Checks and Balance

Feb 26, 2021
In The News

Your ideal [democratic] system would empower the majority party or parties, because that’s sort of the point of democracy, but not so much that the minority gets trampled on. You would try to remove power over how elections are run from the people competing in those elections, because otherwise they will game the system in their favour. You would also set some clear rules about corruption. America’s democracy ignores some of these principles. The federal government does not always empower the majority: thanks to the system of electing a body of electors, who then choose the president (a wheeze no other democracy has copied), a president can win power despite winning fewer votes than his opponent. In the Senate, too, the requirement to get 60 votes to avoid a filibuster empowers the minority to block legislation. No other democracy does that either. A second feature of America’s system that prevents it from attaining that desirable shade of navy is that politicians are handed a lot of power over rules governing the elections that they themselves compete in. This is most obviously the case in gerrymandering, which is when state politicians from the majority party get to redraw district boundaries to make elections less competitive. A new round of that begins this year as the new census data comes in. America’s system hands politicians power to tweak laws over things like voting by mail, ID requirements and polling booths and early voting to try to tilt elections in their favour. Since the November presidential election, lawmakers in Republican states have introduced a barrage of such measures. The political science lit suggests the effects of these changes to election rules are marginal, but the people who actually compete in elections clearly do not see things that way. The combination of these two things—empowering the minority and allowing politicians to rewrite election rules to make it easier for them to win—means that in America a party does not necessarily need to be competitive, in the sense of regularly winning more than half of the votes cast, to exercise power. That in turn helps to explain one of the most head-spinning features of politics at the moment. Usually when a party loses an election it really ought to have won, that party changes. Under Donald Trump’s leadership, the Republican party lost a trifecta (House, Senate, White House) faster than any party has for more than 100 years. The party lost both Senate seats in Georgia, the political equivalent of tossing a pancake and getting it stuck on the ceiling. And yet the Republican Party remains a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trump Organisation, as this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference is about to show. This is happening because the feedback loop that ought to result in the Republican Party changing direction after a big defeat is broken. Many things have made that rupture possible, not least the tear to the fabric of reality that allowed such a large number of voters to believe that Mr. Trump actually won the election. Some of those things are really hard to fix. Yet others could in fact be ameliorated with a dose of political reform. To be clear, this is not the main reason for interest in H.R. 1, the bill proposed by House Democrats that would end gerrymandering and the gaming of election laws to make it harder to vote. Those things are worth doing anyway: they might even result in our colleagues at the EIU splashing the navy blue about. But a Republican Party that is more responsive to voters, rather than to the base of hardcore Trump supporters who now control primary elections, would be good for the Republicans—and for democracy too.