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Stop blaming Susan Sarandon. The problem is the Senate.
And the disproportionate power it gives rural white voters.
Thanks for checking out this edition of Public Notice. I’m on a bit of a baby break following the birth of my son Owen, and this is the second of two newsletters this week. I’ll be back Monday with a Q&A with Judd Legum. In the meantime, have a good weekend. Cheers — Aaron
Following the leak of Associate Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion gutting abortion rights, the left engaged in a round of familiar recriminations. Democratic partisans blamed Sanders supporters like Susan Sarandon for not embracing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in 2016. On the other side, progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that Democrats were failing their voters, who had elected them precisely to prevent catastrophes like this one.
The temptation to blame disloyal leftists or feckless Democrats, or both, is hard to resist. But the truth is that the disloyalty and fecklessness are not causes, but symptoms. The core problem for Democrats and for leftists alike is that the US political system gives vastly disproportionate power to white rural voters, who cast ballots overwhelmingly for Republicans.
The GOP has cultivated and expanded this bias until their reactionary politicians and authoritarian theocrats are no longer accountable to voters. The erosion of democracy and the disempowerment of Democrats reverberates through every part of the political system. Anger, frustration, disloyalty, and wavering on the broad left are the inevitable result of a broken democracy.
The growing Republican bias of our political institutions is well-documented. The biggest problem is the Senate.
The US Senate gives hugely disproportionate power to big, empty states like Wyoming over denser urban ones like California and New York. California has 68 times the population of Wyoming, but it has the same number of senators: two. What this means, effectively, according to 538, is that the Senate has between two and three times as much rural representation as urban representation, even though the country is about evenly balanced between urban and rural voters.
Since rural voters are more likely to be white, this means that the Senate vastly over-represents white voters. And since white voters are vastly more Republican than Democratic, that means that the Senate leans hard towards Republicans. 538 finds that the tipping point states in the Senate are Arizona and North Carolina, which are 6.5 points more Republican than the nation as a whole. That means Democrats have to beat Republicans by 6 or 7 points to get a strong Senate result. The filibuster makes things worse; Republicans can block Democratic initiatives by winning a tiny minority of voters.
Since senators confirm judges, the Republican stranglehold on the Senate also gives Republicans a stranglehold on voting rights legislation. The Supreme Court (also confirmed by the Senate) has ruled that extreme partisan gerrymandering is legal, allowing Republicans with narrow majorities in purple states like Wisconsin to create permanent and often veto-proof Republican majorities. The court has also gutted the Voting Rights Act, paving the way for innovative new poll taxes targeting Black voters in Florida and slashing voting hours and accessibility for Black voters in Georgia.
The Electoral College also has a rural white electoral bias, which is why Trump won it in 2016 while losing the popular vote (something his most recent Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, also did before his first term). And the House of Representatives has a Republican bias, thanks to gerrymandering and to the fact that Democratic clustering in urban areas make it easier to rig districts for Republicans than Democrats. Put it all together, and you have a country in which white conservatives can be consistently outvoted, and still impose their unpopular racist, sexist, theocratic policies on everyone else.
Democrats have lost the national popular vote for president precisely once in the last 34 years. But Republicans remain competitive and in fact have managed to appoint a supermajority of the Supreme Court. What happens to a party that consistently wins elections by the simple standard of “who got the most votes” and consistently loses seats and policy watersheds?
It's an easy question to answer because we see it happening year in and year out. Those voters most committed to policy change — often those on the left — become deeply frustrated and alienated. They start to see voting as pointless, since it doesn’t seem to lead to change. They attack those in their own party for failing to enact the policies they’ve promised.
Meanwhile, partisans who focus on electoral victories become desperate to attract the voters whose votes actually are able to swing elections. They are nervous about taking even popular positions which alienate white rural voters, since those voters have so much more sway. Even the most progressive members of the party focus on a center which isn’t really a center, trying to court voters who hate them since those voters wield such disproportionate power.
The left really is disloyal to the Democratic Party in many ways. But that’s not because the left is particularly foolish or iniquitous by nature. It’s because our electoral system is set up so that loyalty to the Democratic Party yields leftists few benefits.
Similarly, centrist Democrats are feckless on policy — what else do you say about a party that rallies around forced-birth advocate Henry Cuellar days after Alito’s Roe-gutting opinion leaks? But, again, they’re not feckless because they’re naturally hateful and confused. They’re feckless because they’ve learned over and over that embracing the popular positions supported by their base will lose them elections, and that they’re better off temporizing and waffling and hoping that some Republicans somewhere decide to cast their vastly more valuable votes for them.
There’s no easy solution here. Our democracy is badly broken and it’s not clear that it can be fixed in the near term, or at all. Still, recognizing that the problems are structural rather than personal can be helpful in a couple of ways.
First, understanding the structural problems should encourage everyone to focus on structures. Shaming people for not voting or for voting is largely useless when personal moral failings aren’t at issue. In contrast, enfranchising Washington DC would materially alter the balance of the Senate, which would make progressive policy easier to pass. If voting for Democrats leads to more progressive policies leftists will become more loyal and Democrats will become less feckless. That’s a goal everyone can get behind.
Second, recognizing that we’re all miserable for the same reasons is a step towards solidarity. And solidarity is important, because without it we’re even worse off. If leftists don’t vote, Republicans gain even more power. If Democrats waffle and refuse to pass progressive policy, Republicans can tighten their authoritarian grasp without opposition.
Structural weakness metastasizes. When you lack power to change things, you tend to give up — on voting, on your goals — and that leads you to have even less power. It’s a vicious circle. There’s no easy way to break it. But understanding the structures which trap us, and focusing on ways to change them, is the only hope we’ve got.