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If America stopped being a democracy . . .
Would anyone notice?
Americans have long prided themselves on having the world’s oldest democracy. Whether this is true depends on how democracy is defined. America’s current constitution is older than that of any other republic, according to the World Economic Forum. But constitutions alone don’t make democracies.
America’s constitution certainly didn’t. And even after the Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments guaranteed birthright citizenship and extended the vote beyond white males, America still falls short of what anyone designing a democracy today would insist on, beginning with majority rule on most matters of policy and law. The Senate and the electoral college were designed in the 1780s to frustrate majority rule, and they continue to do so.
Defenders of the American system sometimes distinguish between a republic and a democracy. And they point out that the American system was intended to be the former and not the latter. Historically, this is true. Many of the framers of the American constitution were deeply suspicious of mob rule, as they characterized popular voting.
But the creation of the Senate had less to do with fear of the people by the elites than with fear of the big states by the small states. Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States was a—you guessed it—confederation, a grouping of sovereign states. In the Confederation Congress, each state had one vote. Big Virginia had no more clout than little Delaware. And the Delawareans liked it that way.
Virginia didn’t. So James Madison (of Virginia) and Alexander Hamilton (of New York, another big state) organized a constitutional convention to change things. Madison’s plan was replace the confederation with a unified system of government, and to junk the equality of states in Congress in favor of a scheme that gave more votes to larger states.
He got half of what he wanted. In the House of Representatives, the big states received more votes than the small states, but in the Senate, the equality of states remained. And because legislation had to pass both houses, a comparatively few people in the small states could prevent a much larger number of people in the large states from passing the laws they wanted. Madison considered the Senate a defeat, but he was savvy enough not to say so in public amid the debate for ratification.
The electoral college was a similar compromise. The president of the Confederation was chosen by Congress. Madison wanted an independently elected president, and wanted the larger number of voters in the large states to have more say in the election than the smaller number of voters in the small states. Again he got half, with the number of electors awarded each state being the total of that state’s representatives and senators. Thus Delaware was overrepresented in the electoral college, but not by as much as in the Senate.
The undemocratic character of both the Senate and the electoral college could be justified in terms of eighteenth century sensibilities, when property restrictions and residency requirements limited voting even among white males. But it grew harder to defend as America in the nineteenth century embraced the idea of democracy—that ordinary people should exercise political power themselves and not simply defer to their betters.
Yet these vestiges of pre-democratic values persisted, not least because they prevented changes the democrats desired. The approval of three-quarters of the states is required to ratify a constitutional amendment, which means that fewer than 15 million people out of a population of 330 million can keep things the way are.
No one has ever seriously attempted to abolish the Senate or change its model of representation. And although grumblings against the electoral college have been heard for many decades, so far it remains intact. A workaround, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, is crawling toward a try at implementation, but its constitutionality is highly suspect—as well it should be, given that its avowed purpose is to defy the intent of the framers of the Constitution.
Present-day worries about voting restrictions and especially the accurate counting of votes are fully justified by the shenanigans of Republican state legislatures in thrall to Donald Trump. Should such measures prevent a fair and open presidential election in 2024 or after, American democracy would indeed experience a grievous blow.
Yet we shouldn’t forget that even when our system works exactly as intended, it is fundamentally undemocratic in crucial ways. This might be acceptable if we lived in the eighteenth century, but we don’t.
Call America great if you are so inclined. Call America a republic and you shouldn’t get an argument. But don’t call it a democracy if you care about the meaning of words.