Last week, President Biden gave a wide-ranging interview to John Harwood of ProPublica that touched on his presidency, the Republican Party and the present state and future status of American democracy.
Early in the interview, Harwood asks Biden whether he thinks the threat to democracy is broader than the refusal of Donald Trump and his allies to accept election defeats:
In his answer, Biden more or less confirms that yes, when he speaks of the threat to democracy, he specifically means the threat coming from the MAGA wing of the Republican Party. For Biden, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are the “underpinnings of democracy.” The issue, for him, is that MAGA Republicans would try to overturn elections and “prevent the people’s voice” from being expressed, not to mention heard.
Later, toward the end of the interview, Biden takes care to emphasize the extent to which he separates MAGA Republicans from the rest of the public. “I really do believe the vast majority of the American people are decent, honorable, straightforward,” the president says. The MAGA radicals, he adds, are “a minority of the minority.” Biden goes on to argue that this majority of decent Americans “needs to understand what the danger is if they don’t participate.”
This last point is interesting. If the most radicalized and anti-democratic segment of the public is also a small and unrepresentative minority, then there’s no real reason to worry about their influence on electoral politics. Yes, they may elect a few similarly radical members of Congress — who, at this moment, are giving the Republican speaker of the House a terrible headache — and they may even be strong enough again to choose a major party nominee. But if these voters are a distinct minority, that nominee will be easily defeated at the ballot box. That is, unless the institutions of our democracy amplify that minority’s influence — which they do.
Biden might reject Harwood’s suggestion that the institutions of the American political system constitute a threat to American democracy as dire as the threat posed by Trump, but the only way to square the circle of a radical minority with democracy-destroying potential is to acknowledge the way our institutions work to empower the people who hope to overturn constitutional government altogether.
One response is to say that this dynamic represents a distortion of our political institutions: It’s just that they’re not working properly! But that’s not right, is it?
Whatever they were, the radical impulses that animated or shaped the most prominent and influential of the American revolutionaries were refracted through an inherited commitment to the received hierarchies of status that shaped their world. What’s more, the framers of the Constitution were pushed toward a mistrust and wariness of popular government as a result of the riots, rebellions and other forms of mass discontent that characterized American politics under the Articles of Confederation.
For as much as we have changed and transformed our political institutions — to make them far more inclusive and responsive than they were at their inception — it is also clear that they retain the stamp of their heritage.
Our counter-majoritarian institutions, for example, continue to place an incredibly higher barrier to efforts to reduce concentrations of wealth and promote greater economic equality. There is a real chance, for example, that the Supreme Court will deem a wealth tax constitutionally impermissible in its next term. And the United States Senate is a graveyard of attempts to expand federal aid and social insurance, the most recent of which was a child allowance that, while it was in effect, slashed child poverty by nearly half in 2021.
But more immediate to Biden’s concerns about democracy is the fact, as I have discussed before, that the Trump crisis may never have materialized if not for specific institutions, like the Electoral College, that gave Trump the White House despite his defeat at the hands of most voters. And even with the Electoral College, Trump might not have won if our Supreme Court had not, in Shelby County v. Holder, invalidated the most aggressive and effective rule for the federal protection of voting rights since Reconstruction.
Trump aside, various efforts to invalidate elections and create durable systems of minority rule in the states are possible only because of a constitutional structure that gives a considerable amount of power and sovereignty to sub-national units of political authority.
Naturally, a U.S. president cannot publicly say that the system he presides over has serious flaws that undermine its integrity. But it does. And there is a good chance that if Trump becomes president a second time, it will be less because the voting public wants him and more because our institutions have essentially privileged his supporters with greater electoral power. If anyone is aware of this, it has to be Biden, who won the national popular vote by 6 million in 2020, but would have lost the election if not for a few tens of thousands of votes across a handful of so-called swing states.
All of this is to say that, assuming we meet the immediate challenge and keep Trump from winning next year, it will be worth it for Americans to start to think — out loud, in a collective and deliberate manner — about the kinds of structural reforms we might pursue to make our democracy more resilient or even to realize it more fully in the first place.
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