Written by Harry Burke

American institutions: The GOP’s disproportionate influence

Small states - and by extension the GOP - have outsized power in American institutions

The small states - and by extension the GOP - have outsized power in American institutions

Last week, I wrote about the fallacy of Trump’s silent majority, and how Donald Trump and the GOP are consistently at odds with large swaths of the American people. Given this lack of any real majority, it is difficult to understand how Trump can recreate the momentum Richard Nixon built when he coined that phrase – the silent majority – as an electoral strategy in 1968. 

After writing about how substantially unpopular the policies of the Republican Party are, I wanted to develop an extension to my piece from last week. How can a smaller coalition, like the Republican Party, gain control of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House?

The House Republicans Built

In 2010, the Republican Party swept into power in statehouses across the country, gaining their greatest level of influence since 1928. Their victories came at the most opportune time. Every 10 years, state legislatures receive the data from the Census Bureau after the census is conducted. With that data, they drew new congressional districts based on how many people live in their state. What often happens is the state party in power redraws congressional districts that are considered favorable to themselves and disadvantage their competition. This is called gerrymandering

With that power, the Republican Party redrew congressional districts that definitively cemented their majorities in Congress. In North Carolina, the Democratic Party in 2018 won roughly 50% of the total vote during the 2018 midterms but gained only 3 of the state’s 13 congressional districts. In Pennsylvania, the GOP’s original gerrymandered congressional map would have given them a 13:5 seat advantage. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had the map thrown out ahead of the 2018 midterms. In one analysis of 26 states that account for 85% of the congressional seats, the GOP had a net benefit of 16 or 17 extra members of congress due to gerrymandered districts. 

America is changing and becoming more liberal as millennials assert themselves in the electorate. Republicans resort to tactics like gerrymandering in order to maintain power in Congress without placating this new America. 

The Senate’s Rural Bias 

As of 2016, smaller and more rural states that account for 17% of the national population could theoretically gain a majority in the Senate. And as of today, if you live in rural America, you are more likely to vote for the conservative candidate.  

In 2018, the Democratic Party received 53 million votes for their senate candidates nationwide; Republicans tallied almost 35 million. And yet, the GOP not only retained their Senate majority but expanded it. The Senate has a democracy problem because it favors the power of states over individuals. The disparity in representation between large states and small states is enormous.

In 2012, the 25 least populated states – about 50 million people – voted for Mitt Romney for president by an average of 6 points. In the 25 most populous states – about 258 million Americans – Barack Obama won by about 2.3 points. And since split-ticket voting is a less frequent phenomenon, it is safe to assume that the majority of those 50 million voters also cast their ballot for the Republican senate candidate. This means that 50 million Americans have the same number of senators as 258 million Americans. For the 25 least populated states, that’s one senator for every 1 million people. For the 25 most populated states, it’s 1 senator for every 5.7 million. And due to this skew towards the GOP in the Senate, the Republican Party has a disproportionate say on who gets seated on the Supreme Court. 

Electoral College

In the last 5 Presidential elections, there were 2 instances when the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral college and the White House. Besides the innately undemocratic nature of the Electoral College, it is another institution with a bias towards a rural and agrarian past. 

The GOP has disproportionate influence in American institutions

Think about Wyoming versus any larger state. It has an estimated population of 578,759 and 3 votes in the electoral college. Texas has a population of 28,995,881 and 38 electoral college votes. In our current institutional setup, 192,920 Wyomingites equal 1 electoral college vote. In Texas, residents of the Lone Star State get 1 electoral college vote for every 763,050 residents. 

Additionally, the Electoral College is set up as a winner-take-all system. As Nate Cohen from the New York Times states, “You get all of Michigan’s electoral votes whether you win by one vote or a million votes.” Cohen continues in his piece by arguing persuasively that states should consider awarding electoral college votes based on the proportion of the popular vote within each state in order to better represent the will of its voters. It would also require candidates to campaign in considerably more states, as they would be able to pick a few electoral college votes from a larger pool. 

American Democracy and its Discontents

American institutions are biased towards small, rural, and Republican states. To win a Senate majority, Democrats have to court a much more conservative electorate. As a result of the Senate’s GOP bias, they have inordinate power over Supreme Court seats. To win the House, Democrats have to not only win the popular vote, but they also have to over-perform just to gain 20+ seats. The Electoral College, with its small state bias and winner-take-all structure, favors the GOP; in 2000 and 2016, the candidates who won the electoral college but lost the popular vote were both Republicans. 

Some have argued that all of this is by design, that American institutions are not supposed to be democratic; that they were created to quash the passions of democracy. Critics of more democracy fear that rural America would be overshadowed by the coastal urban centers controlled by liberal elites. “Democracy,” Thomas Jefferson once said, “is nothing more than mob rule, where 51 percent of the people may take away the rights of the other 49.” 

This sounds fine in theory, but what about our current reality? What about the 49 percent? Do they not also have the ability to curtail the rights of the rest of America? The lopsided GOP representation in American institutions shows that the Senate, the House, the Electoral College, and other American institutions are so skewed towards rural conservative voters that they in fact are the ones who control the agenda with the disproportionate power they possess. It isn’t a tyranny of the majority, it’s the dominance of a shrinking minority. 

To those who read this and say: “American institutions weren’t set up to be a democracy. We are a Republic! All of your criticisms are moot,” you are 100% correct – if the year was 1789. Since the Constitution was ratified, our country has become more and more democratic. Senators are no longer elected by state legislatures. In the years of Thomas Jefferson, only white landowning males like himself were allowed to vote. Today, suffrage is more widely distributed among women, people of color, and other traditionally marginalized groups; though we still have a long way to go in guaranteeing the right to vote for all Americans

America was designed as a republic, but it was also exclusionary. And it has grown less Republican over time. Today, America’s democratic majorities and tendencies are butting up against the undemocratic boundaries of our old republic. The question is, how long will current generations be stymied by the limits the founding generation set?