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Watching democracy die, part 4: If we don’t change the system, the system is going to break 

click to enlarge PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION/SOURCE PHOTOS: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Photo-illustration/source photos: Shutterstock.com

If the stars align just right next November, Donald Trump could lose the popular vote by as much as five points and still win the White House, according to an analysis The New York Times's Upshot blog published Friday. If that happened, Republicans would likely control the Senate and might retake the House even if they receive fewer votes than Democrats.

Over the next two decades, such disparities between votes and outcomes are likely to become more common — and prominent.

By 2040, 70 percent of America's population is expected to live in just 15 states. That means that the other 30 percent — largely white, rural, and conservative — will control the Senate and have an even greater say in the Electoral College. Meanwhile, partisan gerrymandering, blessed by the Supreme Court last month, will allow conservative legislatures to weaken Democratic representation in Congress.

So as Baby Boomers die and Gen Z grows up, the U.S. could become more ideologically progressive but remain, if not conservative, then stagnant — held hostage by a shrinking Republican base riven with status anxiety and plagued by strains of racism and nativism that grow more pronounced as the country grows less pale. The government will be left impotent — unable or unwilling to address crises like climate change and social inequality. The Democratic coalition, frustrated by its fecklessness, will radicalize and rupture. And eventually, the whole system will just break.

I wish that scenario were more far-fetched.

By design, the American system is resistant toward progressive reform. The exceptions prove the rule: It took the Civil War to pass the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. It took the Great Depression to get the New Deal. It took the decades-long civil rights movement (and JFK's assassination) to enact the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and the Great Society. And it took a financial collapse for Barack Obama to push through even modest financial and health care reforms in the face of unprecedented Republican obstruction.

That was before the Tea Party captured the GOP. Before the U.S. nearly defaulted on its debt. Before Trump won his party's nomination. Before Mitch McConnell denied Merrick Garland a Senate hearing. Before things really went off the rails.

Donald Trump didn't break American democracy; he'd never have become president had it been healthy. Nor did he break the Republican Party. But he found in the GOP a sickness ripe for exploitation — a fear of the future, of social and economic upheaval. And he spoke to it in a language it understood — and, importantly, a language that made its enemies apoplectic, which, in turn, bonded Republicans, who saw themselves as victims of elites who scorned their values and traditions.

This is how Trump — a self-aggrandizing libertine who dodged the draft, fucked porn stars, and has golden toilets in his Manhattan penthouse — became the voice of Christian Middle America: He appealed to grievance. He promised order. He scapegoated immigrants and minorities.

This is Demagoguery 101, nothing original. But it didn't need to be. Nor did Trump need to be a good salesman to sell it. He simply shoveled bullshit they were desperate to hear. If he didn't do it, someone else would have. Trump was supply meeting demand. After Trump is gone, the demand will remain.

That's why sticking to the old norms and hoping the other side eventually comes to its senses is fantasy. There's no accommodating the bone-chilling proto-fascism we watched in North Carolina last Wednesday, when several thousand white people at Trump's rally chanted "send her back," calling for the deportation of a Somali-American member of Congress who had dared criticize Dear Leader.

The rot that Trump has fomented needs to be ripped out root and branch.

Saving our democracy begins with — and may depend on — defeating him. But that's just the first step of a larger project. We must also take on the antidemocratic anachronisms that could prevent us from rising to the immense challenges ahead — e.g., climate change, which won't wait for the GOP to get its shit together.

Should Democrats retake Washington, they could begin with a law banning requiring nonpartisan redistricting, banning voter ID, restoring voting rights for former felons, and creating an Election Day holiday. Then grant statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Then eliminate the Senate filibuster. After that, encourage states to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (only 74 electoral votes to go!).

David Faris, the author of It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics, says Democrats should go further: increase the size of Congress, split California into seven states to give it a larger (and bluer) presence in the Senate, and add more Supreme Court justices and then stack the court with liberals.

None of that requires a constitutional amendment — just one good election and political will.

To Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the authors of How Democracies Die — which I discussed in the first three parts of this series — such an escalation will only make things worse. But to Faris, the choice is simple: fight back or get run over.

To be sure, what Faris is proposing is a point of no return. But these rules entrench a status quo that's increasingly unrepresentative and unresponsive, especially for people of color.

As Harvard political scientist Danielle Allen wrote in the Washington Post after the deadly white-supremacist march in Charlottesville in 2017, the U.S. is trying to do something that's never been done: "The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved."

Maybe a system of government devised 230 years ago — when slavery was legal, white supremacy was a given, the country's population numbered fewer than 4 million, and the very concept of liberal democracy was new and untested — could use a touch-up.

As Levitsky and Ziblatt point out, there's nothing magical about the Constitution. For two centuries, its words have been held together by norms. Now those norms are being eviscerated in the service of illiberalism.

So perhaps the way to salvage the American experiment isn't through blind fidelity to the past, but by making our democracy more democratic.

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