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Stacked Deck

The Founders Feared a Tyranny of the Majority, but What We Have Is a Tyranny of a Fanatical Minority

The fact that Congress may not respond to another devastating school shooting is down to the GOP’s ability to skillfully avert the will of the people.

Senator Mitch McConnell stands with Senate Republican leadership behind a lectern, addressing reporters.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Although gun safety measures are popular with wide majorities of Americans, nothing can pass without the assent of Mitch McConnell and GOP leaders in the Senate.

Are the Senate’s negotiations over a gun safety bill stalled? It depends on who you read. Over the weekend, as reports came in, things were looking grim. But here at the start of a new week, Punchbowl News (subscription required) is reporting that they’re back on track after almost getting derailed. Naturally, this new story is made possible by congressional staffers stepping up to spin an optimistic scenario to a newsletter that they know was headed toward a lot of important people’s inboxes around seven o’clock on Monday morning, so why would they say otherwise?

As weak as the components of the forthcoming legislation seem to be, I’d still love to see a deal emerge from these talks. For one thing, it would be a real blow to the National Rifle Association and the larger gun lobby. Also, the mere fact of passing an actual law would help the party of government and hurt the party of nihilism. Still, I’m a skeptic. We’ve seen this before. After a mass shooting, something that seems like momentum for a deal emerges. The press gets all excited. The NRA says nothing and bides its time, undoubtedly reaching out behind the scenes to the senators it knows it owns lock, stock, and barrel, so to speak. The deal unravels. The minority wins.

It is a characteristic of American democracy, which renders our country not a democracy at all, that the minority seems to win more frequently than the majority these days:

  • Two Republicans this century have become president even though they lost the popular vote. The first of these two won with the help of (a) an “impartial” Florida state elections official who was a major supporter of his, (b) a riot at a Miami-Dade elections office that disrupted a recount, and (c) a bare Supreme Court majority issuing a dubious ruling in his favor. The second of these two lost the popular vote by 2.8 million.
  • Then there’s the Senate, of course, where minorities now block everything. It’s worth remembering that the various elements of Build Back Better Act polled anywhere from very well to through the roof: paid family leave, 73 percent; universal pre-K, 67 percent; free community college, 61 percent; and so on. But a dug-in minority, most of them going against the will of their constituents on these matters—along with one Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, whose feelings were hurt by a White House statement—made their passage impossible. Popular things can’t pass the Senate unless the Democrats enjoy a once-in-a-generation tsunami election.
  • With respect to the Supreme Court, while a majority of justices is about to overturn Roe, as well as probably hand down a couple other controversial decisions, that court majority represents a clear and smallish minority. Courts shouldn’t be strict instruments of popular will, of course; but they certainly should take realities like 49 years’ worth of precedent and 70-plus percent popular support for abortion rights in most cases before they go defenestrating rights.
  • In many states, and indeed in the House of Representatives, Republicans win majorities of seats without winning majorities of the votes because of clever gerrymandering. In recent years, Democratic candidates in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina standing for state legislative seats and/or for the House of Representatives have won more votes, but Republicans won more seats—and in some cases moved immediately to pass elements of a very right-wing, and usually unpopular to the extent anyone knows anything about it, agenda.

And this is the key point—if you will, the small-d democratic point. It’s not merely that Republicans game the system. It’s that they game it to prevent popular outcomes. And another word for popular outcomes is democratic outcomes. In all three branches of our government today, the right is directly opposing the will of the people: on abortion rights, gun common sense, elements of a broader social safety net, and more, for instance voting rights and sensible efforts to acknowledge and fight climate change. That’s a lot of important stuff that they are denying to the American people that clear majorities of those people say in every poll they support.

And yet, in the upcoming elections, these people are going to be rewarded with majorities. I understand that the inflation crisis is going to drive voters in that direction. I just spent a couple days in Lake Tahoe, where I paid $7.19 a gallon to fill my rental car’s tank. As Warren Zevon sang, they work all day and still can’t pay the price of gasoline and meat.

Even without inflation, however, Republicans were destined to take back the House. I understand that the 26-or-so seat swing is normal in an incumbent president’s second year in office. But that average dates to a time when both parties were normal. In the 1950s or the 1970s or even into the early 1990s, if the Senate changed hands, well, it became somewhat more conservative when the Republicans took charge. It didn’t become authoritarian.

Today, one of our parties is no longer normal. It is against democracy, regularly thwarting the will of the people on matters that would make big positive differences in their lives. Why more people can’t see that is in part a failure of Democratic messaging, but it also reflects two other factors.

One is that most people apparently don’t pay attention to evidence until it affects them directly and personally. Maybe, if the court kills Roe and the Senate fails to make a gun deal even after the deaths of those beautiful children, people will start connecting some dots in their minds.

The second is that certain notions are hardwired into Americans’ brains from a certain age. We are trained as children to think that our democracy is stable and the envy of the world; that our political parties both play by certain democratic rules; and that we live by the principle of majority rule, even though we increasingly don’t. It’s awfully hard for most people to unlearn something they learned when they were 9. Republicans know all this, and they pay cynical lip service to these three notions even as, in their actions, they work to crush them.

It’s bad enough that so many people can’t see this. Worse still are the ones who see it and approve.