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Herrenvolk democracy, GOP-style

MOBILE, AL- AUGUST 21: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters after his rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on August 21, 2015 in Mobile, Alabama. The Trump campaign moved tonight’s rally to a larger stadium to accommodate demand. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

Yglesias has a good piece on the crisis of democracy that our increasingly anachronistic political system is generating. Democrats have to win the presidential popular vote by millions to have any decent chance of winning the election. They have to win the national House and Senate vote totals by even more:

Once the minoritarian legislature becomes comfortable with its exercise of power, it starts gobbling up the other institutions not despite its lack of democratic legitimacy but becauseof it. Only because the US Senate is so egregiously malapportioned does it make sense for McConnell to trample so blatantly over public opinion and the president’s traditional prerogatives.

If Republicans retain a Senate majority despite a Biden win, which is a very plausible outcome, they may well do the same on the whole panoply of executive branch appointments. We’re accustomed to seeing the president as the main driver of his Cabinet, with the advise and consent function limited — even by an opposition Senate — to smoothing off only the roughest edges.

But it used to be the case that presidents could get Supreme Court appointments through an opposition-held Senate. Will there be a housing and urban development or health and human services secretary in 2021 if Republicans hold a Senate majority? Absent filibuster reform, will any legislation pass at all even if Republicans are consigned to the minority? Of course, even faced with gridlock, a president can wield executive authority. But will six conservative Supreme Court justices allow any of it?

Given the extent of the tilted maps — 2 to 3 points in the Electoral College, 4 in the House, 6 to 7 in the Senate — Republicans could probably hold majorities almost all the time if they wanted to. But they choose to play their hand more aggressively than that, moving forward boldly with unpopular policy initiatives and then obstructing during periodic defeats.

Neither Joe Biden nor Senate Democrats seem inclined to pursue these measures yet, but if Democrats win a Senate majority this fall, there is a partial solution at hand:

End the filibuster so a Senate majority can govern.

Admit DC, Puerto Rico, and ideally the US Virgin Islands as US states.

Adopt tough legislative curbs on partisan gerrymandering.

Expand the lower courts, at a minimum, as a way of improving the operation of the federal judicial system and putting the Supreme Court on notice to behave itself.

In a pinch, you add seats to the Supreme Court itself. Either way, Democrats need to get out of the funk of thinking of these moves as outrageous norm violations. The actual issue is that the American democratic tradition carries within it two overarching norms that are contradictory. One is adherence to the Constitution and to the rule of law. The other is adherence to the concept of political equality — that all citizens are equal and ought to have their interests and views considered equally by the political system.

This latter idea is not part of the original constitutional order, but is implicit in the Declaration of Independence, in the 14th Amendment, in the landmark Baker v. Carr case requiring “one person, one vote” in state legislative districts, and in much of our political culture. McConnell’s own statement on Ginsburg’s passing invokes the concept of popular sovereignty, arguing that “Americans reelected our majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary.”

But of course Americans did no such thing. Most voters preferred the opposite outcome. What gives McConnell his power is not the will of the people but the lines on a map. If Democrats win, they would have not only the power that McConnell currently wields but also the genuine popular mandate he pretends to have — and they should use it.

What Yglesias doesn’t mention is that Republicans don’t actually consider the present system to be inconsistent with democracy, because their definition of democracy is, “what the majority of white people in America want,” although even this definition might require a certain amount of refinement to exclude the illegitimate desires of elite coastal race traitors, etc.

In all seriousness, very few of them will say this out loud, and many won’t even admit it to themselves, but the contemporary GOP has internalized the idea of herrenvolk democracy. Understanding this helps explain otherwise inexplicable Republican dogmas, such as the claim that the ACA is “fundamentally anti-democratic.”

To the uninitiated, the claim that the enactment of a law adopted by a majority of the House of Representatives, a super-majority of the Senate, and signed by a president who was elected in what in contemporary terms was close to a landslide, still somehow violated democratic norms must seem mysterious indeed.

But it ceases to be mysterious at all if we understand that Republicans consider America to be a white nation, which means that things opposed by a majority of white people, such as for instance non-Republican presidents and the important laws enacted during their administrations, are violations of actual democratic norms, as they understand them.

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