Democrats better off playing by the rules than denouncing them
When you lose a game, particularly a game you had good reason to expect you’d win, do you try to figure out how to play better? Or is your first reaction to demand changes in the rules?
In the case of the Democratic Party, it’s the latter. Perhaps that comes naturally to a party that takes some pride in having advocated changes in rules that everyone today sees as unfair (even those they enacted themselves, like racial segregation laws). But sometimes it’s wiser to change the way you play than to denounce long-established rules.
The Democrats argue that they’ve been winning more votes but don’t control the federal government. They’ve won a plurality of the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections but elected presidents in only four of them. That darn Electoral College — “land,” as one liberal commentator puts it — gave the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016.
Of course, the Al Gore and Hillary Clinton campaigns knew that the winner is determined by electoral votes, not popular votes. But that hasn’t stopped many Democrats from calling for a change in the rules to election by popular vote.
Or from complaining about the composition of the Senate. A majority of senators, writes ace election analyst David Wasserman, represents only 18 percent of the nation’s population. That’s because under the Constitution, each state elects two senators, and a majority of Americans today lives in just nine states.
It’s suggested that the framers didn’t expect population to be so heavily concentrated in a few states. Actually, it was similarly concentrated in big states 50, 100, 150 and 200 years ago. And when the framers met in 1787, small states demanded equal Senate representation for fear that big states would dominate.
Moreover, small states today aren’t uniformly Republican. Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Delaware and Hawaii currently send two Democrats to the Senate, and Maine, North Dakota and Montana each send one. The 12 smallest states are represented by 13 Democratic senators and 11 Republicans.
Moreover, Article V of the Constitution provides that “No State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of equal Suffrage in the Senate.” Changing that would require a new constitutional convention. That’s not going to happen.
Democrats are also complaining loudly that, as The Economist puts it, “In the past three elections, Republicans’ share of House seats has been 4-5 percentage points greater than their share of the two-party vote.”
This is not earth-shaking stuff. Winning parties typically get a higher share of seats than votes in every system, and three elections isn’t a whole lot. Republicans enjoyed an advantage in redistricting after the last two Census cycles, but Democrats did in the 1970s and 1980s.
That advantage turned out to be reversible, and the Republicans’ looks to be as well. Democrats are favored to gain governorships and state legislature majorities, and some states are setting up supposedly nonpartisan (in practice, always liberal-leaning) redistricting commissions.
Other reforms are being considered. Maine is tinkering with ranked-choice voting, which supposedly encourages the emergence of a moderate candidate. Of course, a proliferation of parties hasn’t always produced functional government, even in nations as full of creative and talented people as Italy and Israel, and many reforms have unintended effects.
It’s true that the Electoral College works against a party whose voters are geographically and demographically clustered. For the framers, that was a feature, not a bug. They feared domination by a concentrated bloc of voters with no broad support across the country.
A party that wants to win more elections might take note of that, rather than plead for impossible constitutional changes and fiddle with fixes that might produce unanticipated negative consequences.
Once upon a time, Bill Clinton showed Democrats how. He won the presidency, from which his party had been shut out for 16 of 20 years, by adapting its platform to appeal to additional voters. In 1996, he won 174 electoral votes in states his wife lost 20 years later.
Clinton carried California twice by the solid margin of 13 points. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried it by 30, but by taking stands that antagonized “deplorables” in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Currently, Democrats — furiously intent on impeaching Donald Trump, enchanted with youthful socialists, in thrall to identity politics — are spurning Bill Clinton’s course and doubling down on Hillary’s. Maybe they’d do better by learning to play by the rules rather than railing against them.