Opinion, Top Story

How to Restore American Democracy After Trump

Abolish the Electoral College. Abolish the two parties. Add states. Put Congress first.

United States Capitol
The United States Capitol in Washington DC (Shutterstock/Brandon Bourdages)

Donald Trump’s presidency has exposed and exacerbated fundamental weaknesses in American democracy. He must be voted out in November, but that won’t be enough.

If Democrats gain power, they must make five reforms to restore fairness, restore balance between the three branches of government and reverse the polarization that has made it impossible for the two parties to compromise on everything from climate change to gun laws to health care to immigration:

  1. Abolish the Electoral College.
  2. Add states.
  3. Put Congress first.
  4. Make it easier to remove the president.
  5. Abolish the two parties.

1. Abolish the Electoral College

Trump won the presidency in 2016 despite losing the popular vote. The last time a Republican presidential candidate won more than 50 percent of the votes was in 2004. The last time before that was in 1988. Yet Republicans have been in power as often as Democrats since then.

It could happen again: Joe Biden needs to win the popular vote by 3 points to have a better than fifty-fifty chance of prevailing in the Electoral College.

That’s one argument against the Electoral College: it’s undemocratic. The other is that it failed to do its job as an undemocratic institution.

The point of the Electoral College was to prevent the election of a demagogue. The idea was that wise men (women couldn’t vote until 1920) would overrule popular majorities in their states if they thought voters were making a mistake. If there was ever a time for the Electoral College to do just that, it was in 2016, when a politically inexperienced failed businessman lost the popular vote on a platform of division and hate. Yet, with two exceptions, none of Trump’s electors voted against him.

If the Electoral College wouldn’t stop Trump, what is the point of it? If the electors are afraid to use their power, all they do is distort the vote in favor of sparsely populated states at the expense of the places where most Americans live.

61 percent of Americans agree it’s time to get rid of the Electoral College.

2. Add states

If the Electoral College gives a slight advantage to small and rural states, the Senate gives them a huge advantage. The 580,000 citizens of Wyoming have two senators, as do the 40 million citizens of California.

There is something to be said for giving small states relatively more power in at least one body of government, but the way America’s two major parties have sorted in recent years has turned this into a crisis of legitimacy.

Democrats are dominant in densely populated, multiethnic states. Republicans are the party of sparsely populated, largely white states — and there are more of those. Democrats represent the majority of the country and its economically most productive regions, but they are constantly overruled in the Senate by a minority of the people from economic backwaters. How much longer will they put up with that?

The solution is not to abolish the Senate, which would allow cities to permanently overrule the countryside, but to add balance by adding states.

3.5 million Americans live in federal territories that are not represented in the Senate: American Samoa, the American Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and Washington DC. They should be offered statehood. (Some may prefer to remain territories, but the choice ought to be theirs.) Native American reservations, which have a population of roughly one million, could form another state. Polls suggest such new states would lean Democratic, giving both parties a fair chance at control of the upper chamber.

3. Put Congress first

The Founders didn’t create “co-equal” branches of government. Congress is meant to be the first branch of government. A combination of partisan gridlock, strong-willed presidents and activist courts have relegated it to third place.

Americans expect too much from their presidents. A single person must to do everything from managing 2.1 million federal employees to leading the country in war. The president sets the terms and tone of the public debate and inspires cult-like loyalty from their party — and, as Trump has shown, is effectively above the law while in office.

In the absence of legislation, the Supreme Court has had to rule on contentious issues, such as abortion, affirmative action, collective bargaining rights, gay marriage and gun control; issues that should have been decided democratically.

Congress needs to reclaim its powers, specifically its power of the purse and war-making power. Presidents shouldn’t decide how federal money is spent, nor should they be able to singlehandedly take the United States to war.

4. Make it easier to remove the president

Republicans acquitted President Trump of abuse of power, arguing that conditioning foreign aid on the Ukrainian government’s support for his reelection wasn’t a serious enough offense to remove him.

If breaking the law and putting his own political interests before the country’s isn’t enough to warrant a president’s removal, what is?

Other democracies don’t make it so hard. Lawmakers in Canada, Europe and Japan can vote their prime ministers out at any time, for any reason.

Spain’s Congress voted out the right-wing Mariano Rajoy in 2018 following a corruption scandal and replaced him with the left-wing Pedro Sánchez. Austria’s parliament voted out Sebastian Kurz in 2019 and voted him in again in January. Yet Spaniards and Austrians have higher trust in government (and each other) than Americans.

Unlike European prime ministers, the American president has his own mandate. But the Founders wrote impeachment into the Constitution for a reason. The country can’t always wait for the next election. Requiring a two-thirds majority in the Senate, and a criminal conviction, to unseat a president is too high a bar. Simple majorities in both chambers should suffice.

5. Abolish the two parties

Or rather: abolish their shared monopoly on power.

250 million eligible voters deserve more than two parties to choose from. Center-right, status quo conservatives shouldn’t be in the same party as Trump’s authoritarians. Socialists shouldn’t have to share a party with center-left liberals. Libertarians shouldn’t need to decide every two years if they care more about economic or personal freedom.

Give voters more choice and they are more likely to vote. Turnout in American presidential elections has hovered between 50 and 55 percent since 1972. Turnout in midterm and off-year elections is even lower. Turnout in the most recent election in the UK was 67 percent, in Germany 76 percent, and in the Netherlands 82 percent.

Voters in multiparty democracies have more confidence in their political systems. They don’t have to fear that their interests might be ignored for four years, because they know parties will have to meet in the middle and form a coalition.

A two-party system, by contrast, encourages parties to radicalize their supporters and conditions voters to think there are only two sides to any given issue. Americans tend to take their political beliefs from their parties, rather than the other way around. They pick a team first and then decide what they believe.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Nothing in the Constitution requires a two-party system. States can decide their own rules and Congress has the power to override them; a power it has used in the past to enforce the very plurality-winner single-member districts that keep the Democratic-Republican duopoly in place. If the country wanted to, it could move to a system of proportional representation in the next election. All it would take is an act of Congress.

Options include multi-member congressional districts, ranked-choice voting and French-style runoffs. All would allow third parties to thrive without playing spoiler and encourage politicians to appeal to the center rather than to the extremes.

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