by W.D. Ehrhart
So here we are at the outset of another new year. A Happy New Year? Well, as Shakespeare’s Lady Anne replies to Richard III in Act I, Scene 2, when he asks if he can live in hope, “All men I hope live so.” Of course, she’s talking to one of the Bard’s most villainous characters. And though he eventually gets his in the end, we folks (men and women both) these days can—well—only hope that our future works out so nicely.
I can’t help finding myself wondering how much longer our American version of democracy is likely to last. Will it survive the 2022 congressional elections? How about the 2024 presidential election? Let’s do a little review:
In 1789, when the U.S. Constitution took effect, each congressional district represented about 30,000 citizens. Today, each district represents an average of 710,000 citizens. Okay, the population has grown to such an extent that if districts were still that small, our House of Representatives would have about 10,000 members. Still, Montana’s one member of the House represents 994,000 people while Rhode Island’s two members each represent only 527,000 people. This is democracy?
But the Senate is even worse…or better, depending on your sense of humor. Each Wyoming senator represents 568,000 people while each California senator represents 18,671,000 people. That’s 18 & 1/2 million vs. 1/2 million. This is democracy?
While we’re on the subject of Congress, how about those gerrymandered electoral districts? If you want to have some fun, Google “worst gerrymandered districts” and see what you get. Both parties, of course, have been doing this since Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry first did it in 1812. But districts are determined by state legislatures, and Republicans currently control twice as many state legislatures as Democrats.
Thus, in Texas, for instance, the heavily Democratic city of Austin is divided among six districts, only one of which holds a Democratic majority. On the other hand, the Republican-controlled 2nd District around Houston is shaped like the letter C and is only a block or two wide in several areas.
Only one state has a nonpartisan redistricting process. This is democracy?
Or consider this: because of the Electoral College, an anachronism left over from the days of the 3/5th Clause designed to mollify the southern slave states whose population was much smaller than the northern industrial states, the presidential candidate who received the most popular votes lost the election five times. This happened only three times in the first 211 years of our history. But it has already happened twice in the first 16 years of this century. This is democracy?
Meanwhile, in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that $$$$$ equals free speech. The more $$$$$ you have, the more free speech you get to buy. If you haven’t got any $$$$$, tough luck; get a job. This is democracy?
Speaking of the Supreme Court, the Constitution says that the president gets to appoint justices with the approval of the senate. It doesn’t say anything about the president not being allowed to appoint anyone in his last year in office, yet a Republican senate majority leader refused to allow a Democratic president to make an appointment in his last year in office only to turn around four years later and allow a Republican president to appoint one less than a month before the 2020 election. This is democracy?
As for Republicans and Democrats, the U.S. Constitution says not one word about political parties, but if you’re not a Republican or a Democrat, good luck getting elected Dog Catcher, let alone President. The last successful creation of a new national political party happened in 1856. That would be one hundred and sixty-six years ago. Even “Independent” Bernie Sanders had to start calling himself a “Progressive Democrat” if he wanted to be a player in the 2016 and 2020 elections. This is democracy?
And of course, all of this is layered on top of a soundly defeated former president who over a year later still insists that his re-election was stolen from him, supported and egged on by Fox News Talking Heads, gun-toting elected representatives like Lauren Boboert and Thomas Massie and Josh Hawley, and something on the order of 74 million of our fellow citizens.
But here we are at the beginning of another New Year. Another one of Shakespeare’s plays is titled All’s Well That Ends Well. Will this New Year end well? We can always hope so. But I’m not making any predictions. Only a resolution, lame as it may sound, to do whatever I can to see that it does. Which probably isn’t much, but it beats sitting around waiting for Doomsday.
W. D. Ehrhart is an ex-Marine sergeant who holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Wales at Swansea, and taught for many years at the Haverford School for Boys.