Mandates: Methodology and Mythology

Given the degree of introspection Democrats are engaging in, a few more words on the subject seem advisable. I have my views about what genuine progressives ought to be doing now, but these ideas are geared towards the upcoming century, not the upcoming four years. Modern conservatism was not built in a day, and the renewed liberalism that will ultimately displace it will not be built in a day, either. Much of the organizational and intellectual seeds that progressives should be planting now will not bear political or legal fruit for decades. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be planting them; we are, after all, supposed to be the ones who can take a charitable and principled long view of the future.

In the here and now, while good strategic thought and careful tactical follow-through will both be necessary, it is important not to mistake the nature of the immediate political problem. The problem is not that the country, in any meaningful sense, has reached a consensus that repudiates liberalism. Nor have Americans agreed that Democrats are morally and culturally bankrupt. If the Democratic party collapses now, it will be from suicide, not from starvation or suffocation.

55 million Americans — 48.4% of those who voted on the second — voted for John Kerry. He came quite plausibly close to being elected, and drew a majority of the popular vote in nineteen states and the District of Columbia. That’s a lot of people in a lot of places. That an election so down-to-the-wire is read as a repudiation of the Democratic Party is due to two factors: expert spinning from Republicans and the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the Senate.

The Senate overrepresents small states; by extension, the Electoral College does, too. The effect is to give states with small populations disproportionate representation in government (by a ratio the Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional when applied to state districting plans). And the effect of this distortion is to give the party with a more rural base—the Republicans—disproportionate electoral influence.

A winner-take-all system like ours (both nationally and state-wide) can appear to magnify small victories. But that’s not itself so much a problem; had Kerry won 311 electoral votes with 50.5% of the popular vote, he’d have been equally thrilled at the distortion of having winner-take-all state elections to the Electoral College. No, the reason the Democrats are despairing now is that under such a system, the degree of in-built bias towards small states is enough to make it seem unlikely that even a better showing next time would tilt things back in the Electoral College or the Senate.

Between two high school runners, a five-meter head start in the 100 is a heavy thumb on the scales. Between two Olympic-class sprinters, it’s close to conclusive. There is not something profoundly wrong with Democratic candidates; most Americans do not hate Democrats. But those five meters matter. The frustration many feel is not the frustration of the thick-fingered pianist who just can’t seem to hit the right keys; it’s the frustration of the loser in a fixed fight.

Now, the Senate isn’t going away. Even leaving aside political inertia and the desire of winners in power to extend their streak, the one thing you can’t amend out of the Constitution is the discriminatory structure of the Senate (nota bene: easier to end slavery than to tamper with the Senate). And the Democrats will have to deal with this reality; they’ll have to shape their message and perfect their organization so as to make the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt. But losing an unfair game is not evidence of moral failing, nor is it proof that one is incompetent at play.

Addendum: Much of what I say in here is applicable to various other forms of systemic bias in the electoral process. Most notably, voting technologies are unevenly distributed in a way that distinctly favors Republicans. Poorer districts with high populations, which are disproportionately Democratic, disproportionately use cheaper technologies that involve higher levels of ballot spoliation, which effectively dilutes Democratic votes due to lost ballots. (This disproportion is often racially-tinged, as has been documented in several swing states, where the poorer urban counties are often predominantly African-American.) Just another systematic bias whose beneficiaries are unlikely to seek change any time soon.