Sometime last year, I think it was in the summer, I sent out a series of Tweets making an argument that had lived only in my head for quite a while: my country is not a democracy, and given its history of limiting citizenship rights, it may never have existed as one at all. Even now I feel silly writing or saying such a thing – it sounds like the angsty ravings of a teenager after watching his first Michael Moore movie – but I believe it would be untruthful to say anything else. As I’m beginning work on a larger project related to this topic, I think it’s important I spell out what I believe, and just as importantly, what exactly I mean.
America is, by most measures, run like an oligarchy. Rich people control almost all of the country’s resources, the government is run almost exclusively by rich people, and government policies are overwhelmingly passed to the benefit of rich people, usually at the expense of everyone else. As much as this angers me and informs my political beliefs, it doesn’t mean much for the purposes of what I’m articulating now. A country like this could still be a democracy – not for long, probably, but it could be. This is more likely a symptom of America’s democratic rot, though the two certainly help each other along – the point is, I’m not interested in defining American anti-democracy through these increasingly complex money trails linking votes with campaign contributions. What I talk about when I say America is not a democracy – and what I hope to go after in my project – is the core of democracy: free and fair elections.
In November, Americans elected a man President by voting for him 3 million times less than they voted for his main opponent. Trump won the election based on the rules of the game, but he did not do so democratically. Period. Sixteen years earlier, George W. Bush also won an election without any semblance of democracy – he probably lost the part of the contest where he didn’t need a majority of all the votes, too, but thanks to the will of nine senior citizens in black robes, the world will never know. Trump’s party also received less votes for their senate candidates, but they won the senate. Republicans were able to beat the Democrats in the popular vote for house candidates, and with less than 50% of the votes took home 241 of 435 congressional seats.
None of this makes any sense if America is an actual democracy. But it isn’t, so it makes perfect sense. As a writer for FactCheck.org put it, evaluating a (correct) claim by Elizabeth Warren that Democrats won more Senate votes in 2016:
The Senate was specifically designed not to reflect the national popular vote, but rather to give all states equal representation, regardless of their population. Heavily populated states like California, Texas and New York have the same number of senators as sparsely populated states like North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.
“Equal representation, regardless of their population” is like saying two employees deserve “equal pay, regardless of how many hours they worked.” A more apt summary would be that voters in low population states are entitled to more control of the federal government than everyone else, probably because a bunch of back country slave owners 200 years ago forced that bit into the constitution. The point is, people who win the most votes often end up losing elections in America.
This gets even worse when you start going state by state. In 2016, less than 50% of people in Michigan voted for Republican state representatives. Republicans did manage to beat the Democrats by one-half of one-tenth of a percent in total vote share (about 3,000 votes), which logically entitled them to 63 of 110 house seats. In 2014, when the state GOP won about 49% of the total state legislature votes, Republicans won 63 house seats and 26 of 38 state senate seats. Where Democrats do win, their margins of victory average more than 40 points. The same goes for congressional seats. Only a handful of all state legislative districts in Michigan appear competitive, based on the average margin of victory since 2011, while maybe two of Michigan’s congressional seats are close to being up in the air. For the majority of Michiganders, this means that half of the races on their general election ballot every November are predetermined. Their votes mean almost nothing.
Oh, and since the 2000 election, anxiety over non-existent election fraud has helped spread voter suppression laws like a rash across nearly half the country, while the Supreme Court decided in the span of a few short years that both money is speech and places with a history of disenfranchising people should be let off the hook, no questions asked.
And millions of people can’t vote because they committed a crime once.
And dozens of ballot machines break and delay voting every single election day, usually at polling places where the wait is already longer than average.
Even at its absolute least democratic moments though, America called herself a democracy. Even when having the pronoun “her” meant you couldn’t vote; Even when we locked our own citizens in camps because of where their ancestors were born; Even when most of the south’s population not only couldn’t vote, but was largely considered criminal for learning to read. America always called herself a democracy.
We should remember that this is and always has been aspirational, and that is no different today.