How The Founding Fathers Accidentally Created A Recipe For Minority Rule

The Founding Fathers are often praised for their foresight in creating a complex system of checks and balances. But now, this system is working against democracy.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., left, laughs with Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., center right, just after Ryan signed a bill designed to eliminate key parts of President Barack Obama’s health care law. Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., left, laughs with Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., center right, just after Ryan signed a bill designed to eliminate key parts of President Barack Obama’s health care law. Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

It’s rare to sit in an American civics class and not hear gushing praise for the Founding Fathers’ ideas of separation of powers. And it’s not exactly unwarranted. They created a government with branches that have to agree with each other before moving forward on laws and policies and an electoral system which prevents a majority from steamrolling over a minority. Granted, that last one was in no small part to prevent slave states from using their non-voting population to run roughshod over free states, but the end result was a net positive.

Likewise, as a final check on the power of an out of control majority, the Electoral College was supposed to prevent dangerous demagogues from holding the highest office in the land. It was meant to be an emergency brake, a way for the citizens to ask “wait, are we sure we want this person in the White House?” and log their final objections to a candidate who would do a lot more harm than good. An extremely unusual feature for a democratic government, but this too worked for hundreds of years. It didn’t work perfectly, but on the aggregate, well.

But there’s a catch. All these separations of power and dilutions of the popular vote worked for only as long as people were more evenly distributed across the country than not and picked politicians who could agree on the basics of what the country needed. Increasingly, both of these conditions no longer hold true thanks to ideological sorting and post-industrialization, which favors clustering in growing, diversified hubs of activity. The United States has 3,142 counties across 50 states and the District of Columbia, spread across nearly 3.8 million square miles. However, 50.1% of the population lives in just 244 of them, generally clustered in nine states, according to the Census Bureau.

population distribution in the united states counties with majority populations

This has a profound effect on who gets to govern America, as noted by policy and data wonks, who astutely observed that while gerrymandering in the House gets all the attention, the power differential is on full display in the Senate. While gerrymandering is essentially an exercise in politicians picking their own voters, districts have to at least have a similar number of voters in them. Not so in the Senate, where population is deliberately not a factor to water down the power of an out of control majority. As a result, 51 senators represent fewer than a fifth of the voters today, meaning that a chamber vital for bills to become law and which confirms the judges who will be interpreting this law for decades at a time, is not accountable to 8 out of 10 citizens.

Popular opinion nationwide means little, if anything, to that majority because as long as their states approve of what they’re doing, they can safely ignore the will of the rest of the country and still get elected for another six years of passing bills and confirming judges. It’s hard to be alarmed by that at first blush because technically, the system is working exactly as it should. The Senate is supposed to be blind to population numbers, and every state gets two senators no matter whether it has 40 million or 600,000 people in its borders, giving it equal standing with others when it comes to determining the laws of the land. This, alongside electoral votes, was meant to prevent states with smaller populations having too little power to make their voices heard during the process of running the country.

In fact, everything about the American system is meant to prevent mob rule. But the problem is that because imagining slave states gaming the system or highly populated states stealing the show were the overriding concerns for the writers of the Constitution, they didn’t create any real safeguards if it’s the minority, not the majority, that’s out of control. If anything, once a minority has a grip on all branches of power, the system puts hurdle after hurdle for anyone trying to vote them out, mostly in the way of geography and adding extra steps as a requirement for voters to be heard. In an ideal world, that wouldn’t necessarily matter because voters can always decide to cross parties and cast the ballots for the opposition. But we don’t live in an ideal world.

We live in a world in which the minority in power is animated by the idea that nearly two-thirds of the country are an existential threat conspiring against them. We live in a world in which this minority is fine with losing their livelihoods to recapture imaginary glories of the past and land a blow against their worst enemies: their fellow citizens. We live in a world in which this minority is losing members and growing more insular, more extreme, and more desperate to stop nothing less than the passage of time. We live in a world where in response to the majority asking why they have to be at the mercy of a government for which they didn’t vote, the minority tells them that we are not a democracy — they seem to believe that a republic is not a democratic construct — and that the majority should not be allowed to pick their leaders.

The Founding Fathers certainly had the gift of foresight, but they couldn’t have predicted the full effects of the age of automation and global trade. (Though, in fairness, they did write about the need to update the Constitution to account for the passage of time and adoption of new ideas, and created a process for doing exactly that.) As a result, instead of creating a system in which a majority just had to listen and respect the voice of a minority, they inadvertently created one which allows a minority to hijack the government with little recourse from the majority, as long as that minority lived in the right imaginary lines on a map. To borrow a Russian fatalism, they wanted to do something better, but it turned out (badly) as always.

It may be soothing to imagine that the current state of affairs is a temporary blip on the radar and will get worked out when another generation of more agreeable and less extreme politicians get elected. There’s little indication that will happen because, again, the majority of them will be picked by a minority of the voters and as long as that minority is angry, the rest of the nation will suffer for it. True, we can imagine a best-case scenario where the minority is placated enough to stop seeing their fellow citizens as their treasonous nemeses plotting in the shadows to take them down and elect bipartisan lawmakers. But should that minority once again be threatened by change or new technology, they will immediately plunge us right back into crisis because the government is effectively trapped into answering to them.

Thousands of years of history show us that when a minority that loathes the majority has vast, unchecked powers to inflict misery and woe on the rest of their nation, only bad things happen over the long haul. Unless we make profound changes which acknowledge that where you vote being as, if not more, important than how you vote, is an outdated system for a modern country that claims to be free and democratic, we will effectively be trapped into minority rule and no matter how many of us agree on how to solve the problems that ail us now, or will ail us in the future, a fifth of the country could easily refuse to let us solve them and then drag us backward on a whim. This is exactly what’s happening now, and so far, the outcome is not even good for that fifth of the electorate, as their Pyrrhic victories continue to pile up.

Opinion // Congress / Elections / Electoral Reform / Founding Fathers