You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Conservatives’ Disingenuous Attacks on Democratic Reforms

What are they afraid of? A truly representative democracy.

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

If their presidential candidates are any indication, Democrats may finally be getting serious about structural reforms to American democracy. Some proposals, such as packing the court with additional liberal judges, are premature and unpersuasive, as I argued last week. But others are common sense, such as statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico. The Electoral College is indefensible under any conceivable metric: Five Americans have won the popular vote for president in my lifetime; only three of them actually held the office. It should be eliminated—as should the filibuster, which, thanks to the Senate’s warped geography, gives sparsely populated states an undeserved veto over the nation’s legislative agenda.

Now conservatives are crying foul over these plans, even after two years of public debate over Trump’s war on American democracy. “Yet for all Trump’s sins, it is the Democrats who are now threatening to abuse power on a much grander scale than anything Trump has tried or even threatened,” The Washington Examiner warned in an editorial. “No sooner has the Democratic party lost control of an institution that it had assumed it would retain in perpetuity than that institution has been denounced as retrograde and unfair,” National Review’s editors opined. Commentary’s Noah Rothman framed it as civic apostasy: “Democrats are now openly pursuing policies that the Constitution implicitly or expressly forbids.”

Many of these critics seem to understand that the current system can’t be defended on its own merits. So they’re portraying reform efforts as a would-be putsch instead. Mitch McConnell, the nihilistic Republican senator from Kentucky, pushed this narrative in January while condemning H.R. 1, the Democrats’ election-reform package. “They’re trying to clothe this power grab with cliches about ‘restoring democracy’ and doing it ‘For the People,’ but their proposal is simply a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “It should be called the Democrat Politician Protection Act.”

Is it fair to paint these proposals as a norm-shattering power grab? Yes, and no. The Obama era showed how a small conservative minority can thwart popular liberal policies, while the Trump era has demonstrated how that same minority can exploit the nation’s political system to defy the public will. Democrats’ only choices are to fix the system or break it further. So far, they’ve largely chosen the former over the latter.

And McConnell is a major reason why Democrats are resorting to such measures. As the Republican leader in the Senate, he spent the last decade using every parliamentary tool to obstruct Barack Obama’s agenda, then turned the chamber into a conveyor belt for confirming right-wing judges. Newt Gingrich pulled off a similar feat in the 1980s and 1990s in the House, transforming the people’s chamber from a functional legislative body into a crass partisan arena. Small wonder that Democrats are also warming up to a maximalist approach to wielding power in Washington.

Things are even worse in the states. Republicans rode an anti-Obama wave to victory in the 2010 midterms, then went on a gerrymandering spree that gave them a nearly insurmountable advantage in statehouses and the House of Representatives. (The Democratic wave in last fall’s midterms should have resulted in much worse losses for Republicans, the Associated Press reported on Thursday.) Once in power, GOP lawmakers clamped down on elections across the country by enacting restrictive voter-ID laws, closing polling places, and cutting early-voting days. The right-wing turn towards illiberal democracy may be known as Trumpism today, but its origins long predate the president’s rise to power.

How far does this contempt for popular rule go? When voters in North Carolina and Wisconsin elected Democratic governors in recent years, Republican legislators passed laws to strip the offices of their powers. (A federal judge in Wisconsin ruled against those efforts on Thursday.) Voters in Idaho, Maine, Utah, and other states approved ballot initiatives last fall on progressive issues ranging from Medicaid expansion to marijuana legalization; instead of respecting the electorate’s wishes, some GOP lawmakers in those states immediately worked to reverse the measures over the last few months. These laboratories of oligarchy are a far cry from the democratic norms that Americans expect in their political system.

This context is also essential to understanding why Democrats and the American left are placing so much emphasis on structural reforms. No major component of the party’s policy agenda, including the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, can survive without it. One can’t begrudge conservatives for their ideological qualms about left-of-center policies on healthcare and climate change. But it’s audacious to use every unfair mechanism at their disposal to hamstring Democratic policies and priorities for more than a decade, then get mad when Democrats try to dismantle those mechanisms.

None of the defenses of these mechanism are very persuasive. The Wall Street Journal argues that the Electoral College, which Elizabeth Warren recently said she wants to eliminate, “helps check polarization by forcing presidential candidates to campaign in competitive states across the country, instead of spending all their time trying to motivate turnout in populous partisan strongholds.” Does polarization feel very checked right now? If anything, the Electoral College seems to have the opposite effect, since nearly every state uses a winner-take-all system for allocating electoral votes that flattens their internal differences.

Indeed, that flattening is taken by National Review as a reflection of each state’s true nature. The Electoral College, the magazine wrote, “guarantees that candidates who seek the only nationally elected office in America must attempt to appeal to as broad a geographic constituency as possible—large states and small, populous and rural—rather than retreating to their preferred pockets and running up the score.” But the Electoral College stifles the country’s diversity instead of nourishing it. The average Floridian’s vote is currently far more influential than that of a Republican in D.C. or a Democrat in Utah. Without the Electoral College, they would all matter equally.

Defenders also raise the bizarre specter of a systemic breakdown without the Electoral College. “The freak occurrence that was Bush v. Gore is often raised as an objection against the status quo,” National Review argued. “Less attention is paid to the obvious question: What if that recount had been national?” So does the Journal: “The uncertainty arising from a nationwide recount for President amid myriad regional irregularities—as happened in North Carolina and Florida in 2018—would make Florida 2000 look tame.” It’s unclear why a nationwide recount would happen if something went awry, since states and counties would presumably still run the actual voting process.

The most common defense of the Electoral College is also its greatest weakness: that it sometimes elects a president who didn’t receive the most votes. “Like the Supreme Court, the Electoral College sometimes frustrates the will of political majorities,” the Journal reminds us. “That makes it an easy target in this populist age. But while ‘majority rules’ has always been an appealing slogan, it’s an insufficient principle for structuring an electoral system in the U.S.” This is a baffling comparison. Yes, the Supreme Court is supposed to stand slightly apart from Americans’ fleeting whims. That’s the purpose of an independent judiciary. But elections, by definition, are supposed to reflect the people’s whims, to give them force and verve and corporeality, to translate the potential into the real. At its best, the Electoral College doesn’t stop the popular vote from doing that, and at its worse, it actively prevents that. Too much majoritarianism can be a bad thing, of course. But not enough of it can be far worse.

It’s a little rich for conservatives to denounce abolishing the filibuster or the Electoral College as a bridge too far when Republicans have championed their own set of structural reforms. The party’s 2016 platform calls for constitutional amendments that would impose term limits on federal lawmakers, require Congress to pass a balanced budget, allow states to ban same-sex marriages, and require new federal regulations to be approved by a majority of both houses of Congress—a mini-revolution for American governance, if it became reality. Over the last decade, almost three dozen Republican-led state legislatures have even quietly passed motions to call for a “convention of the states” to propose amendments without Congress’ approval. That’s a far more dramatic step than any Democratic proposal currently up for discussion.

So why reform the system now? Most of the Democrats’ proposals have been floating around for years. The country came closest to scrapping the Electoral College in the 1970s when Congress almost passed a constitutional amendment to end it. But there’s heightened urgency. Trump’s presidency has been extraordinarily good at exposing flaws and weaknesses in American democracy. And his effect on the public debate won’t end when he leaves office because the even greater threat of climate change looms over the horizon. Democrats can no longer afford to spend the next decade trying to convince Republicans to support even the most meager plans to decarbonize the American economy.

National Review’s David French correctly attributes some of this reformist energy to Twitter, where activists on both sides have a disproportionate ability to shape the public debate. “The people who care the most about anything—from politics to sports to pop culture—set the tone,” he wrote. “And in American politics, the people who care the most tend not to be moderate, either in temperament or ideology. By the time progressive Twitter has done its work on the Democratic field, the American people may no longer have the ability to choose true American norms in 2020.”

But, as he admits, presidential primaries are always boundary-testing moments. Conservatives know this all too well: The Republicans’ current standard-bearer won the 2016 primaries by calling for a wall along the nation’s southern border, demanding mass deportations across the country, and proposing a Muslim ban. Now all three positions are GOP orthodoxy. Is scrapping the Electoral College or the filibuster truly more extreme than any of those demands?

And with the unfortunate exception of court-packing, these proposals aren’t about revenge for the Trump era or furthering the vicious cycle of partisan warfare. If anything, they’re about breaking the cycle. Each of the other proposals will enhance popular representation in American democracy. So if Democrats benefit from eliminating the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and the filibuster, and enacting meaningful campaign-finance reform, it will only be because their proposals tend to be more in line with the American public as a whole.

This may be why some conservatives are so worried about this debate. They aren’t actually afraid of an unfair system where a Chairman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will impose communism on America. They’re afraid of a fair system where voters will have an opportunity to decisively reject their views.