Monday, March 27, 2017

The "Republic Not Democracy" Meme

If you complain on-line about the undemocratic result of the last election - with Trump getting a majority of electoral votes even though he lost the popular vote by 2.9 million - someone is likely to answer you with this right-wing meme: "The United States is not a democracy.  It is a constitutional republic."

People can use this meme only if they do not know the definitions of the words and think that a republic and a democracy are two different things.  Actually, a republic is a government where the citizens are sovereign, unlike a monarchy, where the king or queen is sovereign.  A republic can be more or less democratic.

The United States has always been a constitutional republic, but it has become more democratic over the centuries. Initially, only property owners could vote. In the early nineteenth century, the property qualification was removed and all free males could vote. Later in the nineteenth century, slavery was abolished and all males got the right to vote (in theory, though often not in practice).  In the early twentieth century, women got the right to vote. Later in the twentieth century, the Supreme Court adopted the doctrine of "one person, one vote," which required electoral districts to be roughly the same size, so state legislatures could no longer create unequal districts that give them the result they wanted.

The electoral college is the one remaining institution that does not follow the rule of "one person, one vote." Because a state's electoral votes is equal to its number of senators and representatives, voters in smaller, rural states (which are usually more conservative) have more say than voters in larger, urban states. In presidential elections, one voter in Wyoming has 3.6 times as much say as one voter in California. This is why we had elections in 2000 and 2016 where the Republican candidate won the electoral vote even though he lost the popular vote.

If the United States got rid of the electoral college, we would still be a constitutional republic, but we would be a more democratic one.

What the people who use this meme really mean is that they do not want presidential elections to become more democratic, because they would be more likely to lose.  They should say this outright, and they should carry it to its logical conclusion: they should say they want to take the vote away from women and from non-whites, so the United States would be more undemocratic and Republicans would be even more likely to win.

According to their reasoning, there is nothing wrong with this sort of anti-democratic change, because the United States is a constitutional republic, not a democracy.

Note: Actually abolishing the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment, but there is a much easier way of eliminating its influence in practice. State laws set the requirement for how electors vote.  Ten states and the District of Columbia, with a total of 30.7% of all electoral votes, have already joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  When states with more than 50% of the electoral vote join this compact, all these states will change their laws so their electors vote for the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote, and then the winner of the popular vote will always win the electoral vote.