The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The midterms have busted the myth of conservative ‘minority rule’

A voter arrives to cast a ballot at a polling location in Columbus, Ga., on Nov. 27. (Cheney Orr/Bloomberg News)

The 2022 midterms dealt a political blow to Republicans who claimed the previous election was rigged. But they also struck a blow against a subtler self-serving theory undermining faith in democracy from the left — that the electoral system itself suffers from a crisis-level “structural” bias against Democrats.

It’s hard to overstate the influence this idea has exerted on intellectuals over the past decade. Historian Kenneth Owen wrote in the Atlantic in 2020 that “minority rule is fast becoming the defining feature of the American republic.” In a 2021 law review article, scholar Pamela S. Karlan (a former Biden Justice Department official) argued that gerrymandering in the House and equal representation of states in the Senate were contributing to a “countermajoritarian drift in our politics.”

She wrote: “The way our nation is constituted may be interacting with the way our Constitution was written to produce one of those periods of retrenchment in which we move once again towards government by minority” — that is, a Republican minority in rural states and regions.

Read a letter in response to this column: The truth about Democrats’ voting strength

This dire view of democracy propelled failed Democratic efforts to eliminate the Senate filibuster and radically rewrite U.S. voting laws. Even before the Trump era, the idea that Republican congresses were not truly representative of the American people after the 2010 redistricting cycle helped justify the aggressive use of executive power in President Barack Obama’s second term.

But the 2022 midterm results expose the growing gap between progressive theory and political reality. Start with the results in the House of Representatives, where there’s no evidence of an entrenched GOP majority.

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The Cook Political Report tracks overall votes won by each party for the House. With more than 107 million votes counted but some still outstanding, Republican candidates are ahead 50.7 to 47.8 percent. That margin of nearly three percentage points tracks with the GOP lead in the pre-election RealClearPolitics polling average. Yet Republicans still fell short of expectations in the House: Instead of holding a commanding majority, they are on track to control 222 seats to Democrats’ 213.

The “structural advantage” that was supposed to amplify the representation of Republican voters failed to materialize. By one measure, the structure of House elections worked in Democrats’ favor. According to Cook’s data, the median House seat was Iowa’s 3rd District, where the Republican won by just 0.7 points. That means the district that decided control of the House was somewhat more Democratic than the country at large.

The House popular vote is an imperfect gauge of a party’s overall support because some districts are uncontested, but it’s still telling. After the elections of 2012, 2014 and 2016, the GOP held comfortable House majorities in excess of its popular-vote share. That was the result of efficient GOP redistricting after its 2010 electoral landslide and Democrats’ reliance on voters concentrated near cities.

The pattern changed with the Democratic wave in 2018. The past three congressional elections have seen a rough alignment between the parties’ national vote and their proportion of House seats. Instead of a “countermajoritarian drift,” American politics might be witnessing a majoritarian drift.

Of course, Congress aims to represent something deeper than a national popular vote. The United States inherited its system of electoral districts from the British Parliament, which evolved to spread political power across geographic regions. The Democratic coalition accomplished that fairly well in 2022, blunting GOP gains.

That brings us to the Senate, the less-majoritarian of Congress’s two houses. Prophecies of inexorable Democratic doom in the upper chamber because of states’ ostensibly increasing GOP lean went unfulfilled as Democrats, despite the challenging midterm environment, picked up a seat in Pennsylvania and might even expand their majority if they win Georgia’s runoff election.

Modern American politics defies “scientific” models of partisanship, as state-specific patterns and candidates shape outcomes as much as standardized measures. Progressive wonks have mustered all manner of data purporting to show the geographic unfairness of the Senate, yet far from entrenching “minority rule,” the body continues to reflect the United States’ close political divisions. With partisan control of the House flipping at a historically fast pace, the Senate’s stabilizing function is more pronounced.

In the 118th Congress, Democrats are likely to be grateful for this. The Democratic Senate will kill much of the Republican House’s legislation. The argument that the Senate’s equal representation of small and large states is a grotesque distortion of democracy will become an awkward fit with progressive priorities. As a result, the delegitimization of “countermajoritarian” American institutions that arose in the past decade is likely to be submerged over the next two years.

Attacks on the legitimacy of the U.S. electoral system tend to come from the most disreputable and ill-informed voices in conservatism — and from the most highly esteemed and knowledgeable authorities in liberalism. They will continue. But for now, voters’ 2022 verdict should highlight the suppleness and integrity of American political institutions, and the advantages of playing by their rules instead of undermining their foundations.

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