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America’s Democracy Problem

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Doug Jones’s historic Senate win changes the political landscape. But it’s ridiculous that it took a fluke win to give the Democrats even a reasonable chance of winning control of the Senate, and also ridiculous that the House is basically a toss-up with the Democrats likely to get millions more votes:

Jones’s win, of course, changes everything. The Democrats can now gain control of the Senate by just winning in Arizona and Nevada and holding all of their seats. New York Times data analyst Nate Cohn thinks the Alabama result moves Democrats’ chances of winning the Senate from a long-shot to a toss-up. Still, the fact that it took an incredibly unlikely win in Alabama to even make the Senate a toss-up in a year in which voters are almost certain to overwhelmingly prefer the Democratic Party is remarkable. If Democrats win the national House and Senate popular votes by a modest margin, they’re out of luck – and out of power.

That highlights another problem with American democracy: the ability of a party that wins through undemocratic mechanisms to reify its own power for decades. The Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland was a gamble that paid off when Donald Trump won and nominated 49-year-old hardline conservative Neil Gorsuch to the vacant seat left by another conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia. The next Republican nomination could radically change the court’s ideological balance.

A Democratic Senate could similarly refuse to fill any vacancy before the next presidential election. If Republicans are able to maintain control of the Senate, conversely, it would produce a kind of anti-democratic feedback loop. Trump, who lost the popular vote but won in the rurally-biased Electoral College could establish control of the Supreme Court for decades. And a Republican Supreme Court could exacerbate the anti-democratic nature of American government by taking actions that favor Republicans at the expense of representative democracy: refusing to enforce voting rights, which would allow GOP-controlled states to disproportionately disenfranchise Democratic voters, upholding egregiously gerrymandered congressional districts, making meaningful campaign finance regulation increasingly difficult and making it harder for unions to organize.

Doug Jones’s remarkable victory makes this less likely – but still far from impossible. And this is the sign of a political system that is becoming less and less representative of the American people.

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