Democrats went into midterms hoping for a clear-cut repudiation of Donald Trump and all he stands for, but what they’ve wound up with instead is a muddle. They captured the House, but gained less than half as many seats as Republicans did in 2010. They lost ground in the Senate, showed distinct weakness in the crucial battleground states of Florida and Ohio, and were no more than spottily successful outside of the affluent suburbs. New Deal progressives are increasingly a party of Brahmin liberals cut off from the “deplorable” masses below.
Trump thus emerged from the ordeal bloodied but unbowed. To be sure, one-party rule is kaput, which means that he can say goodbye to his more extreme legislative proposals. But it’s unclear how much Trump really wanted to build that wall along the Mexican border in the first place as opposed to using it as a slogan to pump up anti-Latino racism and xenophobia. He’ll still have a free hand in foreign policy and in environmental and business de-regulation and will be able to use his enhanced majority in the Senate to intensify the GOP’s march of destruction through the judiciary. Once Ruth Ginzburg steps down, now all but certain thanks to her failing health, he’ll be able to cap it off by nominating yet another Federalist Society pick for the Supreme Court. The legal structure as a whole will lurch even farther to the right, forcing Democrats to wage a battle that is ever more uphill.
Not a pretty picture, is it? All this occurs amid a political structure that is growing increasingly undemocratic and illiberal. State population projections issued by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service indicate that US population as a whole will grow some 17.6 percent by the year 2040 and that the demographic gap between individual states will continue to widen. Where the ratio between the most and least populous state, i.e. California and Wyoming, now stands at 68 to one, it will reach a whopping 79 to one over the same period. Where a majority of Americans now live in ten states, better than 52 percent will live in just nine, i.e. California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina, and Ohio. Where California currently has more people than the 21 smallest states combined, in a little over two decades it will have more than 22.
The implications are ominous. Where the Senate now allows the minority to outvote the majority by four to one, by 2040 it will allow it to do so by an even greater margin – 4.55 to one to be exact. Where today a Senate majority can be gleaned from states representing just 18.7% of the population, by 2040 it will be obtainable from states representing just 17.4. Given the disproportionate clout enjoyed by white rural states such as Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, the upper chamber can only grow more racist, rightwing, and anti-urban, which means that the judiciary will as well. Since rightwing judges are rarely troubled by gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the like, we can expect such trends to proceed apace, rendering the House more unrepresentative as well. The same goes for the Electoral College. Currently, Wyoming residents have 3.72 times more clout in presidential elections that Californians. But by 2040, the smallest state – by this point Vermont – will have roughly 4.25 times as much. Stolen elections à la 2000 and 2016 will grow more likely rather than less.
Inequities like these were no big deal at the time the US Constitution was created. The Republic of Geneva limited voting to just 1,500 male residents, the Dutch Republic was ruled by a governing council in which seven provinces were equally represented despite immense population differences, while the Venetian Republic was a baroque masterpiece consisting of a citizen assembly, a grand council, a minor council, a “council of ten,” a senate, a doge, and a cabinet-like collegio. All supposedly served as checks and balances on one another, although the arrangement didn’t stop a few hundred nobles from effectively running the show. The US Constitution represented a significant improvement in its day. But it has since served as a kind of historical conveyor belt for the transport of eighteenth-century political values to the twenty-first
And now it’s all going into reverse as the imbalances mount. The Polyannas at Jacobin Magazine may think that that “things are slowly – but surely – moving our way,” but in fact they’re doing the opposite. The result is not only “a growing crisis of legitimacy for the US political system,” to quote Paul Krugman in the Times, but one that is effectively unfixable for the simple reason that the founders neglected to include a toolkit that is up to the job. To be sure, Article V establishes a mechanism for changing the Constitution. But by requiring amendments to be approved by two-thirds of each house plus three-fourths of the states, it allows thirteen states representing as little as 4.4 percent of the population to veto any reform sought by the remainder. A structural overhaul is thus out of the question even though common sense tells us that it is long overdue. Indeed, by 2040 when the same number falls to just 4.2 percent according to the UVA projections, it will be even more impossible. Instead of a more perfect union, Americans will be saddled with one that’s more corrupt, more undemocratic, and more dysfunctional. Rather than “secur[ing] the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” the constitutional machinery will destroy them.
Conceivably, Democrats could respond by telling Americans the plain unvarnished truth about what needs to be done. But for a thousand and one reasons they won’t. As creatures of the constitutional system, they’re no more capable of altering its essential parameters than a guppy is capable of changing the fishbowl he lives in. Rather than challenging the larger system, they’ll now doubt accept it as a fait accompli and internalize its increasingly rightwing logic. In fact, this is what they’ve already done with their reactionary a campaign against Moscow. Their only answer to the bad xenophobia of Trump, apparently, is a “good” xenophobia that targets Russia instead of brown people from the south. This is what the two-party system amounts to in the age of Trumpism, i.e. a neck-and-neck race to authoritarinism. Not good, as the Orange One would say.