As the results roll in, it looks like the 2018 election was a mixed bag. There will be some congressional oversight over a careening executive branch, but there’s not enough momentum to tackle some of the fundamental problems of American democracy.
A dated document
The US constitution was a feat in its day, but the quasi-religious aura surrounding an inherently flawed document has become an impediment to democracy. The constitution was an ad hoc compromise that barely kept the fragile colonies together — the fact that the same document, mostly unchanged, is still the core law of the land in a vastly different country two and a half centuries later is more a testament to America’s moribund conservatism than the brilliance of the founding fathers.
As partisan divisions largely fall along urban–rural lines, the disproportionate weight that rural voters carry makes them unelected minority rulers. Neither Bush Jr. nor Trump won their first-term popular vote; republicans consistently lose the popular vote for the senate they control. Some of the most jaw-dropping statistics:
In 2016, the Democratic party got 51.4 million votes for its Senate candidates. The Republicans got 40 million. And despite losing by more than 11 million votes, the Republicans won a supermajority (22 of 36) of the seats up for election.
This is particularly relevant for judicial appointments:
When the Senate confirmed Trump’s first nominee, Neil Gorsuch, it was a watershed moment in American history. For the first time, a president who lost the popular vote had a supreme court nominee confirmed by senators who received fewer votes — nearly 22 million fewer — than the senators that voted against him…[T]he senators who voted for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh represent 38 million fewer people than the ones who voted no.
The most obvious issue is that overwhelmingly rural states such as North Dakota (pop. 755,000) and Wyoming (pop. 580,000) get the same two senators as California does to represent its nearly 40 million residents.
The feedback loop
Once in power, Republicans have used the full gambit of tricks to cement their minority rule. This includes gerrymandering and making it as difficult to vote as possible in areas where Democrats are concentrated.
The courts are usually silent on these irregularities, unless of course the court is appointing a presidential candidate who received fewer votes. The reason is simple, more and more federal judges are GOP lackeys who owe their appointments to minority rule Republicans.
Were this any other country, the international community would be discussing sanctions over unfair elections, voter suppression and obvious conflicts of interest such as the Brian Kemp debacle in Georgia.
How do we come to terms with fact that the United States is only a partial democracy with deep systemic flaws? I certainly don’t have the answers. I can only hope that later generations of political scientists use this to build a better model. Perhaps bicameralism has a high probability of breaking down over time.
The problem with good intentions
Much of the American system depends on people acting in good faith — following the unwritten rules of honor that have made the system work for centuries. This current presidency has exposed the shortcomings of a political system that works almost entirely based on the good faith of its actors.
Future models shouldn’t require multiple parties to all be acting in good faith in order for the system to work. A zero trust dystopia isn’t the solution, either.
Even with the house firmly in the hands of the Democrats, there’s still little actual oversight beyond committee grandstanding. Such oversight may well backfire as it merely inflames Trump’s base, which further entrenches minority rule in the Senate.
Poisoning the well of discourse
An exchange of ideas and political parties works because most of the people involved believe they are honestly offering something of value.
Bad faith arguments treat discussion as a team sport without any attempt at unmasking a deeper truth:
- The cynical caterwauling over emails and then crickets over Trump’s insecure personal phone is bad faith.
- Trolling ‘cuz librul tears’ is bad faith.
- Claiming abortion is murder while supporting policies that increase the number of abortions is bad faith.
- Screaming socialism at any attempt to fund education and healthcare to the standards of other developed counties isn’t good faith.
I could go on about the dog whistles, fear mongering, double standards, but you get the picture. There’s no true debate or discussion when some parties are arguing in bad faith.
Disengage. You can never win a cult member back through reason.
The radically mundane
The solution to the American problem doesn’t have to be radical: far more proportional representation, the end of life-long judiciary appointments and more robust checks and balances that work even if a single party controls congress and the presidency. This is a far cry from the current political discourse.