Democracy at Its Limits

Now that we’ve had a look at the key parties and issues of American politics, let’s take a step back and look holistically at the effects of demographic change on the future of American democracy. In particular, I want to discuss constitutional hardball. While this is by no means unique to our time it represents one of the biggest threats to democracy in America today. Cheery stuff I know, but don’t won’t worry, this series won’t be all doom and gloom.

You’ve likely heard a lot about how polarized US politics is today. Not only are politicians less moderate and less likely to reach across the aisle, but voters too are finding less common ground. If you remember my writings on the two political parties, you can probably see how race plays directly into this. Shifting demographics force parties to either try to capitalize on the change itself, or to the backlash, two diametrically opposed sides. Politically, one of the most dramatic effects of polarization is the increasing frequency of constitutional hardball. Constitutional hardball is a term used to describe actions that are technically legal but that go against norms or historical precedent. 

For an example we can look to the demise of the filibuster over the past decade. The filibuster forced legislators in the Senate to have more than a simple majority (usually 60/100 votes) to pass laws. This can be frustrating for lawmakers who may have a majority, but not a larger supermajority. However, it was generally considered the norm as it (ostensibly) promoted cooperation and compromise between the parties. In an increasingly polarized world this is less appealing, especially since it can be repealed with only 50 votes. Under the Obama administration Democratic lawmakers removed the filibuster for some presidential nominees. Under Trump and the Republican party this trend has accelerated dramatically. Most notably they removed the supermajority requirement for Supreme Court nominees (allowing for the confirmation of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh). And now some Democratic presidential candidates are considering removing the filibuster all together if elected (assuming they had a Senate majority).

While both parties have engaged in constitutional hardball, it is the Republican Party that has been largely responsible for it’s increasing prevalence today. Voter ID laws and gerrymandering get much of the media attention, but the most egregious examples came after the 2018 midterm elections. After a Democratic governor was elected in Wisconsin, the Republican governor and legislature passed a series of bills stripping the governor’s office of power, leaving the new governor unable to make any significant changes to laws. Similar stories played out in Michigan and two years earlier in North Carolina. 

Constitutional hardball is, by definition, technically legal. It nonetheless presents a massive danger to democracy. It prevents the government from accurately reflecting voters by suppressing turnout or lowering effective voting power. This erodes trust in the institutions critical to democracy. It also increases polarization, meaning the whole thing is a positive feedback loop. 

All of this presents a challenge to the Democratic party as they battle over the future of the party. Constitutional hardball often takes the form of a power grab. Parties alter the rules to favor themselves in the future. The problem then is that it can be hard to win if you refuse to play too; at the same time, playing only increases the danger to democracy. Beyond the discussion of abolishing the filibuster entirely, Democratic circles have also discussed stacking the supreme court (adding more seats to force a majority) and splitting California into multiple states (to increase Senate representation). These proposals are not without merit, but they are both controversial examples of constitutional hardball. There is no right answer here. Democrats are stuck with two bad options: try and maintain norms and risk losing political power indefinitely, or fight fire with fire and risk destroying the foundations of American democracy. 

If it’s any comfort this is not without precedent. Despite what it might feel like, we have gone through more contentious times as a country and emerged intact on the other side. The 1970’s saw politically motivated bombings occur nearly every week. The specter of fascism nearly took hold on the years in preceding WWII. We had a bloody Civil War that killed nearly as many Americans as all other wars combined. These may seem like dark times, and in many ways they are, but this is not apocalyptic. American democracy is the oldest in the modern world; it will not be destroyed without a fight. 

Through all of this though let us remember the theme of this series: race and demographic change. Constitutional hardball and polarization is a reaction to changing demographic change in America. It’s easy to see issues as being bigger than or unrelated to race, but the point I am trying to make is that race effects every single aspect of American politics, not just the ones explicitly associated with race. From healthcare to gun control to the filibuster, race drives everything. This is why studying the effects of demographic change is so important. To borrow the words of Ken Burns, I want to see race “not as a politically correct addendum to our national narrative, but at the burning heart of it.”

Next month will be the final article in my series. I’m going to leave the topic a surprise, but I hope it can be a poetic and satisfying end to these articles. I’ll see you then.

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