The Thinker

The tyranny of the minority

I’ve written so much about our gun problem in the nearly fifteen years my blog has been around that I pretty much have said it all. In a sense this week’s rampage that killed 59 people at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas was fated to happen.

Sensible people wonder why we can’t seem to do anything about it, given that sensible gun control legislation is supported by a majority of Americans. It’s easy to say it’s because the NRA owns enough legislators to keep it from happening. In reality it’s a symptom of a much larger and possibly intractable problem: the tyranny of the minority.

It’s so big a problem that it is hard to see. I confess I did not fully understand its dimensions until I read this op-ed in the Washington Post by E.J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann. While the op-ed talks about gun control, its implications are staggering. It explains why according to a recent poll only 25% of the country says we are on the right track. In this country the tail wags the dog.

The tail in this case is rural states. Remember that in the Senate all states are equal. So Montana with roughly one million people in it has the same clout in the Senate as California, which has 39 million people. Ending the Senate’s filibuster rule would likely make the tyranny of the minority even worse. As the author’s point out:

Ending the filibuster would not solve the problem; in some cases, it might aggravate it. As The Post’s Philip Bump has noted, if all 50 senators from the 25 smallest states voted for a bill and Vice President Pence cast his lot with them, senators representing just 16 percent of Americans could overrule those representing 84 percent.

We have a federalist system. In theory each state within our union is an independent nation. Each state has voluntarily ceded some of its sovereignty to the federal government. The Senate is the institution that recognizes this sovereignty by making each state equal within the body. In short, the Senate has a rural bias. In the beginning the difference did not mean too much. But as new states emerged the implications became clear. For example, at one time there was to be a state called Dakota. The people living there realized though that they could double their impact by applying for recognition as two states: North Dakota and South Dakota even though the two states are very homogenous.

The depressing part is that there is almost nothing we can do to change the Senate. It would take a constitutional convention. It’s hard to see why rural states would voluntarily relinquish more of their power to make the system more “fair” so a majority could actually govern. It takes two-thirds of states to call for a constitutional convention (34 states). Twenty-eight states have already called for such a convention. Since most states represent rural populations, a constitutional convention would likely rewrite the constitution to give rural states even more power, furthering the tyranny of the minority.

Gerrymandering is the other aspect of the tyranny of the minority. Gerrymandering though is a bit different. It empowers pluralities rather than minorities within a state. For example, Texas is a conservative state in general. By creating highly partisan voting districts, Texas has created districts where a plurality of conservatives in the district are more conservative than normal, and minority districts are more liberal than normal.

Those most affected by gerrymandering are not necessarily minorities, although onerous voter ID laws certainly depress minority participation in elections. As I pointed out before, moderates are the biggest losers in gerrymandered states.

The impact of gerrymandering is easy to see in Congress but also in state legislatures. It is feeding partisanship in these chambers because there are so few moderates to form a sensible center, making compromise increasingly unlikely. This more than anything else probably explains why only 25% of the country says we are on the right track. Essentially we’ve “elected” legislators that vote against the interests of a majority of their citizens. Curiously, it is this frustration at not being heard that fed the rise of Donald Trump. Citizens seem to want someone to change the status quo and shake things up. Trump is certainly making waves, but he cannot change these fundamental mistakes in our system of government.

And that’s what they amount to: mistakes. If the decks were not already stacked against the majority, the Electoral College makes it worse, leading to presidents who lose the popular vote by three million votes (Trump).

The irony of all this is that those calling for a constitutional convention amount to rural states that want more power. They already have the nation by its scrotum. They don’t have complete control. The president is generally elected by a majority of its citizens, but recent elections in 2000 and 2016 suggest an emerging trend of presidents losing the popular vote but still winning the election.

Some states like Texas sound like they want to secede from the Union. In reality rural and southern states have it good. Overall they consume more federal revenue than they contribute, a product of many decades of these states having disproportionate power in Congress. Secession would actually be a huge problem for them, as they would have to live within their own means. Right now red states are sucking blue states for their wealth and prosperity.

If states are going to secede, logically it should be blue states with large populations and thriving economies, states like California and New York. A couple red and purple states also meet these criteria. Texas has a large population and is thriving. Florida and Virginia also likely apply. More minor states like New Jersey, Ohio and Minnesota would also meet these criteria. I do have to wonder how long supposedly sovereign states like California will put up with this system where they are handicapped and bled dry, with much of their wealth going to other less prosperous states.

Imagine if states like California and New York when on strike, refusing to pay federal taxes until the system is fairer to the majority. Maybe something would change, but most likely it would cause massive national disharmony. And that’s the real problem here: our constitutional framework largely keeps the majority from wielding its clout. That’s why 59 people died and over were 500 injured in Las Vegas by a crazed shooter on the 38th floor of a hotel and nothing will change: because the minority has the nation by the scrotum.

You have to look hard for signs of hope. The Supreme Court is considering a case of partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin. In the past the court has been hands-off. Is the gerrymandering in Wisconsin so egregious that they will take action? If they do (and it’s unlikely) it will be around the edges of the problem. If political gerrymandering can be ruled unconstitutional then there is hope that at least in the House and in state assemblies will generally represent their constituents again.

What the op-ed suggested to me is that as bad as our dysfunctional government is at the moment, it’s likely to get a lot worse. The tensions are there for a lot more Las Vegas-like shootings. It’s hard to see but the fabric of our democracy is shredding. Moreover there are few ways we can come together and solve the problem because there are so few people willing to admit there is even a problem, or that it’s in the interest of the minority to cede some of its power to the majority.

If civil war is in our future, it might well come from blue states. They, not red states, are the ones getting shafted.


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