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The threat of minority rule in the U.S.

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“The majority rules” and “one-person, one-vote” are two ideas that many American citizens may believe are baked into the DNA of the United States. But actually, the political structure of the United States, particularly the U.S. Senate, the Electoral College, the presidency and the Supreme Court, were set up from the beginning to enshrine, enable and protect minority rule and to thwart the popular will of the people. This was the deliberate intention of the Founding Fathers when designing these systems.

The U.S. Senate provides equal representation for all states. Each state gets two votes in the Senate irrespective of population size. This is a cornerstone of the American political system and was set up in the Constitution to protect smaller states but gives each voter in those smaller states, like Wyoming, more power at the ballot box than a larger state like California. Thus, the Senate's composition does not reflect the population distribution of the country and allows for a minority proportion of the population to decide national policy including who gets on the Supreme Court. These smaller states can and do effectively block legislation, especially with the use of the filibuster. This was evident during debates on significant policy issues such as healthcare reform, gun control, and climate change.

The Electoral College, designed to elect the president of the United States, similarly enables minority rule. Each state's electoral votes are equal to its total number of senators and members of Congress. While this system gives some weight to population size, it disproportionately favors smaller states. For example, in terms of electoral votes per capita, smaller states like Wyoming and Vermont have more influence than larger states like California and Texas.

The winner-take-all approach used by most states exacerbates this imbalance. A candidate can win the presidency by securing a majority of electoral votes while losing the national popular vote. This has occurred in several elections, most notably in 2000 and 2016. Such outcomes underscore the potential for the Electoral College to reflect the will of a minority of voters, contrary to the popular vote.

Because of their distrust of the political will of the popular vote the Founding Fathers designed the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College along with a narrow allowance for who could vote that only included adult white male landowners to foster minority rule. The House of Representatives apportioned by population may seem like the only branch of the government directly answerable to the people.

The Founding Fathers harbored a deep skepticism of direct democracy, fearing it could lead to mob rule and lead to an attack on their wealth and privileged positions. They believed a representative democracy, with checks and balances, would create a more stable and effective government. The Electoral College was a compromise between electing the president by Congress and by popular vote, with electors expected to exercise independent judgment. This system was designed to filter the will of the people through a body of knowledgeable electors.

While the many compromises that weakened American popular sovereignty were needed in order to bring about the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, today they provide an entry point for an organized well-funded effort to bring about permanent and absolute minority rule in the United States.

The combined effect of the Senate's equal representation and the Electoral College along with the political excesses of the billionaire class has led to a cleaving of public policy and the will of the majority.

This structural feature has significant implications for contemporary American politics. Presidential candidates often focus on swing states rather than the national popular vote, distorting campaign strategies and policy priorities. Additionally, legislative outcomes in the Senate can reflect the preferences of a minority of the population, leading to policy decisions that do not align with the broader public opinion.


Ari Berman is the national voting rights correspondent for Mother Jones and a reporting fellow at Type Media Center. He’s the author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America (finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction) and Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post and Rolling Stone, and he is a frequent commentator on MSNBC and NPR. He's won the Sidney Hillman Foundation Prize for Magazine Journalism and an Izzy Award for outstanding achievement in independent media. He lives in New Paltz, New York.

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This interview will be recorded on Thursday, June 13, 2024.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi