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Defending the Electoral College and the Constitution since 2009

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Are Democrats at a structural disadvantage?
Trent England • Apr 20, 2022
Candidate Joe Biden walking with supporters at an event in Clear Lake, Iowa. Photo by Gage Skidmore

A recent New York Times column by Ross Douthat asks whether “Democrats [will] soon be locked out of power?” His conclusion contains the most important point: while some Democrats claim they face a systemic disadvantage, that’s true only if their party must remain frozen in place. A party that prides itself on alienating working-class Americans, particularly those outside of major metropolitan areas, does face a disadvantage in our federal system. But maybe that’s a feature, not a bug?

Douthat writes: “to the extent that there’s a Democratic path back to greater parity in the Senate and Electoral College without structural reform, it probably requires the development of an explicit faction within the party dedicated to winning back two kinds of voters — culturally conservative Latinos and working-class whites — who were part of Barack Obama’s coalition but have drifted rightward since.”

That faction would have two missions: To hew to a poll-tested agenda on economic policy (not just the business-friendly agenda supported by many centrist Democrats) and to constantly find ways to distinguish itself from organized progressivism — the foundations, the activists, the academics — on cultural and social issues. And crucially, not in the tactical style favored by analysts like Shor, but in the language of principle: Rightward-drifting voters would need to know that this faction actually believes in its own moderation, its own attacks on progressive shibboleths, and that its members will remain a thorn in progressivism’s side even once they reach Washington.

The Electoral College (and the structure of the Senate) prods both political parties to be national, not just regional. And rewarding parties for gaining support across a broader geographic area also forces parties to be more diverse. The result is the massive, national coalitions that we have come to regard as American political parties. These are very different than the narrow, interest-group parties found in some other political systems—the kind of political parties feared by the American Founders.

Douthat is right that the Democrats have plenty of potential to become a more effective political coalition. The fact that this requires moderation and outreach is a benefit—not a flaw—in our constitutional system.