A Test of Democracy

December 27, 2020

by Steve Stofka

In 2008, Barack Obama won almost 25% of counties, a high percentage for a Democratic candidate. In 2016 and 2020, a sixth of counties voted for a Democratic President. Though a small percentage, those counties represented more than 2/3rds of the nation’s GDP. The most productive part of our economy votes Democratic, but a county electoral map looks mostly red. How can that be?

More than half of the U.S. population lives in less than 5% of counties (Census Bureau, 2019). A county electoral map gives the same weight to a county in Colorado with a few hundred people as it does to L.A. county which has 10,000,000 inhabitants. A person looking at that map gets the impression that “most of the country” votes Republican but land doesn’t vote – people do.

A more accurate electoral map is by congressional district like this one at FiveThirtyEight (2018). Voting districts are assigned by population, not land area. I’ll copy their Colorado map to illustrate the point. There are as many people living in a few square miles in Denver as there are in more than half the state.

As the population concentrates close to urban areas, a county-by-county analysis reveals some long-term trends. Historian David Kennedy recently noted a shift in sentiment over the past four decades (2020). In 1980, 13% of counties were dubbed “landslide” counties in which the Presidential candidate won by 20% or more of the vote. By 2000, 19% of counties voted that way. In the 2020 election, more than 50% of counties were landslide.

Kennedy referred to Bill Bishop’s 2009 book The Big Sort which described how Americans were moving to places where they lived with others whose political sentiments were like their own (2009). For more than a century, we have been moving from the country to the city. After World War 2, the automobile gave us the freedom to move further away from where we work. We like living with people who resemble us.

A trend that has been going on for a century is likely to continue. Those hoping that election tensions will ease in the future will be disappointed. Although social media helps spread election conspiracy theories, Americans are fond of such theories. Those on the left side of the aisle were convinced that the governor of Ohio stole the 2004 election for George Bush (Weiss, 2020). That was on the heels of the 2000 election which Florida governor Jeb Bush stole for his brother George.

Each election begins in earnest on inauguration day. Immediately after President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Mitch McConnell succinctly summed up his job as the Senate’s Minority Leader – his job was to make sure Obama was a one-term President. With the nation deep in a financial crisis and millions of people out of work, Democrats condemned McConnell’s remark.

From the first day of President Bush’s presidency in 2001, Democrats rallied and protested the boy made king by an activist Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, five supposedly conservative justices tossed aside conservative jurisprudence and voted to overthrow the decision of Florida’s Supreme Court. Henry Monaghan argued against the hundreds of legal scholars who condemned the court’s jurisprudence. The first few pages summarize the circumstances of that election and the many criticisms of the court’s decision (2003).

Eighty years ago, FDR wielded his executive pen like a sword to cut through any Congressional opposition from those on either side of the Congressional aisle. In his 3-1/2 terms, he signed more than 3000 orders, a record that will likely never be broken. Today, our Presidents rule by executive order. Each President spends his first year undoing the executive orders of the last President if that President was from the other party. Without the consistency of law, the American people lose respect for the law, regarding it as little more than personal whim.

The Constitution gives the President the power to grant pardons for Federal crimes. Each President’s use of the pardon power demonstrates that personal sentiment and political alliances matter more than justice. After President H.W. Bush pardoned all the co-conspirators in the Iran-Contra scandal, the American people began to lose faith in the law.

The Supreme Court’s 2000 Bush v. Gore decision reinforced the notion that America was like the old European nations, a country of patronage and favor, not one of law. Mr. Bush disregarded good judgment, the law, and his own intelligence services to justify an attack on Iraq in response to the 9-11 tragedy. Business scandals punctuated the first four years of his administration. His re-election in 2004 convinced many Americans that corruption, not competence, was the American way. Mr. Bush’s second term reinforced that impression.

President Obama’s political rhetoric was strong and even-tempered, but his policy response to the financial crisis was weak and un-tempered. Within two years the American people chose political paralysis, wresting control of state governments from Democrats and handing the House to the Republicans. Like Mr. Bush before him, Mr. Obama found fault with others, not himself.

After electing an unseasoned backbench Senator Obama to office, the American people elected a TV star to the Presidency. Why not? America, the competent, has become a country of fools. Why would we not elect New York City’s leading buffoon?

Each day more people die of Covid than lost their lives in 9-11. The country now turns from the Jester to a seasoned former Senator, Mr. Biden, to lead the country. Unlike Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden is not in love with his own rhetoric or his judgment. Can he restore competence to the White House? Perhaps.

What he can’t do is restore the competence of the voters, who love their opinions more than their interests. Regardless of his success or his policies, half the country will condemn him because we have sorted ourselves into them and us. James Madison, the chief architect of the Constitution, worried most about the rise of factions because that is what brought down the Roman empire. We fought a Civil War and have not been a United States since then. We are transforming ourselves into a type of European confederation, divided into regional, rural, and urban interests, clutching our contempt for our fellow Americans to our hearts. Is this the century when we finally abandon the experiment of the United States?


Photo by Den on Unsplash

Bishop, B. (2009). The big sort: Why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart. Boston: Mariner Books. [Kindle price $1.81 from https://www.amazon.com/Big-Sort-Clustering-Like-Minded-America/dp/0547237723/ref=sr_1_1

FiveThirtyEight. (2018, January 25). The Atlas Of Redistricting. Retrieved December 25, 2020, from https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/redistricting-maps/

Kennedy, D. (2020, December 9). David Kennedy: The Future of Democracy in America. Retrieved December 25, 2020, from https://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/archive/podcast/david-kennedy-future-democracy-america

Henry P. Monaghan, Supreme Court Review of State-Court Determinations of State Law in Constitutional Cases, 103 COLUM. L. REV. 1919 (2003). Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/164

US Census Bureau. (2019, May 23). Big and Small America. Retrieved December 25, 2020, from https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2017/10/big-and-small-counties.html

Weiss, J. (2020, December 21). What Happened to the Democrats Who Never Accepted Bush’s Election. Retrieved December 25, 2020, from https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/12/19/2004-kerry-election-fraud-2020-448604

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