I Guess It’s a Little Thing, But This Other Thing Is Big

The U.S. has two major political parties. One is older than the other. Which one?

You might think it’s the Republican Party. It’s not. The Democratic Party was founded in 1828, when Andrew Jackson was running for president. It’s the oldest active political party in the world. Jackson was the first Democratic president, which is why the party is occasionally called the “Party of Jackson” (even though Jackson might not be a Democrat today).

The Republican Party wasn’t founded until 1854. The party’s main thrust was opposition to slavery. It’s sometimes called the “Party of Lincoln” because Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president — even though Lincoln was a liberal or progressive for his day, not a conservative or reactionary (the Republicans began to move right around 1912 and never looked back).

It bugs me that news people frequently refer to the Republican Party as the GOP. Many Americans don’t know what “GOP” refers to or stands for. It’s “Grand Old Party”, even though the Democratic Party is older. In fact, the GOP acronym was first used to refer to the Democratic Party. After the Democrats dropped it, the Republicans picked it up.

So the Republican Party isn’t old compared to the Democratic Party; news people don’t have a friendly little acronym for the Democrats; and worst of all, when the GOP does something especially bad — like opposing voting rights in Congress and across the country — a significant number of people don’t even realize it’s the Republicans at work. That’s why I try to avoid using “GOP”.

That was the small thing. Here’s the big thing, as chronicled by Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post. Her article appears on the paper’s digital front page as “Dear Media: Stop Giving the GOP the Benefit of the Doubt”: 

The Republican Party has a reliable — albeit inadvertent — ally in the mainstream media. The latter remain all too anxious to make the authoritarian and often blatantly racist party seem “normal.”

When Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race in Virginia, the media gobbled up the GOP talking point that he had cracked the code for the post-T___ era. See how clever he was to keep his distance from former president D____ T____? The coverage rarely scrutinized his positions, such as his potentially disastrous proposed tax cuts or his aversion to mask mandates, a critical part of Virginia’s school reopening.

The story line was set: Democrats blew it by closing schools; Youngkin was “smart” to pose as a normal Republican. As The New York Times cooed: “Many conservatives see his campaign as providing a template for how to delicately embrace T____ism in blue states.”

Delicately? Youngkin was always serious about the MAGA camp’s culture wars, as he made abundantly clear on day one of his governorship.

Shortly after his inauguration, Youngkin promptly banned critical race theory from Virginia curriculums, even though it isn’t taught in schools, thereby flaunting his willingness to cater to White grievance in a state infamous for its resistance to desegregation. He described what would be removed from school curriculum: “All of the principles of critical race theory, the fundamental building blocks of actually accusing one group of being oppressors and another of being oppressed, of actually burdening children today for sins of the past.”

Listening to Youngkin, one might never know that slavery and Jim Crow are woven into the Commonwealth’s history and are relevant to ongoing racial disparities in wealth, education, health and homeownership. His airbrushed version of history is the standard MAGA effort to cater to White supremacists and wreak havoc in the schools. If only the media had taken him seriously during the campaign.

And just as Democrats predicted, Youngkin swiftly imported Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s war on mask requirements, preventing schools from issuing such mandates. Several school boards promptly decried his edict and said they’d go on protecting teachers and students. It seems Youngkin duped voters and the media who wanted to believe there was a normal alternative to MAGA Republicanism.

The media’s predilection for portraying Republicans as tactically brilliant is indicative of their preference for treating politics as a game. They denude their coverage of any qualitative judgment that would inform voters that the party’s “cleverness” is lying, plain and simple.

This refusal by the media to render judgment on the GOP’s cult leaders has gone on for more than six years. Despite replete evidence of T____’s inability [note: refusal] to distinguish truth from fiction, his self-image of grandiosity and his fixation on conspiracy theories, the mainstream media failed to characterize T____’s conduct as abnormal.

Take his bizarre rally in Arizona on Saturday, where he rambled incoherently, insisting, for example, “The left is now rationing lifesaving therapeutics based on race, discriminating against and denigrating . . . White people to determine who lives and who dies. If you’re White, you don’t get the vaccine, or if you’re White, you don’t get therapeutics.” This is a loony lie. . . . 

No reasonable person could hear this and not conclude he is unhinged. And he has been sounding like this for years. Yet the media largely covered the rally as run-of-the-mill politics. One New York Times headline: “T____ Rally Underscores G.O.P. Tension Over How to Win in 2022.” Meanwhile, Politico intoned: “Spread out in a sea of red MAGA hats and T-shirts emblazoned with ‘T____ won,’ the former president’s fans roared in support as he aired complaints about the election and made swipes at the Biden administration.”

Is that what he was doing? “Airing complaints”? Or was he making positively ludicrous claims, like the guy on the street corner hollering about the end of the world? Anodyne descriptions that slot T____’s antics into “politics as usual” mislead news consumers. To make matters worse, interviewers avoid asking Republicans how they can pledge loyalty to someone so bonkers.

Certainly, the media should avoid rendering a psychiatric evaluation . . . but they routinely refuse to convey the abnormality on display before them. This is “the emperor has no clothes” on steroids.

Unflinching, brutally honest coverage would describe T____’s behavior accurately, including his syntax and preposterous lies. It would concede this conduct would be disqualifying for any business executive or even a small-town mayor. The media are compelled to level with voters: The two parties are not equivalent, in part because one treats its crackpot leader like a messiah. . . . 

The 2024 Election Could Make History (Dismal History)

Unless all 50 Senate Democrats agree to protect voting rights this year, our next president might be someone who got fewer votes and didn’t even win the Electoral College. Here’s a brief preview from a profile of Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) in The New Republic:

These next three years will test our democracy in ways it hasn’t been tested since the 1860s, or maybe ever. The scenario is pretty straightforward. The Republicans retake the House in the midterms. Immediately, any chance of Biden passing meaningful legislation is dead, but that’s the least of it. The GOP will launch hearing after hearing, issue subpoena after subpoena; they will find some flimsy rationale on which to impeach Biden, and they will stretch it out as long as possible. T____ will run—as Raskin put it, “for psychological, political, and financial reasons”—and he will be the GOP nominee, Raskin has little doubt. Assuming Biden seeks reelection, the election will probably be close, because elections just are these days.

If Biden wins by a matter of several thousand votes in a few states, as he did in 2020, the T____ machinery will kick into gear to steal the election. Republican election commissioners and state legislators and even some governors will put forward pro-T____ electors. The House of Representatives will not vote to certify Biden’s win in January 2025, which will toss the election to the House, which will make T____ president. (When a presidential election gets thrown to the House, under the Twelfth Amendment, the vote is by state delegation, so North Dakota has the same voting power as California; Republicans now control, and will likely in 2025 still control, a majority of state delegations, and Liz Cheney will probably be gone, meaning that Wyoming will go pro-T____.) For the second time in the history of the United States, the other time being 1824, Congress will have installed as the president a candidate who did not win a plurality of votes in either the Electoral College or the popular vote.

“D____ T____ [and Republican officials have] now converted every formerly ministerial step of the process into a moment for partisan rumble and contest,” Raskin told me. “So when we’re talking about the certification of the state popular vote, the governors’ certification of the electors, the electors meeting, and then the January 6th joint session receipt of the electors … all these phases of the process have now been turned into yet another opportunity for partisan combat.” There is no question in Raskin’s mind that this is what T____ and his supporters will try to do.

The [House] select committee on January 6 ties in directly here. Aside from trying to get to the bottom of who did what before and on the infamous date, Raskin wants the committee to try to take steps to safeguard democracy from attack by T____ or any future T____ wannabe. “Our select committee, I believe, should do whatever it can to reform the Electoral Count Act, to make it conform as much as possible to the popular will,” he said, referring to the 1887 act that spells out—confusingly, ambiguously, contradictorily—the presidential election certification process.

That obviously won’t be possible if Republicans retake the House. In the majority, the GOP will likely do all it can to subvert democracy and preemptively make people distrust the electoral process. 

A Canadian Sees Us as the Weimar Republic Before the Deluge

A Canadian observer, Thomas Homer-Dixon, says his country faces a major threat from its troubled neighbor:

By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence. By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship.

We mustn’t dismiss these possibilities just because they seem ludicrous or too horrible to imagine. In 2014, the suggestion that D____ T____ would become president would also have struck nearly everyone as absurd. But today we live in a world where the absurd regularly becomes real and the horrible commonplace.

Leading American academics are now actively addressing the prospect of a fatal weakening of U.S. democracy.

This past November, more than 150 professors of politics, government, political economy and international relations appealed to Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which would protect the integrity of US elections but is now stalled in the Senate. This is a moment of “great peril and risk,” they wrote. “Time is ticking away, and midnight is approaching.”

I’m a scholar of violent conflict. For more than 40 years, I’ve studied and published on the causes of war, social breakdown, revolution, ethnic violence and genocide, and for nearly two decades I led a centre on peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto.

Today, as I watch the unfolding crisis in the United States, I see a political and social landscape flashing with warning signals.

I’m not surprised by what’s happening there – not at all. During my graduate work in the United States in the 1980s, I sometimes listened to Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio talk show host and later television personality. I remarked to friends at the time that, with each broadcast, it was if Mr. Limbaugh were wedging the sharp end of a chisel into a faint crack in the moral authority of U.S. political institutions, and then slamming the other end of that chisel with a hammer.

In the decades since, week after week, year after year, Mr. Limbaugh and his fellow travelers have hammered away – their blows’ power lately amplified through social media and outlets such as Fox News and Newsmax. The cracks have steadily widened, ramified, connected and propagated deeply into America’s once-esteemed institutions, profoundly compromising their structural integrity. The country is becoming increasingly ungovernable . . . 

According to Harvard’s renowned sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol, in the early 2000s fringe elements of the Republican party used disciplined tactics and enormous streams of money (from billionaires like the Koch brothers) to turn extreme laissez-faire ideology into orthodox Republican dogma. Then, in 2008, Barack Obama’s election as president increased anxieties about immigration and cultural change among older . . .  members of the white middle-class, who then coalesced into the populist Tea Party movement. . . .  The GOP became, Dr. Skocpol writes, a radicalized “marriage of convenience between anti-government free-market plutocrats and racially anxious ethno-nationalist activists and voters.”

Now, adopting Mr. Limbaugh’s tried-and-true methods, demagogues on the right are pushing the radicalization process further than ever before. By weaponizing people’s fear and anger, Mr. T____ and a host of acolytes and wannabees . . .  transformed [the Republican Party] into a near-fascist personality cult that’s a perfect instrument for wrecking democracy.

And it’s not inaccurate to use the F word. As conservative commentator David Frum argues, T____ism increasingly resembles European fascism in its contempt for the rule of law and glorification of violence. Evidence is as close as the latest right-wing Twitter meme: widely circulated holiday photos show Republican politicians and their family members, including young children, sitting in front of their Christmas trees, all smiling gleefully while cradling pistols, shotguns and assault rifles. . . .

In the weeks before the November, 2016, U.S. election, I talked to several experts to gauge the danger of a T____ presidency. I recently consulted them again. While in 2016 they were alarmed, this last month most were utterly dismayed. All told me the U.S. political situation has deteriorated sharply since last year’s attack on Capitol Hill.

After four years of Mr. T____’s bedlam, the U.S. under Mr. Biden has been comparatively calm. Politics in the U.S. seems to have stabilized.

But absolutely nothing has stabilized in America. The country’s problems are systemic and deeply entrenched – and events could soon spiral out of control.

The experts I consulted described a range of possible outcomes if Mr. T____ returns to power, none benign. They cited particular countries and political regimes to illustrate where he might take the U.S.: Viktor Orban’s Hungary, with its coercive legal apparatus of “illiberal democracy”; Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, with its chronic social distemper and administrative dysfunction; or Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with its harsh one-man hyper-nationalist autocracy. . . . 

But there’s another political regime, a historical one, that may portend an even more dire future for the U.S.: the Weimar Republic. The situation in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s was of course sui generis; in particular, the country had experienced staggering traumas – defeat in war, internal revolution and hyperinflation – while the country’s commitment to liberal democracy was weakly rooted in its culture. But as I read a history of the doomed republic this past summer, I tallied no fewer than five unnerving parallels with the current U.S. situation.

First, in both cases, a charismatic leader was able to unify right-wing extremists around a political program to seize the state. Second, a bald falsehood about how enemies inside the polity had betrayed the country – for the Nazis, the “stab in the back,” and for T____ists, the Big Lie – was a vital psychological tool for radicalizing and mobilizing followers. Third, conventional conservatives believed they could control and channel the charismatic leader and rising extremism but were ultimately routed by the forces they helped unleash. Fourth, ideological opponents of this rising extremism squabbled among themselves; they didn’t take the threat seriously enough, even though it was growing in plain sight; and they focused on marginal issues that were too often red meat for the extremists. (Today, think toppling statues.)

To my mind, though, the fifth parallel is the most disconcerting: the propagation of a “hardline security doctrine” . . . Jonathan Leader Maynard argues that extremist right-wing ideologies generally don’t arise from explicit efforts to forge an authoritarian society, but from the radicalization of a society’s existing understandings of how it can stay safe and secure in the face of alleged threats.

Hardline conceptions of security are “radicalized versions of familiar claims about threat, self-defence, punishment, war, and duty,” he writes. They are the foundation on which regimes organize campaigns of violent persecution and terror. People he calls “hardliners” believe the world contains many “dangerous enemies that frequently operate in and through purported ‘civilian’ groups.” Hardliners increasingly dominate T____ist circles now. . . .  Fear of “true believers” shifts the behaviour of the movement’s moderates toward extremism. Sure enough, experts I recently consulted all spoke about how fear of crossing Mr. T____’s base – including fear for their families’ physical safety – was forcing otherwise sensible Republicans to fall into line. . . . 

Beyond a certain threshold, other new research shows, political extremism feeds on itself, pushing polarization toward an irreversible tipping point. This suggests a sixth potential parallel with Weimar: democratic collapse followed by the consolidation of dictatorship. Mr. T____ may be just a warm-up act – someone ideal to bring about the first stage, but not the second. Returning to office, he’ll be the wrecking ball that demolishes democracy, but the process will produce a political and social shambles. . . . Then the stage will be set for a more managerially competent ruler, after Mr. T____, to bring order to the chaos he’s created.

A terrible storm is coming from the south, and Canada is woefully unprepared. Over the past year we’ve turned our attention inward, distracted by the challenges of COVID-19, reconciliation, and the accelerating effects of climate change. But now we must focus on the urgent problem of what to do about the likely unravelling of democracy in the United States.

We need to start by fully recognizing the magnitude of the danger. If Mr. T____ is re-elected, even under the more-optimistic scenarios the economic and political risks to our country will be innumerable. Driven by aggressive, reactive nationalism, Mr. ____ “could isolate Canada continentally,” as one of my interlocutors put it euphemistically.

Under the less-optimistic scenarios, the risks to our country in their cumulative effect could easily be existential, far greater than any in our federation’s history. What happens, for instance, if high-profile political refugees fleeing persecution arrive in our country, and the U.S. regime demands them back. Do we comply?

. . . Canada is not powerless in the face of these forces, at least not yet. . . .  The Prime Minister should immediately convene a standing, non-partisan Parliamentary committee with representatives from the five sitting parties, all with full security clearances. . . .  It should receive regular intelligence analyses and briefings by Canadian experts on political and social developments in the United States and their implications for democratic failure there. And it should be charged with providing the federal government with continuing, specific guidance as to how to prepare for and respond to that failure, should it occur. . . . 

The Attack Continues

A New York Times editorial entitled “Every Day Is Jan. 6 Now”:

One year after from the smoke and broken glass, the mock gallows and the very real bloodshed of that awful day, it is tempting to look back and imagine that we can, in fact, simply look back. To imagine that what happened on Jan. 6, 2021 — a deadly riot at the seat of American government, incited by a defeated president amid a last-ditch effort to thwart the transfer of power to his successor — was horrifying but that it is in the past and that we as a nation have moved on.

This is an understandable impulse. After four years of chaos, cruelty and incompetence, culminating in a pandemic and the once-unthinkable trauma of Jan. 6, most Americans were desperate for some peace and quiet.

On the surface, we have achieved that. Our political life seems more or less normal these days, as the president pardons turkeys and Congress quarrels over spending bills. But peel back a layer, and things are far from normal. Jan. 6 is not in the past; it is every day.

It is regular citizens who threaten election officials and other public servants, who ask, “When can we use the guns?” and who vow to murder politicians who dare to vote their conscience. It is Republican lawmakers scrambling to make it harder for people to vote and easier to subvert their will if they do. It is D____ T____ who continues to stoke the flames of conflict with his rampant lies and limitless resentments and whose twisted version of reality still dominates one of the nation’s two major political parties.

In short, the Republic faces an existential threat from a movement that is openly contemptuous of democracy and has shown that it is willing to use violence to achieve its ends. No self-governing society can survive such a threat by denying that it exists. Rather, survival depends on looking back and forward at the same time.

Truly grappling with the threat ahead means taking full account of the terror of that day a year ago. Thanks largely to the dogged work of a bipartisan committee in the House of Representatives, this reckoning is underway. We know now that the violence and mayhem broadcast live around the world was only the most visible and visceral part of the effort to overturn the election. The effort extended all the way into the Oval Office, where Mr. T____ and his allies plotted a constitutional self-coup.

We know now that top Republican lawmakers and right-wing media figures privately understood how dangerous the riot was and pleaded with T____ to call a halt to it, even as they publicly pretended otherwise. We know now that those who may have critical information about the planning and execution of the attack are refusing to cooperate with Congress, even if it means being charged with criminal contempt.

For now, the committee’s work continues. It has scheduled a series of public hearings in the new year to lay out these and other details, and it plans to release a full report of its findings before the midterm elections — after which, should Republicans regain control of the House as expected, the committee will undoubtedly be dissolved.

This is where looking forward comes in. Over the past year, Republican lawmakers in 41 states have been trying to advance the goals of the Jan. 6 rioters — not by breaking laws but by making them. Hundreds of bills have been proposed and nearly three dozen laws have been passed that empower state legislatures to sabotage their own elections and overturn the will of their voters, according to a running tally by a nonpartisan consortium of pro-democracy organizations.

Some bills would change the rules to make it easier for lawmakers to reject the votes of their citizens if they don’t like the outcome. Others replace professional election officials with partisan actors who have a vested interest in seeing their preferred candidate win. Yet more attempt to criminalize human errors by election officials, in some cases even threatening prison.

Many of these laws are being proposed and passed in crucial battleground states like Arizona, Wisconsin, Georgia and Pennsylvania. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, the T____ campaign targeted voting results in all these states, suing for recounts or intimidating officials into finding “missing” votes. The effort failed, thanks primarily to the professionalism and integrity of election officials. Many of those officials have since been stripped of their power or pushed out of office and replaced by people who openly say the last election was fraudulent.

Thus the Capitol riot continues in statehouses across the country, in a bloodless, legalized form that no police officer can arrest and that no prosecutor can try in court.

This isn’t the first time state legislatures have tried to wrest control of electoral votes from their own people, nor is it the first time that the dangers of such a ploy have been pointed out. In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison warned Congress of the risk that such a “trick” could determine the outcome of a presidential election.

The Constitution guarantees to all Americans a republican form of government, Harrison said. “The essential features of such a government are the right of the people to choose their own officers” and to have their votes counted equally in making that choice. “Our chief national danger,” he continued, is “the overthrow of majority control by the suppression or perversion of popular suffrage.” If a state legislature were to succeed in substituting its own will for that of its voters, “it is not too much to say that the public peace might be seriously and widely endangered.”

A healthy, functioning political party faces its electoral losses by assessing what went wrong and redoubling its efforts to appeal to more voters the next time. The Republican Party, like authoritarian movements the world over, has shown itself recently to be incapable of doing this. Party leaders’ rhetoric suggests they see it as the only legitimate governing power and thus portrays anyone else’s victory as the result of fraud — hence the foundational falsehood that spurred the Jan. 6 attack, that Joe Biden didn’t win the election.

“The thing that’s most concerning is that it has endured in the face of all evidence,” said Representative Adam Kinzinger, one of the vanishingly few Republicans in Congress who remain committed to empirical reality and representative democracy. “And I’ve gotten to wonder if there is actually any evidence that would ever change certain people’s minds.”

The answer, for now, appears to be no. Polling finds that the overwhelming majority of Republicans believe that President Biden was not legitimately elected and that about one-third approve of using violence to achieve political goals. Put those two numbers together, and you have a recipe for extreme danger.

Political violence is not an inevitable outcome. Republican leaders could help by being honest with their voters and combating the extremists in their midst. Throughout American history, party leaders . . . have stood up for the union and democracy first, to their everlasting credit.

Democrats aren’t helpless, either. They hold unified power in Washington, for the last time in what may be a long time. Yet they have so far failed to confront the urgency of this moment — unwilling or unable to take action to protect elections from subversion and sabotage. Blame Senator Joe Manchin or Senator Kyrsten Sinema, but the only thing that matters in the end is whether you get it done. For that reason, Mr. Biden and other leading Democrats should make use of what remaining power they have to end the filibuster for voting rights legislation, even if nothing else.

Whatever happens in Washington, in the months and years to come, Americans of all stripes who value their self-government must mobilize at every level — not simply once every four years but today and tomorrow and the next day — to win elections and help protect the basic functions of democracy. If people who believe in conspiracy theories can win, so can those who live in the reality-based world.

Above all, we should stop underestimating the threat facing the country. Countless times over the past six years, up to and including the events of Jan. 6, T____ and his allies openly projected their intent to do something outrageous or illegal or destructive. Every time, the common response was that they weren’t serious or that they would never succeed. How many times will we have to be proved wrong before we take it seriously? The sooner we do, the sooner we might hope to salvage a democracy that is in grave danger.

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].