Pawtucket Times

The midterms have busted the myth of ‘minority rule’

- Jason Willick

The 2022 midterms dealt a political blow to Republican­s who claimed the previous election was rigged. But they also struck a blow against a subtler self-serving theory underminin­g faith in democracy from the left – that the electoral system itself suffers from a crisis-level “structural” bias against Democrats.

It’s hard to overstate the influence this idea has exerted on intellectu­als over the past decade. Historian Kenneth Owen wrote in the Atlantic in 2020 that “minority rule is fast becoming the defining feature of the American republic.” In a 2021 law review article, the scholar Pamela S. Karlan (a former Biden Justice Department official) argued that gerrymande­ring in the House and equal representa­tion of states in the Senate are contributi­ng to a “countermaj­oritarian drift in our politics.”

She wrote: “The way our nation is constitute­d may be interactin­g with the way our Constituti­on was written to produce one of those periods of retrenchme­nt in which we move once again towards government by minority” – that is, a Republican minority in rural states and regions.

This dire view of democracy propelled failed Democratic efforts to eliminate the Senate filibuster and radically rewrite U.S. voting laws. Even before the Trump era, the idea that Republican congresses were not truly representa­tive of the American people after the 2010 redistrict­ing cycle helped justify the aggressive use of executive power in President Barack Obama’s second term.

But the 2022 midterm results expose the growing gap between progressiv­e theory and political reality. Start with the results in the House of Representa­tives, where there’s no evidence of an entrenched GOP majority.

The Cook Political Report tracks overall votes won by each party for the House. With more than 107 million votes counted but some still outstandin­g, Republican candidates are ahead 50.7 to 47.8 percent. That nearly three percentage point margin tracks the GOP lead in the pre-election RealClearP­olitics polling average. Yet Republican­s still fell short of expectatio­ns in the House: Instead of a commanding majority, they are on track to control 222 seats to Democrats’ 213.

The “structural advantage” that was supposed to amplify the representa­tion of Republican voters failed to materializ­e. By one measure, the structure of House elections worked in Democrats’ favor. According to Cook’s data, the median House seat was Iowa’s 3rd District, where the Republican won by just 0.7 points. That means the district that decided control of the House was somewhat more Democratic than the country at large.

The House popular vote is an imperfect gauge of a party’s overall support because some districts are unconteste­d, but it’s still telling. After the elections of 2012, 2014 and 2016, the GOP held comfortabl­e House majorities in excess of its popular-vote share. That was the result of efficient GOP redistrict­ing after its 2010 electoral landslide and Democrats’ reliance on voters concentrat­ed near cities.

The pattern changed with the Democratic wave in 2018. The past three congressio­nal elections have seen a rough alignment between the parties’ national vote and their proportion of House seats. Instead of a “countermaj­oritarian drift,” American politics might be witnessing a majoritari­an drift.

Of course, Congress aims to represent something deeper than a national popular vote. The United States inherited its system of electoral districts from the British Parliament, which evolved to spread political power across geographic regions. The Democratic coalition accomplish­ed that fairly well in 2022, blunting GOP gains.

That brings us to the Senate, the less-majoritari­an of Congress’s two houses. Prophecies of inexorable Democratic doom in the upper chamber because of states’ ostensibly increasing GOP lean went unfulfille­d as Democrats, despite the challengin­g midterm environmen­t, picked up a seat in Pennsylvan­ia and might even expand their majority if they win Georgia’s runoff election.

Modern American politics defies “scientific” models of partisansh­ip, as state-specific patterns and candidates shape outcomes as much as presidenti­al approval. Progressiv­e wonks have mustered all manner of data purporting to show the geographic unfairness of the Senate, yet far from entrenchin­g “minority rule,” the body continues to reflect the United States’ close political divisions. With partisan control of the House flipping at a historical­ly fast pace, the Senate’s stabilizin­g function is more pronounced.

In the 118th Congress, Democrats are likely to be grateful for this. The Democratic Senate will kill much of the Republican House’s legislatio­n. The argument that the Senate’s equal representa­tion of small and large states is a grotesque distortion of democracy will become an awkward fit with progressiv­e priorities. As a result, the delegitimi­zation of “countermaj­oritarian” American institutio­ns that arose in the past decade is likely to be submerged over the next two years.

Attacks on the legitimacy of the U.S. electoral system tend to come from the most disreputab­le and ill-informed voices in conservati­sm – and from the most highly esteemed and knowledgea­ble authoritie­s in liberalism. They will continue. But for now, voters’ 2022 verdict should highlight the suppleness and integrity of American political institutio­ns, and the advantages of playing by their rules instead of underminin­g their foundation­s.

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