the bluest of states should concern us if we truly care about self-governance.
The Fate of Self-Governance
With each passing election, rural and small town Americans have ever less influence on their state and national governments and ever declining control over the governance of their own communities. Their lives are increasingly controlled from distant state capitals and from the even more distant Washington, D.C., by politicians with little incentive to pay attention to their country cousins. To some extent, their disenfranchisement is the inevitable result of a century of urbanization and economic centralization. But the erosion of self-governance in rural America is also the result of a generally well intentioned but simplistic understanding of democracy and the associated elimination of institutional protections of local democratic governance.
Two ideas have been central to this effective disenfranchisement of rural America. First, that one person/one vote is an inviolable principle of democratic government under the United States Constitution. Second, that the winners of elections owe allegiance only to those who voted for them, no matter how close the margin of victory.
Consider the claim made by supporters of President Obama’s call for higher taxes on the wealthy in response to those wishing to preserve all of the tax rates enacted under President Bush. “The people have spoken. We won the election. You lost. Case closed.” Had Mitt Romney won the election, Republicans would have offered a similar response to opponents of spending cuts and entitlement reform.
For some, this glib argument is like spiking the ball in the end zone—an ill-mannered, in-your-face celebration of points scored in an ongoing contest. Notwithstanding the sometimes wildly fluctuating views of the electorate, as evidenced by pre- and post-election polls, elections have increasingly come to justify claims of total victory for the winner. The winner sees no need for compromise, making it the loser’s role to obstruct such triumphalism in every way possible, and hope to prevail in the next election. Little wonder that bipartisan solutions have become elusive, and that those willing to compromise are condemned by their partisan peers as unprincipled, and unworthy of public office.
Of course, anyone with even a cursory understanding of American politics understands that elections seldom, if ever, settle matters in dispute. What we learn when the people speak at the ballot box is that the electorate is often narrowly divided on the candidates and issues. President Obama’s 51.4 percent of the popular vote is considered a convincing victory. But the fact is that 48.6 percent of the voters (59,134,475 individuals) preferred someone else.
In the democratic selection of public officials, there is no practical alternative to election by simple majority, or even by plurality. Someone must fill each office, and that cannot be accomplished reliably with supermajority requirements. Representative bodies can, and occasionally do, require a supermajority for enactment of legislation. But, as a general rule, little is accomplished if more than a simple majority is required. (Witness the United States Senate, where the filibuster, as now employed, effectively requires a 3/5 supermajority and little is accomplished.)
Constitutional Controls on the Tyranny of the Majority
As political scientist Martin Diamond once observed, democracy is the least worst form of government yet designed by man. The designers of America’s democratic republic well understood the shortcomings of direct democracy, notably the risk of majoritarian tyranny. Among their constitutional protections against the tyranny of the majority was the creation of a federal system that recognized multiple majorities as legitimate law makers, majorities that would also moderate the selection of the president and the enactment of laws by Congress.
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