Do Our Demographics Diminish Our Democracy?

For the past ten years or so, a nagging question has been plaguing Spirited Reasoners: Why is it that so much hatred and polarization is being expressed at this particular point in time? Why now?

One could argue that the McCarthy Era of the early 1950s was something of a precursor to the recent wave of populist resentment championed by Donald Trump. One could also point to the success of George Wallace’s presidential campaign in the Deep South in 1968 and to the Ross Perot phenomenon of 1992 as possible precursors. In none of those cases, however, was there ever any doubt about Americans’ firm commitment to our Constitution and to basic democratic values, such as the sanctity of the ballot box.

Fast forward to the year 2022, and suddenly everything is open to question. Will Trump supporters accept the will of the people if a majority of us vote for non-Trump-endorsed candidates? Are attempts to kidnap governors (as in Michigan), assault Congressional leaders with hammers (as in California), and storm the U. S. Capitol (as on January 6, 2021) merely foretastes of further violence yet to come?

One explanation for the recent disillusionment with democratic processes might be found in a single word: urbanization. Although the genius of our Constitution has worked for over 200 years (with the notable exception of the 1860s), the demographics of our nation—the movement of so many people from the farm to the city—now requires us to engage in some foundational rethinking.

To illustrate this last point, consider the difference between (a) the level of participation experienced by citizens in a New England town meeting, in which potential voters engage directly with issues of local importance, and (b) the neglect felt by rural residents of eastern Oregon, whose voices and votes seem ignored and cancelled by the majority of urban voters residing over a hundred miles away, in the urban corridor running from Portland to Salem. The lack of democratic accessibility for rural Oregon residents has gotten so bad that two counties—Morrow and Wheeler—will be voting on ballot measures on November 8 to secede from Oregon and join the State of Idaho. Several additional eastern Oregon counties have their eye on the results.

Oddly enough, both the Democratic and Republican Party establishments seem fine with the idea of Eastern Oregon counties seceding and joining Idaho. From the viewpoint of the Democrats, there would be no change in U. S. Senate representation, which is based on two Senators per state rather than on population. (Idaho is already red.) Nor would the composition of the House of Representations change much, since districts in Eastern Oregon already tend to elect Republicans and would continue to do so if they moved to Idaho. If anything, the move might tend to solidify the election of Oregon’s Democratic Senators, because Oregon’s urban majority would gain even more dominance over statewide elections, given the decline in rural numbers.

The point of this illustration is to explain, in part, why so many Americans feel disenfranchised to the point where they are apparently willing to give up on democracy altogether. For those of us who care about our democratic system, maybe it’s time we consider radical notions like the redrawing of state and regional borders, revisiting the Electoral College, and taking whatever additional steps might be necessary to address our changing demographics.

Better to tweak our Constitution through the amendment process rather than bow the knee to an autocratic demagogue.