A Nation-State and Its Enemies

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) had an idea about what a nation is that’s relevant to our current predicaments. This is from Philosophy Now:

Published posthumously in 1960, Ortega’s resultant book Meditación de Europa (Meditation on Europe) discusses the nation-state, its role, and its future. After being forced from his own country by a fascist regime and witnessing two World Wars, it’s hardly surprising that the nation-state was an important topic to Ortega. He believed the issue lay partly in the fact that, whilst the nation-state generates a great deal of fanaticism, we are often incapable of providing an exact definition of one – which however Ortega had already done long ago in The Revolt of the Masses. As he said at a conference in 1951:

“I will repeat it once again: the reality which we call the State is not the spontaneous coming together of those united by ties of blood. The State begins when groups naturally divided find themselves obliged to live in common. This obligation is not violently forced upon them, but implies an impelling purpose, a common task which is set before the divided groups. Above all, the State is a plan of action and a program of collaboration. The men are called upon so that together they may do something. The State is neither consanguinity, nor linguistic unity, nor territorial unity, nor proximity of habitation. It is nothing material, inert, fixed, limited. It is pure dynamism – the will to do something in common – and thanks to this the concept of the State is bounded by no physical limits.”

Just like any enterprise, the nation-state has a set of values, insignia through which it is recognized (a flag), and a general set of customs that unite its members, creating cultural coherence amongst them. The nation-state, however, is built upon diversity, and belonging to it does not mean that sub-groups lose their individuality. Be it Catalonia in Spain or Scotland in the UK, belonging to a nation doesn’t remove their spirit as separate entities. And in the same way, all other groups which make up the members of a state do not lose their identity simply by becoming part of the nation: being Spanish doesn’t imply that you are of any particular faith, age, gender, race, and whilst it may be assumed that you speak Spanish, it is not necessarily your mother tongue. Even borders – which might seem like pretty stable definers of a nation – are the present result of centuries of conflict and negotiations. They have constantly changed throughout history, and there’s no reason to think that they won’t do so again in the future.

So instead of understanding a nation as something static, bound fast together by metaphysical connections, it should be viewed as a dynamic – something we do instead of something we are. Thanks to historical records, we have a documented account of Rome from its beginning until its fall – its lifespan, you might say. We Europeans have also witnessed the birth of our modern nation-states from the ruins of the Roman Empire, including their growth and incorporation of surrounding communities. But nation-states are also prone to shrink, fall apart, maybe even die. As a work in progress, nations are by no means eternal features that exist naturally on the face of the earth, leaving them open to whatever fate we bestow. As dynamic, ever-changing projects, nations must be open to change and to the incorporation of new groups, whose ideas could contribute to solving their problems and reaching their goals.

From Eugene Robinson for The Washington Post:

The biggest problem facing the nation now is not what to do with Txxxx, who will soon become yesterday’s news. The crisis is that more than 70 percent of Republican voters believe — falsely — that there was some kind of widespread fraud in the election. The essence of democracy is accepting both victory and loss as legitimate outcomes.

A GOP that internalizes and retains Txxxx’s conspiratorial worldview is not a political party. It is a dangerous cult. Elected officials who have cynically — or cravenly — gone along with that cult’s lies will not find it easy to reverse course.

Much more important than whether Txxxx is convicted in his coming trial is whether Republicans level with their constituents and tell them that Txxxx is lying.

If Republicans won’t — or can’t — tell the truth about the November election, they are no longer participants in our [nation-state’s] democracy. They are its enemies. 

Fear vs. the White Male Effect

There was a story in the news a little while ago about a Democrat or two fearing that impeaching our criminal president again would cause more division in our beleaguered nation. So I decided to do a small, very unscientific study of a possible difference between Democrats and Republicans. My hypothesis was that Democrats are often said to be afraid of something, while Republicans rarely are. Here are the results (which may be hard to see, so I’ll summarize them below):


Google came back with 483,000 results for “democrats fear” but only 184,000 results for “republicans fear”. That’s an impressive difference.

To rule out the possibility that Google simply has more results about Democrats, I did another search. I compared “democrats refuse” and “republicans refuse” (simply because Republicans seem to say “no” a lot).


As you may be able to see, there were equally striking results. There were 86,000 results for “democrats refuse” and 314,000 for “republicans refuse”. 

What does this tell us about the two parties? I’m not sure. Maybe Democrats are more concerned about consequences than Republicans are. They probably worry more. They are certainly more open to compromise, i.e. less likely to refuse. 

This brings me to two relevant articles. The first describes a significant difference between White men and everybody else. It’s called “The Science That Explains Trump’s Grip on White Males”:

Cognitive scientists long ago coined a term for the psychological forces that have given rise to the gendered and racialized political divide that we’re seeing today. That research, and decades of subsequent scholarly work, suggest that if you want to understand the Txxxx phenomenon, you’d do well to first understand the science of risk perception.

[In 1994] a group of researchers . . .  published a study that asked about 1,500 Americans across the country how they perceived different kinds of risks, notably environmental health risks. [They] found that White males differed from White women and non-White men and women in how they perceived risks. For every category of threat, White men saw risk as much smaller and much more acceptable than did other demographic groups. This is what they dubbed “the White male effect”. They also found that White women perceived risks, across the board, to be much higher than White men did, but this was not true of non-White women and men, who perceived risk at pretty much the same levels. . .  Eventually, expansions of this study would include a wide range of risks including handguns, abortionnuclear threat, and capital punishment.

The perception of risk, of course, relates to fear. Where there is no risk, there is nothing to fear. There is scientific evidence, therefore, that Republicans (who tend to be White men) are less fearful than Democrats (who tend to be women and non-White).

The second article is “The Democrats’ Stark, Historic Choice”. The author argues that Democrats need to rise above their fears if we’re going to preserve (what remains of) our democracy:

For all the cant we’ll soon be drowned in about the soul of the nation and healing, the Democratic Party and the country now face what is ultimately a problem of public policy. Today, less than half our population controls 82 percent of the Senate’s seats. By 2040, given current demographic trends, the most conservative third of the country alone will control nearly 70 percent of its seats. All of this amounts to a permanent and growing advantage for a party whose leaders greeted the president with applause at its winter meeting after Wednesday’s attack.

The Democrats will soon have the presidency. They will have the House of Representatives. By the skin on the skin of their teeth, they will have the Senate. They will, in sum, be entering into an alignment of power in Washington that we have every reason to believe is becoming exceptionally rare. And every actor within that trifecta will have a choice to make. Should a party that mounted a crusade against a legitimate election and the democratic process—a party whose rhetoric has killed—continue to accrue structural power? Or should the Democratic Party work to curb it? 

The author goes on to argue that Democrats need to overcome their fear of institutional change and take aggressive advantage of their fragile Congressional majority. The legislative filibuster should be eliminated in order to pass a full restoration of the Voting Rights Act, expand the franchise, grant statehood to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and reform the Supreme Court.

As always, the Republicans will refuse to accept small-“d” democratic reforms. The Democrats shouldn’t fear doing whatever they can to achieve them.

Majority Rule Would Reveal How United We Are

Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post has given up on the Republican Party (“How Do We Hold the Traitors to Democracy Accountable?”):

The degree to which the Republican Party embraced an attempted coup is both chilling and unsurprising given the GOP’s descent into authoritarianism. It should prompt some soul-searching by Republicans who did not join the coup. Is this a party I should be associated with? Is this a party that can be trusted with power? If the answer to either question is no, they should form a new party whose only requirement is loyalty to the Constitution.

But she sees positive possibilities ahead (“America Isn’t Hopelessly Divided. It Only Looks That Way Because of Our Constitution”):

I get it — and agree with it to some extent: Americans are deeply divided, inhabiting two parallel political universes, ingesting different media and adhering to contradictory visions of America. One increasingly defines the United States as a bastion of White Christianity; the other sees a creedal nation defined by its founding documents. But perhaps the “civil war” perspective is overwrought and distorted.

First, let’s get some perspective. Yes, a shift of a mere 39,000 votes in a few close swing states in 2016 would have made Hillary Clinton president. And yes, an even slimmer shift of about 33,000 votes would have kept President Txxxx in office this year. But a shift of 269 votes in Florida in 2000 would have given the election to Al Gore. Were we more divided then?

More generally, we can see that it is the Electoral College that transforms President-elect Joe Biden’s margin of 7 million votes into a multistate nail-biter. But forget the Electoral College for a moment: Democrats have won the popular vote in the past four consecutive elections with margins ranging from 2.9 million (Clinton in 2016) to 10 million (Obama in 2008). And Al Gore, by the way, won by more than half a million votes nationally. One “solution” to the deep division problem, then, would be to junk the Electoral College.

A similar lack of majority rule gives Republicans control of the Senate, despite having support from a minority of the population. The disproportionate power of lightly populated states turns significant majority rule by Democrats into persistent minority rule by Republicans. Gerrymandering offers many Republicans a similar artificial advantage in their House seats.

In other words, we have an enduring and significant majority in favor of Democrats nationally, but our constitutional system consistently hands that advantage over to a Republican Party that is increasingly radical, irrational and racist. (As The Post’s Dan Balz writes, “For Txxxx supporters, cultural preservation of an America long dominated by a White, Christian majority remains a cornerstone of their beliefs.” That is the definition of white supremacy.)

We could get rid of the Electoral College by constitutional amendment or through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (which would instruct each state’s electors to cast their votes for the national popular vote winner). But there is an alternative answer, which is also a function of our constitutional system.

One positive aspect of the Txxxx era is that it made many Democrats understand the value of federalism. State lawmakers and election officials prevented a coup by the Txxxx campaign. State attorneys general, over the course of 138 cases, also blocked Txxxx on an array of issues. As NBC News reported, this includes: “the ‘travel ban’; the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA; family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border; the ‘national emergency’ declaration to build the border wall; international student visas; student loan protections; clean water rules; transgender health care protections; automobile emissions; a citizenship question on the 2020 census; U.S. Postal Service operations; and Obamacare.”

Federalism is not an unalloyed benefit to progressives, as we saw when states banned same-sex marriage, access to abortion and common sense precautions to prevent the spread of covid-19. But, if you combine the “laboratories of democracy” with local activism (which prevailed in one state after another on same-sex marriage) and a Democratic president’s persuasion, you might make real progress on everything from police reform to health care to education.

The other benefit of pushing decision-making down to the states is that state governments are less polarized and more functional than the federal government. Democratic governors work with Republican legislatures; Republican governors work with Democrats. Budgets get passed and balanced — without the backstop of printing money.

So where does that leave us? Our divisions are considerable — aggravated not solely by “polarization,” but also by the descent of one party into nuttery and by a Constitution that gives that party disproportionate power. Where possible, lawmakers should reduce that distortion (e.g., the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact) and deploy federalism.

Finally, our politics is more fluid than we imagine. Virginia and Colorado used to be dependable red states. No more. Stacey Abrams showed Georgia politics can shift as well. We need not accept that states are fated to remain in one partisan column. Activism, outreach and demography can change the electorate, and hence the result of elections.

The bottom line: Democrats have a small but stubborn national popular vote majority. The electorate as a whole agrees with their positions on gun safety, climate change and health care. The trick is expanding democracy, maximizing the benefits of federalism and working hard to create an electorate that resembles the increasingly diverse — and progressive — population.


Ms. Rubin doesn’t mention statehood for Washington, D.C. (pop. 685,000) and Puerto Rico (3.2 million), but giving full voting rights to citizens there would help restore majority rule to the Senate.

Will It Happen Here?

“It always happens” doesn’t imply “it will always happen”. With that correction in mind, Adam Gopnik makes an interesting point about democracy and autocracy in The New Yorker:

We are told again and again that American democracy is in peril and may even be on its deathbed. Today, after all, a defeated yet deranged President bunkers in the White House contemplating crazy conspiracy theories and perhaps even martial law, with the uneasy consent of his party and the rabid support of his base. We are then told, with equal urgency, that what is wrong, ultimately, is deep, systemic, and Everybody’s Fault. Perhaps there is a crisis of meaning, or of spirit; perhaps it is a crisis caused by the condescension of self-important élites. (In truth, those élites tend to be at least as self-lacerating as they are condescending, as the latest rounds of self-laceration show.)

Lurking behind all of this is a faulty premise—that the descent into authoritarianism is what needs to be explained, when the reality is that . . . it always happens. The default condition of humankind is not to thrive in broadly egalitarian and stable democratic arrangements that get unsettled only when something happens to unsettle them. The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy.

America itself has never had a particularly settled commitment to democratic, rational government. At a high point of national prosperity, long before manufacturing fell away or economic anxiety gripped the Middle West—in an era when “silos” referred only to grain or missiles and information came from three sober networks . . .—a similar set of paranoid beliefs filled American minds and came perilously close to taking power. . . . [A] sizable group of people believed things as fully fantastical as the Txxxx-ite belief in voting machines rerouted by dead Venezuelan socialists. The intellectual forces behind Goldwater’s sudden rise thought that Eisenhower and J.F.K. were agents, wittingly or otherwise, of the Communist conspiracy, and that American democracy was in a death match with enemies within as much as without. (Goldwater was, political genealogists will note, a ferocious admirer and defender of Joe McCarthy, whose counsel in all things conspiratorial was Roy Cohn, Dxxxx Txxxx’s mentor.)

Goldwater was a less personally malevolent figure than Txxxx, and, yes, he lost his 1964 Presidential bid. But, in sweeping the Deep South, he set a victorious neo-Confederate pattern for the next four decades of American politics, including the so-called Reagan revolution. Nor were his forces naïvely libertarian. At the time, Goldwater’s ghostwriter Brent Bozell spoke approvingly of Franco’s post-Fascist Spain as spiritually far superior to decadent America, much as the highbrow Txxxx-ites talk of the Christian regimes of Putin and Orbán.

The interesting question is not what causes autocracy (not to mention the conspiratorial thinking that feeds it) but what has ever suspended it. We constantly create post-hoc explanations for the ascent of the irrational. The Weimar inflation caused the rise of Hitler, we say; the impoverishment of Tsarism caused the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, the inflation was over in Germany long before Hitler rose, and Lenin came to power not in anything that resembled a revolution—which had happened already under the leadership of far more pluralistic politicians—but in a coup d’état by a militant minority. Force of personality, opportunity, sheer accident: these were much more decisive than some neat formula of suffering in, autocracy out.

Dxxxx Txxxx came to power not because of an overwhelming wave of popular sentiment—he lost his two elections by a cumulative ten million votes—but because of an orphaned electoral system left on our doorstep by an exhausted Constitutional Convention. . . .

The way to shore up American democracy is to shore up American democracy—that is, to strengthen liberal institutions, in ways that are unglamorously specific and discouragingly minute. The task here is not so much to peer into our souls as to reduce the enormous democratic deficits under which the country labors, most notably an electoral landscape in which farmland tilts to power while city blocks are flattened. This means remedying manipulative redistricting while reforming the Electoral College and the Senate [or by making the Electoral College irrelevant]. Some of these things won’t be achievable, but all are worth pursuing—with the knowledge that, even if every box on our . . . wish list were checked, no set-it-and-forget-it solution to democratic fragility would stand revealed. The only way to stave off another Txxxx is to recognize that it always happens. The temptation of anti-democratic cult politics is forever with us, and so is the work of fending it off. . . .


It’s hard for most Americans to believe it might happen to us. We haven’t had a king or dictator since the United States was created 240 years ago. That’s why Sinclair Lewis called his novel about fascism coming to America It Can’t Happen Here. Our country isn’t destined to become an autocracy, but the past four years show that we have work to do — to make sure it doesn’t happen here.

Small States and Minority Rule

Every four years we elect a president. Almost every four years, we discuss the Electoral College. From Jesse Wegman of The New York Times:

As the 538 members of the Electoral College gather on Monday to carry out their constitutional duty and officially elect Joe Biden as the nation’s 46th president and Kamala Harris as his vice president, we are confronted again with the jarring reminder that it could easily have gone the other way. We came within a hairbreadth of re-electing a man who finished more than seven million votes behind his opponent — and we nearly repeated the shock of 2016, when Dxxxx Txxxx took office after coming in a distant second in the balloting.

No other election in the country is run like this. But why not? That question has been nagging at me for the past few years, particularly in the weeks since Election Day, as I’ve watched with morbid fascination the ludicrous effort by Mr. Txxxx and his allies to use the Electoral College to subvert the will of the majority of American voters and overturn an election that he lost.

The obvious answer is that, for the most part, we abide by the principle of majority rule. . . . 

In the last 20 years, Republicans have been gifted the White House while losing the popular vote twice, and it came distressingly close to happening for a third time this year. 

Since 2000, we’ve had six presidential elections. The candidate who got the most votes only won four of them. This year, shifting 44,000 votes to the loser in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin would have resulted in a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College. That would have moved the election to the House of Representatives, where each state’s delegation gets one vote, regardless of population. Since most states have Republican-majority representation in the House — even though the House has more Democrats — DDT would have presumably been re-elected, hard as that is to imagine. 

Among the comments the Times article received, one person said the Electoral College is fine, since we’re a collection of states, the United States of America, not a collection of citizens. He said it’s only fair that we pick a president based on which states the candidates win, not how many votes they get. Besides, he added, votes in the Electoral College are “roughly” assigned by population.

I don’t agree that because we’re called the United States, we should ignore majority rule when it coms to picking a president. After all, the states we live in are supposed to be “united”. But his statement about the Electoral College being “roughly” based on population made me wonder.

How would the 2020 election have turned out if votes in the Electoral College were “precisely” assigned by population, instead of “roughly”? Today, the largest state, California, gets 55 electoral votes and the smallest state, Wyoming, gets 3. But California’s population is 68 times Wyoming’s. So if the Electoral College were precisely allocated by population, California would get 204 electoral votes, not 55. Quite a difference. The next largest state, Texas, would get 150 instead of 38.

Would that have made the result in the Electoral College much different? It was surprising to see that it wouldn’t. If you do the same precise arithmetic for all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Joe Biden receives 974 electoral votes instead of 306 and DDT gets 730 instead of 232. That looks like a big difference, but the percentages are about the same. Biden would get 57.2% of the electoral votes with the precise arithmetic and 56.9% with the rough arithmetic. It works out that way because some big states, like California and New York, went for Biden and some, like Texas and Florida, went for DDT. When you average it all out, the Electoral College result would be about the same either way.

There would be a big difference, however. Big states would be much more important in the Electoral College than small states. If California got 204 electoral votes instead of 55, it would make even less difference who won a bunch of little states like Wyoming, Vermont and Alaska. In fact, assuming precise arithmetic, the 25 largest states would get 1,423 electoral votes vs. 288 for the 25 smallest. 

What this shows is that the current Electoral College is significantly skewed to benefit smaller states. Voters in those states play a bigger role than they should, based on how few of them there are. Being precise about population wouldn’t necessarily change the winner every time, but a more accurate Electoral College would reflect where people actually live in these “united” states. It would also reflect the cultural divisions in this country, since smaller states tend to be more rural.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the Electoral College that is skewed toward smaller states. According to the Constitution, each state gets as many votes in the Electoral College as it has members of Congress. Wyoming gets three electoral votes because it has two people in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives. California gets 55 electoral votes because it has two senators and 53 representatives in the House. If seats in Congress were precisely allocated by population, California would still have two senators, but it would elect almost four times as many members of the House of Representatives as Wyoming. The ratio in the House would be California’s 202 to Wyoming’s one, not 53 to one.

If the makeup of the House of Representatives isn’t unfair enough, consider the US Senate. Each state, regardless of population, gets two senators. It was designed to give small states the same representation as big states, so each state, regardless of population, gets to elect two. Maybe that made sense when there were only 13 states and they were relatively close in population. Now we have 50 states with a very wide range of populations.

In 1790, for example, the largest state, Virginia, had 13 times as many people as the smallest, Delaware. Today, as noted above, California has 68 times more people than Wyoming. Furthermore, the 50 members of the Senate from the largest 25 states represent almost 275 million people. The 50 senators from the smallest 25 states represent 49 million.

The imbalance is made even worse by the fact that the Senate is responsible for approving nominations to the Executive Branch (including all the officials in the president’s cabinet) and the federal judiciary (including the Supreme Court), as well as approving treaties. Because of the way senators were to be chosen, the authors of the Constitution assumed that members of the Senate would be more responsible than the unruly members of the House of Representatives. That’s hardly the case today.

In addition, smaller states, which tend to more rural, tend to vote for Republicans. Of the 25 largest states, 15 voted for Biden and 10 for his opponent. Of the 25 smallest, 10 voted for Biden and 15 for the other guy. That’s why the Senate is where progressive legislation goes to die and liberal nominees fall into comas waiting to be approved.

Add this all up and it’s easy to see that a Constitution written in 1789 doesn’t work very well for a large, complicated country in 2020. The Senate is skewed to benefit smaller, more Republican states, while the House of Representatives and the Electoral College, which chooses the president, are skewed the same way, although less so. This unfairness explains why Hillary Clinton could beat her opponent by 3 million votes and lose, why Joe Biden could beat the same opponent by 7 million votes but not necessarily win, and why forward-looking legislation that would make the United States a much better place to live has so little chance of success. Maybe shifting demographics will eventually help, but in the short run, we have to assume the United States will be subject to minority rule from Washington in important ways and much too often.