February 22, 2017

Writing in Washington Monthly, Martin Longman argues that “we’ve arrived at a point where the Democrats can win the popular vote and lose the presidency, win the popular vote and lose seats in the Senate, and win the popular vote and not gain control of the House. The first of those just happened for the second time in the last five presidential elections, and the latter two are more likely than not to happen in 2018.” In fact, the first two of these happened in the 2016 election. More voters chose Democratic senate candidates too. Furthermore, though the GOP earned 52% of the national popular vote in U.S. House elections, they won 57% of the seats in the chamber, a disparity reflective of successful Republican gerrymandering.

With the exception of GOP gerrymandering of House districts, none of these results is prima facie evidence of election “rigging” by Republicans. All of it reflects well understood possibilities created by the design of our federal constitution. One reason these sorts of results have long generated outrage among losing partisans is that they have (perhaps unknowingly) adopted assumptions about proper democratic elections that are not consistent with the rules that govern America’s federal elections. Similarly misguided charges of “rigging” were frequently heard on both sides of the isle during the 2016 Democratic and Republican presidential nominating contests. Particularly passionate and vigorous were the (wrong-headed) cries of “rigged” primaries from the supporters of Bernie Sanders, something I discussed here.

At some point, however, the popularity of the notion that our elections are rigged will amount to, in effect, a rejection of the Constitution’s design of federal elections. Because the present electoral advantages of the Republican Party are quite considerable, it behooves GOP leaders to govern cautiously, in order to forestall and ultimately overcome increasingly potent calls for changes that will reduce or eliminate their present advantages. In other words, the present GOP’s prudential use of governing power may be all that stands between us and very significant constitutional change. The persistence of the ongoing Trump resistance (wrong-headed assumptions about American-style democracy and all), as well as the extremism of congressional Republican hardliners and the seemingly proud stupidity of the Trump Administration, when combined with a Democratic national vote majority in 2018 that nonetheless leaves Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress could well produce the greatest political disorder in the United States since the Civil War.

America may be approaching a collision point with constitutional change that requires an approach not unlike the nation’s first such collision point arrived at in 1787 when the failure of the national government to maintain order, protect property, and provide public goods collided with an insurmountable amendment procedure. Republicans have long fancied themselves the great defenders of the Constitution.They may have succeeded in making that pretention a reality in 2016. Unfortunately, they may have done so in a way that will seriously hamper their capacity to be successful defenders.

US Constitution, rigged elections, Trump, Tea Party

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