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2020 exposed the sickness at the heart of the US system

We fetishize exceptionalism unwisely: America desperately needs electoral and governance reform, because a system where one voter here is worth 70 voters there just not right, and it also isn't working

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From Rux Centea via Unsplah
From Rux Centea via Unsplah

Now that Joe Biden’s victory has been confirmed by the Electoral College, we can soberly assess a remarkable year in America. One reasonable conclusion is that the US political system is so warped, harms life so much and impedes progress so badly that systemic reform is desperately needed.

The problem with that is that many consider the issue to be moot because of the near-impossibly high bar that blocks changes to the all-powerful Constitution, and they would have a point.

Yet things cannot continue indefinitely as they are; there will be increasing unhappiness and disaffection, revolts of various type and magnitude, conceivably secessions, and possibly even worse.

So reform is essential to save the union, but reform is nearly impossible because of the ossified rules governing the Union. We confront this Catch-22 as we welcome a return of a facts-based discourse after four years of President Trump. To start things off, let’s contemplate the disturbing year 2020 AD.

The US under Trump could not construct a rational response to the Covid pandemic (and so has suffered almost a fifth of known fatalities in the world); that relates to the fact that tens of millions have no guaranteed healthcare, and a system that overrepresents conservatives (as we shall see) makes this and many other outrages (like the inability to enact gun control) extremely difficult to repair. Next, evidence of deadly police violence sparked nationwide riots and a nonsensical movement to “defund” the police. Then the Republican-held Senate hypocritically-yet-shamelessly filled a Supreme Court seat minutes before the election (after refusing to consider President Obama’s candidate in 2016 supposedly because it was an election year).

Last but far from least, the president tried to steal the election he lost by deploying, with significant Republican support, transparent fabrications about voter fraud. Yet even without fraud, the US presidential election produced perhaps the clearest illustration of systemic dysfunction by again yielding a result that seems statistically improbable yet upon examination reveals itself as highly predictable. Here’s how it played out:

IT WAS NOT EVEN CLOSE …

Biden won the Electoral College by 306 to 232 electoral votes. That’s the same margin as Trump’s in 2016. But whereas Trump lost the popular vote by about 3 million votes Biden won by 7 million: 81.3 million votes to 74.3 million. That’s a 4.5% margin in which the winner won 10% more votes than the loser. Trump would call it a landslide if he were the victor, and it would be an unusually defensible assertion from that quarter.

… BUT IT ALSO CAME DOWN TO LUCK …

Biden’s margin in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia added up to under 44,000 voters, or 0.03% of the national vote. Flipping these three states would have resulted in a 269–269 Electoral College tie which under existing rules would have thrown the election to the House of Representatives. You might think this means a Biden victory because the Democrats control the House. But the oddball rules give each state — not including DC — a single vote. A 25–25 tie is possible, meaning the Republican-controlled Senate have made Mike Pence (not Trump) acting president. Flipping a similar number of votes in Pennsylvania would have given Trump outright victory despite losing by 7 million overall. This puts another perspective on the election fraud circus — because under existing rules — ridiculous though they may be — Biden was elevated by a very small number of votes.

… BECAUSE THE AMERICAN SYSTEM IS NUTS.

The system overrepresents small states by giving them the same number of Senate seats as huge states, and guaranteeing them three Electoral College votes even when by population proportion they’d receive less than one. This means, as one example, that a voter in Wyoming is worth about 70 in California for both the Electoral College and the Senate. And while a few small states are Blue, like Rhode Island, overall this favors rural, conservative areas. This explains why the Republican Party has stampeded away from William Buckley-style patrician intellectuals toward populists and bible thumpers. In the Senate, about a third of the American population, from small and smallish red states can almost automatically elect comfortable majorities. Since the Senate controls key federal appointments including to the judiciary, this entrenched minority rule can be used to appoint a quasi-theocratic Supreme Court.

SO TRUMP WAS RIGHT ALL ALONG!

The system actually is rigged. But it is rigged against the somewhat rational and surprisingly liberal American majority. Biden squeaked through, but the warped set-up means America’s institutions can be expected to reliably violate the will of American majorities that want healthcare guarantees and gun control and do not want to ban abortiongive the rich tax cuts in the developed world’s least egalitarian country, or deny global warming. It makes America the most distorted, un-representative and unstable of the world’s real democracies.

It’s unstable because the situation makes people insane and is already spawning talk of secessions in states on both sides, like California and Texas. Secession may not be imminent, but it’s also not impossible, because it’s the only major upheaval not explicitly addressed by the Constitution. If things get much worse — if the next populist science-denier loses by 20 million votes yet wins the White House with a compliant Senate — all bets are off.

WHAT TO DO THEN?

What is desperately needed — if one wants practical and fair-minded outcomes — is a drastic curtailing of the powers of the Senate. Purists will argue that everything is as it should be because the US is akin to a confederation of countries, and even small ones should have equal power, just as in the European Union where on important issues each member has a veto. One could counter by noting that the European Union is not working; that Americans generally are Americans first; and that the 18th century framers were imperfect, none of them foreseeing the current huge variance in sizes of states.

It won’t happen soon, though. Constitution amendments require supermajorities at a variety of junctures, mainly in winning two-thirds support in both houses of Congress and then ratification by three-quarters of state legislatures (or of conventions in the states). At this point you couldn’t get that kind of support in America for two plus two is four.

If the Democrats win both Georgia runoffs on Jan. 5 they will control the Senate and small fixes may be possible, like adding Supreme Court justices or turning left-leaning Puerto Rico and other US territories into states, moves that (amazingly) only require simple Congressional majorities. But they probably will not have the courage, and the problem of principle would remain.

It would also help if every single person of decency could be counted on to vote. The participation level in 2020, while being the highest in many decades at 66%, is still rather low by international standards in real democracies.

And as occurs elsewhere it is the youth, who lean left, who vote in lowest numbers, partly because they’re losing faith in the system. It’s unwise and self-defeating but not uncommon: young people’s listlessness is why Britain’s nostalgists were able to bounce the country out of the European Union.

A more systemic may be the emergence of a new, centrist political party. I wager the great center of the American public — unhappy with both the berserkness of Trumpistan and the hyper-progressive left, with its safe spaces and cancel culture — might actually support in surprising numbers. If things get any crazier one might actually emerge before the sun burns up our planet. It could happen if the progressives go rogue and break away, enabling rational Republicans to join the remaining centrist Democrats.

But then again it might not. The skeptics may be right. A breakup of the union is not impossible, considered that the coasts feel much more in common with Europe than with the red American heartland.

Fixing things would take courage and energies and risks, and the Constitution is a conservative document in its essence. It certainly contains no guarantee that America can be repaired, and in fact it’s getting in the way.

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