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Nothing special, one post at a time since 2012

We’re Screwed: A Periodic Reminder (Part 2)

Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times compares today to the early 19th century, when America was ruled by the “Slave Power”. It was a crisis then. It’s a crisis now:

The antislavery politicians of the 1840s and 1850s did not speak with a single voice. . . . What tied the antislavery factions of American politics to each other wasn’t a single view of slavery or Black Americans but a shared view of the crisis facing the American republic. That crisis, they said in unison, was the “slave power.”

The “slave power” thesis was the belief that a slaveholding oligarchy ran the United States for its own benefit. It had ruled the nation for decades, went the argument, and now intended to expand slavery across the continent and even further into the North.

The “slave power” thesis was also a claim about the structure of American government itself. As these antislavery politicians saw it, “the real underpinnings of southern power were regional unity, parity in the Senate, and the three-fifths clause of the Constitution,” the historian Leonard L. Richards writes in The Slave Power. Together, this gave the slaveholding oligarchs of the South a virtual lock on much of the federal government, including the Supreme Court. “Between Washington’s election and Lincoln’s,” Richards points out, “nineteen of the thirty-four Supreme Court appointees were slaveholders.”

For antislavery politicians, the counter-majoritarian institutions of the American system enabled a faction that threatened democracy. The question of the “slave power,” then, was ultimately one of self-government. . . . 

You’ve probably guessed, by now, that this is not an idle history lesson. I am thinking about “the slave power” because I am thinking about the ways that narrow, destructive factions can capture the counter-majoritarian institutions of the American system for their own ends. I am thinking of how they can then use the levers of government to impose their vision of society and civil life against the will of the majority. And I am thinking of this in the context of guns, gun violence and the successful movement, thus far, to make the United States an armed society.

Although there has been, in the wake of the atrocities [in Buffalo and Uvalde], the requisite call for new gun control laws, no one believes that Congress will actually do much of anything to address gun violence or reduce the odds of gun massacres. The reason is that the Republican Party does not want to. And with the legislative filibuster still in place (preserved, as it has been for the last year, by at least two Democratic senators), Senate Republicans have all the votes they need to stop a bill — any bill — from passing.

The filibuster, however, is only one part of the larger problem of the capture of America’s political institutions by an unrepresentative minority whose outright refusal to compromise is pushing the entire system to a breaking point.

Large majorities of Americans favor universal background checks, bans on “assault-style” weapons, bans on high-capacity magazines and “red flag” laws that would prevent people who might harm themselves or others from purchasing guns.

But the American political system was not designed to directly represent national majorities. To the extent that it does, it’s via the House of Representatives. The Senate, of course, represents the states. And in the Senate (much to the chagrin of many of the framers), population doesn’t matter — each state gets equal say. Fifty-one lawmakers representing a minority of voters can block 49 lawmakers representing a majority of them (and that’s before, again, we get to the filibuster).

Add the polarization of voters by geography — a rural and exurban Republican Party against an urban and suburban Democratic Party — and the picture goes from bad to perverse. Not only can Republicans, who tend to represent the most sparsely populated states, win a majority of the Senate with far less than a majority of votes nationally, but by using the filibuster a small number of Republican senators representing an even smaller faction of voters can kill legislation supported by most voters and most members of Congress.

The Senate might have been counter-majoritarian by design, but there is a difference between a system that tempers majorities and one that stymies them from any action at all. We have the latter, and like Congress under the failed Articles of Confederation, it makes a mockery of what James Madison called the “republican principle,” which is supposed to enable the majority of the people to defeat the “sinister views” of a minority faction by “regular vote.”

Rather than suppress the “mischiefs of faction,” our system empowers them. Few Americans want the most permissive gun laws on offer. But those who do have captured the Republican Party and used its institutional advantages to both stop gun control and elevate an expansive and idiosyncratic view of gun rights to the level of constitutional law.

The result is a country so saturated in guns that there’s no real hope of going back to the status quo ante. If anything, American gun laws are poised to get even more permissive. If the Supreme Court rules as expected in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, it will strike down a law that requires a license for carrying a concealed firearm.

Whether or not the public wants a world of ubiquitous firearms, the [reactionary] majority on the court — which Americans have never voted for and which would not exist without the counter-majoritarian institutions that gave D____ T____ the White House and the Republican Party a Senate majority — seems ready to impose one.

Over the years, historians have been divided on the “slave power” thesis. . . . The slaveholding South may not have been as political unified as charged, but the institutions of American democracy were slanted toward slaveholders who really did capture the state for their own ends. As much as possible, they used the power of the federal government to further their interests and stymie opposition, with the help of a like-minded majority on the Supreme Court that did not hesitate to act on their behalf.

What must be understood is that the institutions that enabled this subversion of self-government are still with us, a practically indissoluble part of our constitutional order. To say that it is possible for a narrow faction of ideologues to weaponize the counter-majoritarian features of our system against the “republican principle” is, basically, to describe the current state of our democracy. It is, in other words, to state the crisis.

We’re Screwed: A Periodic Reminder

With so many Americans willing to vote for today’s radical Republican Party, it’s hard not to conclude this country is over. It’s like we’re up an extremely treacherous creek without a paddle. Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times highlights one reason we may be even more screwed in the future:

For much of the past decade, the Republican Party’s ability to win power in Washington has rested on the counter-majoritarian institutions of American politics. There is no President D____ T____ without the Electoral College [or Pres. George W. Bush in 2000] and Republicans would not have such a firm grip on the United States Senate if not for its unequal representation, which gives as much weight to the sparsely populated states of the Great Plains and the Mountain West as it does to states like New York, Illinois, California and Texas.

The Republican Party, in other words, does not need to win majorities to win control.

One result of this is that Republicans have developed a set of ideological justifications for why it is a good thing that the American political system violates basic principles of political equality, most commonly expressed in the assertion that the United States is “a republic, not a democracy.”

Another result is that Republicans, having embraced counter-majoritarianism as a principle, are now looking for ways to extend it. You see this in the emergence of the lunatic “independent state legislature” doctrine, which would give state legislatures total power to write rules for congressional elections and direct the appointment of presidential electors, unbound by state constitutions and free from the scrutiny of state courts. Under this doctrine, a Republican legislature could — with sufficient pretext (like “voter fraud”) — unilaterally assign the state’s presidential electors to the candidate of its choice, above and beyond the will of the voters.

Some Republicans want to extend the counter-majoritarian principle down to the state level as well. In 2019, the chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, Kelli Ward, floated the idea of an “Electoral College type system” at the state level. More recently, the Republican nominee for governor in Colorado, Greg Lopez, has promised to eliminate “one-person, one-vote” for statewide elections and institute a system where the votes of rural voters are given significantly more weight than those of voters in the state’s cities and metropolitan areas. He outlined his plan at a campaign stop earlier in the week:

“One of the things that I’m going to do, and I’ve already put this plan together, is, as governor, I’m going to introduce a conversation about doing away with the popular vote for statewide elected officials and doing an Electoral College vote for statewide elected officials,” Lopez said. Lopez said his Electoral College plan would weight counties’ votes based on their voter turnout percentage to encourage turnout. “I’ve already got the plan in place,” Lopez said. “The most that any county can get is 11 Electoral College votes. The least that a county can get is three.”

Under this plan, according to the local CBS affiliate, Republicans in the state would have easily won the previous governor’s race, in 2018, despite losing the popular vote by 10 percentage points.

It’s unlikely that this will happen. First, Lopez would have to be elected . . .  Second, he would have to persuade the legislature to go along with the plan. And third, it would have to survive judicial review, specifically the precedent established by the court in the early 1960s, which held that such schemes were unconstitutional. (Although, given this court’s contempt for voting rights and indifference to extreme gerrymandering, I’m not so sure that it would uphold that decision.)

But this proposal isn’t noteworthy because it’s likely to happen; it’s noteworthy because of what it says about the ideological direction of the Republican Party. It’s not just that Republicans have rejected majority rule . . . [It’s that, when they lose,] it’s just time to change the rules.

Who We Are

Thoughts on who we are as a country — and who we could be instead — from three of us:

From sociologist Kieren Healy:

A first communion inducts a child into one of the sacraments of the Church, having them take a step towards adulthood in expectation of the regular re-enactment of the event throughout the rest of their lives.

Sociologists like me often highlight these rituals of childhood in our writing and teaching. One of the founders of our field, Émile Durkheim, made them the centerpiece of his work. Institutions, he argued, are rituals that bind people to one another as a group. In a ritual, each person finds their place and does their part, and expects everyone else to do the same. Crucially, those involved all see one another participating in the event. By doing so, they enact their collective life in view of one another, demonstrating its reality, expressing its meaning, and feeling its pulse in their veins. That, Durkheim thought, is at root what a society is.

In any given week in America, you can watch as a different ritual of childhood plays itself out. Perhaps it will be in El Paso, at a shopping mall; or in Gilroy, at a food festival; or in Denver, at a school. Having heard gunshots, and been lucky enough to survive, children emerge to be shepherded to safety by their parents, their teachers, or heavily-armed police officers. They are always frightened. Some will be crying. But almost all of them know what is happening to them, and what to do. Mass shootings are by now a standard part of American life. Preparing for them has become a ritual of childhood. It’s as American as Monday Night Football, and very nearly as frequent.

The United States has institutionalized the mass shooting in a way that Durkheim would immediately recognize. As I discovered to my shock when my own children started school in North Carolina some years ago, preparation for a shooting is a part of our children’s lives as soon as they enter kindergarten. The ritual of a Killing Day is known to all adults. It is taught to children first in outline only, and then gradually in more detail as they get older. The lockdown drill is its Mass. The language of “Active shooters”, “Safe corners”, and “Shelter in place” is its liturgy. “Run, Hide, Fight” is its creed. Security consultants and credential-dispensing experts are its clergy.

My son and daughter have been institutionally readied to be shot dead as surely as I, at their age, was readied by my school to receive my first communion. They practice their movements. They are taught how to hold themselves; who to defer to; what to say to their parents; how to hold their hands. The only real difference is that there is a lottery for participation. Most will only prepare. But each week, a chosen few will fully consummate the process, and be killed.

A fundamental lesson of Sociology is that, in the course of making everyday life seem orderly and sensible, arbitrary things are made to seem natural and inevitable. Rituals, especially the rituals of childhood, are a powerful way to naturalize arbitrary things. As a child in Ireland, I thought it natural to take the very body of Christ in the form of a wafer of bread on my tongue. My own boy and girl, in America, think it natural that a school is a place where you must know what to do when someone comes there to kill the children.

Social science also teaches us something about how rituals end, although not enough. The most important step is to kindle a belief that there are other ways to live, other forms that collective life can take. That can be surprisingly hard to do, because a side-effect of ritual life is that participation in it powerfully reinforces its seeming inescapability . . . .

It’s traditional to say that there are “no easy answers”, but this is not really true. Everywhere groups face the problem of holding themselves together. Every society has its enormous complex of institutions and weight of rituals that, through the sheer force of mutual expectation and daily habit, bring that society to life. But not every society has successfully institutionalized the mass shooting. Only one place has done that, deliberately and effectively. The United States has chosen, and continues to choose, to enact ritual compliance to an ideal of freedom in a way that results in a steady flow of blood sacrifice. This ritual of childhood is not a betrayal of “who we are” as a country. It is what America has made of itself . . .

Next, from Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

. . . This is exactly who we are. We are the place with more guns than people, where tens of thousands are murdered every year, and where arguments over parking spaces end in death. We’re the place where much of the gun legislation that passes ensures that almost anyone can take guns almost anywhere. We’re the place where candidates for office show their cultural bona fides by popping off rounds in campaign ads.

We’re not England or France or Canada or Denmark or Japan or Portugal or any other country. . . . Here in the United States, an entire generation has grown up doing drills in case someone enters their school and tries to kill them. They huddle in closets, barricade doors, hear lectures about what they might throw at an armed killer to slow him down. . . .

The roots of this insanity go back far, but today it is maintained by the party that has leveraged its minority rule to make sure virtually no limits are imposed on guns, which it fetishizes and worships and celebrates. . . .

Just two weeks ago, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a California law that forbade anyone younger than 21 from buying a semiautomatic rifle. In a 2-to-1 decision, two judges appointed by Trump wrote passionately of the importance of allowing 18-year-olds to buy AR-15s:

America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army. Today we reaffirm that our Constitution still protects the right that enabled their sacrifice: the right of young adults to keep and bear arms.

. . . Behold the insane logic of the perpetually armed society: We must let everyone have guns because so many people have guns. . . . 

Republicans who keep us living in this nightmare would certainly prefer it if the lies they knowingly tell about guns were true. They’d be happy if bad guys with guns really were stopped by good guys with guns, if more guns did make for less crime, and if all these guns made us the safest society on earth.

But in the end, the fact that all those things are false does not change their minds. Tens of thousands of suicides and homicides committed with guns every year, punctuated by regular massacres of men, women and children are just the price they believe we have to pay for their version of “freedom.”

Even if most of us don’t agree, those who do can leverage their power to keep the slaughter going. And that’s what it will take to change things: power. Acquiring it and being willing to use it.

Change will not come because we looked into our national heart and found goodness lying therein. The heart of America is not one thing. It is sometimes kind and generous and wise, but it is also dark and hateful and murderous. That is who we really are — all of it.

Finally, from Jennifer Rubin, also of the Washington Post:

The Constitution allocates two senators to the most sparsely populated red states (but none to the District of Columbia), and the Senate filibuster provides gun absolutists with a veto over reforms.

If this were only true on guns, one might be able to make an argument in favor of the present system. But the result is the same for a range on matters, including abortion, immigration, climate change and virtually any other mildly controversial topic. The rigid GOP parlays the anti-democratic Senate and filibuster into an iron grip of minority rule. When legislation on nearly every critical issue can be thwarted by an extreme minority, we have “democracy” in name only. . . .

If the Democratic Party — the only party that still supports democratic values and at least tries to solve problems — can muster the discipline and the will, it can run in 2022 and 2024 on ending the stranglehold of unhinged, minority rule. It must electrify its supporters, pledge to tame if not eliminate the filibuster and make clear that, without Democratic victories, we would face an America few would hope to bequeath their children.

The Republican obsession with controlling women, unlimited gun ownership, white grievance and other deadly ideologies must be identified, denounced and defeated. Democrats should be clear about the choices: white nationalism or tolerance; gun massacres or reasonable gun restrictions; control of women’s bodies or respect for women’s autonomy.

America Is a Failed Democracy: A Primer (It’s Long But Essential)

. . . the American republic, originally designed to be a majoritarian representative democracy, has become minoritarian. Or more precisely, at every level of the current institutions of our representative democracy, we have rendered those institutions unrepresentative. This fact alone should be enough to lead aspiring democracies around the world to look elsewhere for models for how democracy might be made to work. 

Those are the words of Laurence Lessig, a Harvard law professor, writing for The New York Review of Books. If you want to understand the ways this country has failed at democracy, read what follows. The features of minority rule discussed below include gerrymandered state legislatures and congressional districts, vote suppression, political action committees, the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, the Senate and the filibuster:

What’s most striking about America’s understanding of our own democracy is our ability to see what’s just not there. We are not a model for the world to copy. The United States is instead a failed democratic state.

At every level, the institutions that the US has evolved for implementing our democracy betray the basic commitment of a representative democracy: that it be, at its core, fair and majoritarian. Instead, that commitment is now corrupted in America. And every aspiring democracy around the world should understand the specifics of that corruption—if only to avoid the same in its own land.


The corruption of our majoritarian representative democracy begins at the state legislatures. Because the Supreme Court has declared that partisan gerrymandering is beyond the ken of our Constitution, states have radically manipulated legislative districts. As Miriam Seifter . . . summarized in a recent article for the Columbia Law Review, “across the nation, the vast majority of states in recent memory have had legislatures controlled by either a clear or probable minority party.” Her work was based in part upon an extraordinary analysis published by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute, which found that after the 2018 election, close to 60 million Americans “live under minority rule in their US state legislatures.” The most egregious states in this mix are also among the most important in presidential elections. In Wisconsin, for example, the popular vote for Republicans in 2018 was 44.7 percent; but Republicans controlled 64.6 percent of the seats in the statehouse. Likewise, Republicans in Virginia won just 44.5 percent of the vote but received 51 percent of statehouse seats.

State legislatures, as Seifter characterizes them, are “the least majoritarian branch” of our representative democracy. Yet this fact is all but invisible to most Americans—including, as she evinces, justices on the Supreme Court. We are all outraged when the Electoral College selects a president who hasn’t won a plurality of votes, something it has done five times in its history. Why are we so sanguine about legislatures that are regularly controlled by the party that won fewer votes across the state?

These gerrymandered states then spread their minoritarian poison in two distinctive ways. First, they have taken up the most ambitious program of vote suppression since Jim Crow. Through a wide range of techniques, Republican state legislatures are making it selectively more difficult for presumptively Democratic voters to vote, by reducing the number of polling places in Democratic districts, by ending early voting or voting outside of ordinary working hours, by deploying biased ID requirements that selectively allow forms of identification commonly held by Republicans (gun club registration cards) while disallowing those held by likely Democratic voters (student cards), by understaffing polling places so voters must queue for hours to vote, and by many other creative techniques. In Georgia, the legislature has even made it a crime to give water to people waiting in line to vote. What possible legitimate state interest could that law serve?

These acts are often framed by their opponents in racial terms. That framing is a strategic mistake. I’m happy to stipulate that some who push these techniques of suppression may well be motivated by race—after all, many of the techniques were those of race discrimination before —though most would surely disavow any such thing. But every single person pushing these techniques of suppression is certainly motivated by politics. It is raw partisan power, driven to destroy the electoral prospects of the other party, that explains what is happening here. Before the United States Supreme Court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked lawyers from the Republican National Committee why they were opposing provisions enabling more people to vote. Because it “puts us at a competitive disadvantage,” the lawyer was untroubled to reply. How can it be permissible for the party in power nakedly to rig the system against its opponents?

The second way that minoritarian state legislatures spread their poison is by gerrymandering the United States House of Representatives. Partisan gerrymandering was first perfected in its modern “big data” form by Republicans in 2010, and the Democrats then spent the following decade trying to get the Supreme Court to put a stop to it. When the Court announced it would not, there was little left for the Democrats except good government initiatives, aiming at moving the redistricting process away from the most egregiously partisan influences. That did some good—until the 2020 election signaled to Republicans that their party faces virtual annihilation if the majority gets its say. The efforts to gerrymander for 2022 will therefore be the most sophisticated seen yet. Barring a legislative miracle to safeguard voting rights, by the next presidential election Republicans will have secured through gerrymandering the control of the House of Representatives, whether or not they succeed in winning more votes than Democrats. And if the plans of some extremists come to fruition, a critical mass of state legislatures will also have passed laws by then that give them the power to overturn the results of a popular presidential election in their states.

These two techniques of minoritarian rule—gerrymandering and partisan vote suppression—could have been resisted by the courts. Yet what’s striking about the United States Supreme Court is not only that it has done nothing to resist minoritarianism but also that its most significant recent interventions have only ratified perhaps the most egregious aspects of our minoritarian democracy: the influence of money in politics.


While most mature democracies have various techniques for minimizing the corrupting effect of money in politics, the US Supreme Court has embraced the most radical conception of campaign money-as-free speech of any comparable democracy. While the Court has upheld limitations on direct contributions to political campaigns, it has simultaneously held, in its infamous decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), that any limitation on independent spending violates the First Amendment. Lower courts have then read Citizens United to mean that any limits on contributions to independent political action committees would violate the First Amendment as well. These rulings together gave rise to the so-called Super PACs that now dominate political spending, and enable strategic coordination of influence that is more effective than spending alone. In 2020, for example, the ten top Super PACs accounted for 54 percent of outside spending.

What’s critical to recognize is that the real power of this money comes not from its effect in persuading voters. Its power comes instead from the dependence it creates within our political system. Candidates know they need the support of Super PACs, either to make the case for them or to defend them from others who would attack. That dependence produces enormous power in the Super PACs concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of very wealthy individuals (who are presumptively but not necessarily Americans). In a nation of hundreds of millions, a few hundred families now dominate political spending.

Here again, there is no shame. In June 2021, the political action committee (PAC) No Labels had a call with Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, about legislative priorities in the balance of the year. On the call, the founders of the PAC emphasized the power their group had in Washington—not because of their ideas, but because of their money. The ultra-wealthy donors supporting No Labels were able to “hand out $50,000 checks,” its cofounder, Andrew Burskey, bragged. And those checks, he explained, represented the most valuable money in any political campaign. This was “hard” money, money given to candidates directly, which FEC rules allow the candidates to spend themselves. And then to prove just why that money was so valuable, Burskey offered the incredibly revealing picture of just why the economy of influence in Washington gave the ultra-wealthy so much power in Congress. As he explained:

[Most House members] are spending four hours on the telephone, dialing for dollars. And so what [a large contribution from donors] does—aside from sending the very strong message that there are folks who will have your back if you take tough votes that . . . may not be popular within your party—it also in real life frees them to do more work, because it’s spending less time raising those funds.

Burskey is remarking upon the obvious dependence that exists with our current system for campaign finance: the dependence of representatives on fundraising. Because of that dependence, particular kinds of funders—namely, large funders—are especially valuable. Large contributors give members two things at the same time: first, and obviously, money; but second, and even more critically, time. A $50,000 contribution gives members of Congress the chance to breathe, even as it naturally obliges them to [serve] the interests of the person who enabled that chance.


The legislative branch, of course, is not the only minoritarian institution within our republic. Because of the way states allocate Electoral College votes, the executive branch is effectively minoritarian, too. Not just in the most egregious way, when the candidate who wins fewer votes nonetheless becomes the president, but also, and more significantly, in the most regular way: because of the way states allocate their Electoral College votes, it is only a tiny fraction of American voters who actually matter to the ultimate result. All but two states give the winner of the popular vote in their state all of the electors from that state. This means that the only states that are actually contested in any presidential election are the “swing states,” at most a dozen or so of the fifty in the union. Those swing states represent a minority of America—less than 40 percent of the electorate depending on the election. That minority is in turn radically unrepresentative of America itself. The voters in the swing states are older and whiter. Their occupations are more traditional. For example, seven and a half times more people work in solar energy in America than mine coal, yet we never hear anything about solar energy industry workers as an important political bloc in a presidential campaign because those people live in non-swing states like Texas and California. Coal miners live in battleground states, so they become the central focus of the candidates running for president.

It is thus this tiny, unrepresentative minority that effectively selects the occupant of the Oval Office—making the president, as political scientists (such as Douglas Kriner and Andrew Reeves) have shown, especially responsive to this unrepresentative few. Federal spending is higher, all things being equal, in swing states over non-swing states, and regulators are particularly accommodating of swing states’ regulatory concerns. Does America tinker with steel tariffs or ethanol subsidies because either policy makes any sense? No. We live with these policy vagaries because their beneficiaries live in Pennsylvania and Iowa (both swing states).


And so, too, with the courts: if any institution within a representative democracy is supposed to be minoritarian, or at least, counter-majoritarian, courts are. That is true substantively, but it is not supposed to be true politically. Substantively, of course, courts are meant to uphold constitutional rights, regardless of popular majorities. My First Amendment right to speak should not depend upon whether my views are liked by a majority. But the institution of the judiciary is also populated through political action. And to the extent that those actors have power because of a minoritarian corruption of representative democracy, the courts they populate are likewise tainted by minoritarianism.

Consider the Supreme Court: the current bench is divided 6–3, with the majority dominated by extremely conservative justices. That division is in no sense representative of America. Two thirds of the US is certainly not “conservative.” And while the random nature of Supreme Court turnover can sometimes produce such unrepresentativeness, this Court was expressly constructed by Senate leaders who changed the norms of confirmation to effectively steal a Supreme Court seat. In February 2016, then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared, after Justice Scalia’s death, that it was “inappropriate” to confirm a nominee of President Barack Obama’s because it was an election year. But when Justice Ginsburg died just six weeks before an election, McConnell declared that it was perfectly appropriate to rush a nominee through the Senate before the 2020 election. In record time (for a modern appointment), Justice Amy Coney Barrett—certainly among the most conservative of the justices now seated on the Supreme Court—was confirmed by a Republican Senate.


Yet, without doubt, the most extreme institution of minoritarian democracy in America today is the United States Senate. Of course, that flaw was in a sense intended: the only way small states were going to agree to the new Constitution in 1787 was if the Constitution gave them extra power. That compromise enraged James Madison, but he could read the political writing on the wall and eventually became a defender of this counter-majoritarian compromise at the heart of our republic.

Even then, though, the minoritarianism built in to the Senate was muted in the first century after the Constitution’s signing. It was muted first because the differences in states’ populations were much smaller than they are today. The largest state in 1790 (Virginia) was thirteen times more populous than the smallest (Delaware). Today, the largest (California) is sixty-eight times more populous than the smallest (Wyoming). But it was muted second, and more fundamentally, because until this century the Senate did not regularly block the will of the majority of senators. The original Senate rules expressly protected the power of the majority, a simple majority, to vote on any bill whenever it wanted. It was only when Senator John C. Calhoun, the proslavery Democrat of South Carolina, began to muck about with those rules fifty years after the Constitution was ratified that the will of the majority was placed in jeopardy.

We miss this fact because the technique of this blocking has a name that has long been part of Senate lore: the filibuster. And given the tactic’s long pedigree, it is easy to imagine that what we are talking about today is the same as existed in the Senate for most of the institution’s history.

The reality is radically different.

The filibuster that existed for most of the Senate’s history was a device that simply slowed the consideration of legislation. It didn’t kill it. The one exception to that characterization was civil rights legislation: the only examples of laws being blocked by filibuster all the way through 1965 were anti-lynching laws, and laws to improve civil rights. For the rest, the filibuster simply delayed the debating and passage of legislation. And for that delaying tactic to operate, the Senators supporting the filibuster had to do real work: if a Senator was to filibuster a bill, he would have to stand on the floor of the Senate and speak, for many hours without a break. Strom Thurmond, Democrat of South Carolina, held the floor for twenty-four hours to hold up the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. That was not mere showmanship as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s recent eight-hour filibuster was. It was the only way that a filibuster could have any effect.

Today, however, the mechanism of the filibuster is radically different. All a senator must do to assure that a bill is filibustered is make a request to their party leader. That request—which can literally be by e-mail or text—then shifts the bill from being one that will pass if a simple majority supports it to being one that cannot even be debated unless a supermajority of sixty senators supports it.

The effect of the old filibuster was to keep a bill on the floor of the Senate as the filibusterers were debating. That allowed their dissent to be better understood, if not in the Senate, then at least by the public. The effect of the new filibuster is exactly the opposite: its effect is to block any debate until a supermajority allows it. Thus, the For the People Act—a bill that would have reversed much of the state suppression of the vote, ended partisan gerrymandering, and changed fundamentally the way campaigns are funded—has been blocked from debate on the floor of the Senate now twice, even though a majority would vote to allow that debate to occur. This modern filibuster thus doesn’t enable debate or understanding. The modern filibuster is just a gag rule on any legislation a minority does not like.

Even this description, however, masks the real corruption in the system. The norms that limited the filibuster to important issues are gone. Both parties killed those conventions over the past twenty years, the Republicans more aggressively than the Democrats. The filibuster has now become a routine hurdle that any significant legislation must clear. What that means is that we have now introduced a procedural requirement into the passage of legislation that makes the process more institutionally minoritarian than that of any legislature in any comparable representative democracy. Senators from the twenty-one smallest and most conservative states, representing just 21 percent of America, now have the power to block any non-budget legislation.

This filibuster lock alone—setting aside all the gerrymandering in the states, the gerrymandering of Congress, the suppression of the vote in elections, the Electoral College, the corrupting dependence of money—would be enough to categorize America as a “minoritarian democracy.” Like segregationist or sectarian regimes such as South Africa under apartheid, or the Sunni rule of Baathist Iraq, or Syria under the Alawi, the American republic, originally designed to be a majoritarian representative democracy, has become minoritarian. Or more precisely, at every level of the current institutions of our representative democracy, we have rendered those institutions unrepresentative. This fact alone should be enough to lead aspiring democracies around the world to look elsewhere for models for how democracy might be made to work. Our only lesson for these democracies is the consequence of our own failure.


In 1997, after he had surprised the world by winning reelection decisively, Bill Clinton convened a small dinner with the top donors to the Democratic Party at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. What should he do in his second term? What did they think he could achieve? It was a moment of great hope and possibility—nine months before the revelations of a White House intern would deflect the administration from achieving anything of significance.

As the story is told, about thirty of America’s super-wealthy sat around a table. The president asked each in turn to give him their views. One by one, they rose to speak. The last to rise was a businessman, the founder of Stride Rite Shoes, and the second-largest contributor to the Democrats in 1996. As he stood up, few had any sense of what he would say. When he sat down, few could believe he’d actually said what he did say.

“Mr. President,” Arnold Hiatt began, “I know you’re an admirer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So I want you to put yourself in FDR’s shoes in 1940—the year when Roosevelt realized that he was going to have to convince a reluctant nation to wage a war to save democracy. Because that, Mr. President, is precisely what you need to do now—to convince a reluctant nation to wage a war to save democracy.” That would not, of course, be a war against fascists. It would be a fight against fat cats—people like Hiatt, rich people, and people who believed (unlike Hiatt) that just because they are rich, they’re entitled to dinner with the president at the Mayflower. Hiatt was challenging the president to recognize that “current campaign finance practices are threatening this nation in a different, but no less serious way,” he said. . . . There was silence when Hiatt finished. No doubt, some were uncomfortable. . . .

At the time Hiatt spoke, Citizens United was still more than a dozen years in the future. We had not yet seen the pathological gerrymandering of 2010. Few could have imagined the open efforts by partisans in state legislatures to suppress the votes of their political opponents. Not a single Republican in any state legislature was then considering legislation to allow state legislatures to override the popular vote for president. And though the filibuster had been deployed beyond the domain of civil rights by then, it would be nine years before the architect of the modern filibuster, Mitch McConnell, would be elected to lead his party in the United States Senate. And no one—literally, no one—could have imagined an event like January 6 taking place in the United States of America. From our perspective today, Hiatt spoke at a time of relative health in the American democracy. And yet to him, and to many others then—including an eighty-eight-year-old woman who, nine months later, would begin a 3,000-mile walk across the country with the words “campaign finance reform” emblazoned across her chest—the corruption of money was already reason enough to “wage a war to save democracy.”


Today, we confront a Republican Party that has effectively declared war on majoritarian democracy. At every level, the leadership of that party challenges the fundamental idea of majority rule. Rather than adjust their policies to appeal to a true majority of Americans, Republicans have embraced the minoritarian strategy of entrenching what has become, in effect, a partisan, quasi-ethnic group against any possible democratic challenge. They rig the system so the majority cannot rule.

In the face of this threat, what America needs is what Hiatt said FDR had been: a leader who could “convince a reluctant nation to wage a war to save democracy.” Or maybe better, what America needs is a leader like Winston Churchill, who could convince a distracted nation that there is a fundamental threat to our democracy that we must now wage war to save.

Yet we don’t have a Churchill leading this fight. We have a Chamberlain. Rather than name the threat, and rally America against it, President Biden has been keen to negotiate the differences in conciliatory fashion—as if the modern filibuster were not a fundamental threat to democracy and as if the fight against majoritarianism were not a threat either. Biden has been eager to engage in a bizarre nostalgia, recalling a golden age when white men from different parties somehow got along, rather than recognizing that American democracy has never faced a threat like one—even if this is precisely the political reality that Black Americans have known for all of the country’s history.

There was real hope this year for effective action to address this corruption of democracy. Every single major candidate for president in the Democratic Party in 2020 (with the exception of Kamala Harris) had committed to making the For the People Act a top priority in the first hundred days; some had promised even more. Speaker Nancy Pelosi maintained that momentum and passed the act in the House. And after she succeeded in the House, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer committed to getting the Senate to do the same.

Standing in the way, however, was the filibuster.

For most of this year, President Biden defended the filibuster and stood practically silent on this critical reform. He has focused not on the crumbling critical infrastructure of American democracy, but on the benefits of better bridges and faster Internet. Democratic progressives in Congress were little better on this question. Although Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren all supported the For the People Act, in the public eye the issues they’ve championed have overlooked the country’s broken democratic machinery: forgive student debt, raise the minimum wage, give us a Green New Deal…. As a progressive myself, I love all these ideas, but none of them are possible unless we end the corruption that has destroyed this democracy. None of them will happen until we fix democracy first.

It may well be that nothing could have been done this year. It may well be true that nothing Biden could say or do would move Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, the two who are apparently blocking reform just now. Yet we have to frame the stakes accurately and clearly: if we do not confront those imperfections in our democracy, openly and transparently, we will lose this democracy. . . . [i.e. what’s left of it].

We Are at Their Mercy

There are six Republicans on the Supreme Court. Three of them were nominated by a president who encouraged his followers to overturn an election after he’d lost the popular vote for the second time. Two others were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote the first time he ran, but became president anyway because a 5-4 Republican majority on the Court ordered the vote counting in Florida to end. The sixth Republican was elevated to the Court after he lied to Congress about his sexual harassment of Anita Hill.

This week five of those Republicans demonstrated that they can find an excuse in what they call “the law” to do anything they want in service of their reactionary ideology.

From Charles Pierce of Esquire:

My generally unfocused red-eyed rage at what the Supreme Court did late Wednesday night cleared momentarily and I realized that, according to the 5-4 decision allowing the blatantly unconstitutional anti-choice Texas law to stand, a state can pass all kinds of blatantly unconstitutional laws as long as they leave the enforcement of those laws to bounty hunters.

This moment of clarity passed, quickly, and unfocused red-eyed rage reasserted itself. This was completely appropriate when directed at a corrupted Supreme Court majority which did what it wanted to do, legitimate precedents be damned, and through such preposterous playground illogic that William Blackstone should rise from his unquiet grave and smack all five of those hacks upside their watery heads with copies of his Commentaries. 

We all knew that Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett were bag-job nominations for the specific purpose of voting the way they did late Wednesday night, and we all knew that Neil Gorsuch and Sam Alito were just waiting in the weeds with Clarence Thomas.

But, at their moment of ultimate triumph, they at least could have tried a little harder. I mean, look at this mess.

To prevail in an application for a stay or an injunction, an applicant must carry the burden of making a “strong showing” that it is “likely to succeed on the merits,” that it will be “irreparably injured absent a stay,” that the balance of the equities favors it, and that a stay is consistent with the public interest. . . .

The applicants now before us have raised serious questions regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law at issue. But their application also presents complex and novel antecedent procedural questions on which they have not carried their burden. [Note: I quoted a different part of the mess than Mr. Pierce did]

The Supreme Court of the United States is saying two things here: 1) that it really doesn’t understand the law it is being asked to adjudicate, and 2) that the Texas law, which depends upon a transparent scheme to dodge judicial review, is beyond the Supreme Court’s reach because its transparent scheme to dodge judicial review is so cleverly drawn. No wonder the five cowards in the majority issued their order unsigned. I wouldn’t want my name attached to this pile of offal, either.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were not so reticent, and they clearly can see a church by daylight. From Sotomayor:

The Court’s order is stunning. Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand…Because the Court’s failure to act rewards tactics designed to avoid judicial review and inflicts significant harm on the applicants and on women seeking abortions in Texas, I dissent…In effect, the Texas Legislature has deputized the State’s citizens as bounty hunters, offering them cash prizes for civilly prosecuting their neighbors’ medical procedures.

The Legislature fashioned this scheme because federal constitutional challenges to state laws ordinarily are brought against state officers who are in charge of enforcing. By prohibiting state officers from enforcing the Act directly and relying instead on citizen bounty hunters, the Legislature sought to make it more complicated for federal courts to enjoin the Act on a statewide basis.

Today, the Court finally tells the Nation that it declined to act because, in short, the State’s gambit worked. The structure of the State’s scheme, the Court reasons, raises “complex and novel antecedent procedural questions” that counsel against granting the application, just as the State intended. This is untenable. It cannot be the case that a State can evade federal judicial scrutiny by outsourcing the enforcement of unconstitutional laws to its citizenry.

For her part, Kagan expanded her anathemas to include the Court’s continuing abuse of its “shadow docket,” of which this order is the apotheosis.

Today’s ruling illustrates just how far the Court’s “shadow-docket” decisions may depart from the usual principles of appellate process. . . . It has reviewed only the most cursory party submissions, and then only hastily. And it barely bothers to explain its conclusion—that a challenge to an obviously unconstitutional abortion regulation backed by a wholly unprecedented enforcement scheme is unlikely to prevail. In all these ways, the majority’s decision is emblematic of too much of this Court’s shadow-docket decision-making—which every day becomes more unreasoned, inconsistent, and impossible to defend.

(It is notable that [Republican] Chief Justice John Roberts joined the minority in dissent. This further reinforces my belief that the only issues on which Roberts is reliably implacable are restricting the franchise and enhancing the corporate power of the oligarchy. That’s why Citizens United is his defining decision. For Roberts, that was a two-fer.)

Expand the Court. Do it tomorrow. Jesus Christ, a 5-4 majority just ruled that a cheap legal three-card monte game at the heart of a law was too clever for the Constitution to address.

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