First, let’s get some perspective. Yes, a shift of a mere 39,000 votes in a few close swing states in 2016 would have made Hillary Clinton president. And yes, an even slimmer shift of about 33,000 votes would have kept President Trump in office this year. But a shift of 269 votes in Florida in 2000 would have given the election to Al Gore. Were we more divided then?
More generally, we can see that it is the electoral college that transforms President-elect Joe Biden’s margin of 7 million votes into a multistate nail-biter. But forget the electoral college for a moment: Democrats have won the popular vote in the past four consecutive elections with margins ranging from 2.9 million (Clinton in 2016) to 10 million (Obama in 2008). And Al Gore, by the way, won by more than half a million votes nationally. One “solution” to the deep division problem, then, would be to junk the electoral college.
A similar lack of majority rule gives Republicans control of the Senate, despite having support from a minority of the population. The disproportionate power of lightly populated states turns significant majority rule by Democrats into persistent minority rule by Republicans. Gerrymandering offers many Republicans a similar artificial advantage in their House seats.
In other words, we have an enduring and significant majority in favor of Democrats nationally, but our constitutional system consistently hands that advantage over to a Republican Party that is increasingly radical, irrational and racist. (As The Post’s Dan Balz writes, “For Trump supporters, cultural preservation of an America long dominated by a White, Christian majority remains a cornerstone of their beliefs.” That is the definition of white supremacy.)
We could get rid of the electoral college by constitutional amendment or through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (which would instruct each state’s electors to cast their votes for the national popular vote winner). But there is an alternative answer, which is also a function of our constitutional system.
One positive aspect of the Trump era is that it made many Democrats understand the value of federalism. State lawmakers and election officials prevented a coup by the Trump campaign. State attorneys general, over the course of 138 cases, also blocked Trump on an array of issues. As NBC News reported, this includes: “the ‘travel ban’; the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA; family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border; the ‘national emergency’ declaration to build the border wall; international student visas; student loan protections; clean water rules; transgender health care protections; automobile emissions; a citizenship question on the 2020 census; U.S. Postal Service operations; and Obamacare.”
Federalism is not an unalloyed benefit to progressives, as we saw when states banned same-sex marriage, access to abortion and common sense precautions to prevent the spread of covid-19. But, if you combine the “laboratories of democracy” with local activism (which prevailed in one state after another on same-sex marriage) and a Democratic president’s persuasion, you might make real progress on everything from police reform to health care to education.
The other benefit of pushing decision-making down to the states is that state governments are less polarized and more functional than the federal government. Democratic governors work with Republican legislatures; Republican governors work with Democrats. Budgets get passed and balanced — without the backstop of printing money.
So where does that leave us? Our divisions are considerable — aggravated not solely by “polarization,” but also by the descent of one party into nuttery and by a Constitution that gives that party disproportionate power. Where possible, lawmakers should reduce that distortion (e.g., the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact) and deploy federalism.
Finally, our politics is more fluid than we imagine. Virginia and Colorado used to be dependable red states. No more. Stacey Abrams showed Georgia politics can shift as well. We need not accept that states are fated to remain in one partisan column. Activism, outreach and demography can change the electorate, and hence the result of elections.
The bottom line: Democrats have a small but stubborn national popular vote majority. The electorate as a whole agrees with their positions on gun safety, climate change and health care. The trick is expanding democracy, maximizing the benefits of federalism and working hard to create an electorate that resembles the increasingly diverse — and progressive — population.