Minority rules, children die: Our broken political system has lethal consequences

Our democracy is hopelessly paralyzed. We see the consequences in Uvalde and Buffalo. So what do we do about it?

Published June 2, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

People pay tribute and mourn at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, May 31, 2022. (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)
People pay tribute and mourn at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, May 31, 2022. (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

Our national tragedies follow their own dreary script. The unthinkable happens, again: School children are massacred, this time just a week after a hate-filled rampage in a grocery store. There is a ritual outpouring of sorrow and rage, a senator's impotent anguish goes viral, and that rueful Onion headline gets updated as another community wails. 

Yet our politics remains trapped in a pitiable chorus of Surely, now, we will act and Sorry, no, nothing to be done. Even something as toothless as expanded background checks looks impossible. Dopey ideas like armed guards at single school entrances are proposed by politicians who have never apparently seen an American high school or a bored mall cop.

Such emptiness and repetition somehow makes these hellish days even more hopeless. A country that were even slightly less broken would not suffer from an epidemic of mass shootings. A political system less broken would at least try to prevent the slaughter of children and teachers from becoming commonplace. Ours can't even pretend to be serious.

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There's a viral tweet by the British journalist Dan Hodges that circulates after so many mass shootings that suggests Sandy Hook marked the end of the gun control movement, because "once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over." This week, it had 231,000 likes and another 185,000 retweets.

The trouble is, that's not exactly right. Voters never decided it was bearable to see children murdered, or that nothing could be done. The root problem remains the same: Our broken political institutions, in which small minorities exert veto power over much larger majorities, even while third-graders die.

Voters never decided it was tolerable to see children murdered, or that nothing could be done. That's a function of our broken institutions, in which a shrinking minority exerts veto power.

Our gun nightmare, like so many other national emergencies, has been compounded and even rendered unsolvable, by our crisis of extreme minority rule. We can't enact common sense reforms that bipartisan majorities support because gerrymandering, the Senate filibuster and federal courts filled with conservative ideologues — by presidents who lost the popular vote — all stand in the way of the people's will. 

Public opinion has been consistent for years. Majorities of Americans support banning high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. They support banning assault-style weapons. They support "red flag" laws that would allow a judge to remove guns from someone who is at obvious risk for violent behavior. They support creating a national gun database, adding background checks for private sales and gun shows, and even raising the age for gun ownership.  

But public opinion essentially doesn't matter. So nothing changes, despite widespread agreement on a path forward, despite the political power of parents who tremble and hold their kids tighter at morning drop-off, despite the tears of presidents who comfort those moms and dads whose children don't make it home, despite march after march by teenagers who ask nothing more than to be safe at school. 

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As a result, those in power who are actually interested in reform have stopped trying. It's hard to blame them for recognizing the true nature of the Sisyphean charade. 

The combination of gerrymandering and the filibuster ensured that nothing changed after Sandy Hook. Public backing for stricter gun laws grew to 58% after 28 died in that mass shooting nearly 10 years ago in Newtown, Connecticut. Yet the wildly gerrymandered House of Representatives, at the time controlled by Republicans opposed to gun control even though Democratic candidates had won 1.4 million more votes, never even considered any serious reforms. The GOP held a 234-201 edge in Congress because of six states, all of which were carried by Barack Obama and all of which had been redistricted the previous year by Republicans. Those states were Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia and Florida, and collectively they sent 64 Republicans and 30 Democrats to Washington. 

The Republican House majority that blocked gun control after Sandy Hook was entirely the result of aggressive GOP redistricting in six states — all of them won by Barack Obama.

It's absurd and illogical, of course, that states won by Democrats statewide give nearly two-thirds of their congressional seats to the opposition party. If the delegations from those six blue states had broken exactly even, 50/50, the result would have been a 218-217 Democratic majority. So the supposed "bipartisan compromise" on universal background checks that emerged after Sandy Hook had to begin in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where the bill, sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., was, predictably, smothered by the filibuster. 

Ronald Brownstein, then with the Los Angeles Times, counted the number of people represented by the 54 votes in support of the bill and the 46 against. The 54 senators who voted yes represented 194 million people. The 46 who blocked consideration represented 118 million.

The arcane Senate filibuster — used for decades after the Civil War to stop civil rights legislation, and then honed into a powerful obstructionist tool by Mitch McConnell — allows any senator to hold up a vote with even the threat of holding the floor indefinitely, and requires an insurmountable 60-vote supermajority to break. 

The basic arithmetic of the U.S. Senate has changed little since, and it would be folly to imagine that today's ever more polarized, gerrymandered and geographically sorted chambers are any more capable of reflecting the nation. No one really believes the Senate can or will do much of anything. Democrats have declined to kill off the filibuster because two of their members, in a 50-seat pseudo-majority, insist on keeping it. Nothing can pass in that environment.

Smaller, whiter, more rural states — which are far more likely to vote Republican and to oppose gun reforms — have effective veto power over any legislation. The 50 Democrats in today's Senate represent 41 million more people than the 50 Republicans. As Sen. Angus King of Maine noted during the debate over expanding voting rights earlier this year — also blocked by the filibuster — 41 senators representing just 24% of the nation's population can block most anything they'd like. (And of course, an illegitimate and radicalized U.S. Supreme Court majority may soon make it impossible for states or localities to enforce their own gun laws.) 

Of course, this isn't just about guns. This minority-rule crisis infesting all levels of our politics helps explain why extreme anti-abortion laws proliferate even when majorities oppose them almost everywhere. It explains the failure of voting rights legislation that Americans supported in large numbers. It explains or lethal paralysis on climate change, which literally endangers the future of our planet. The problem is only getting worse. This is how democracies atrophy and how institutions collapse. Americans demand action, we know that our political system is incapable of providing it, and incapable of doing much of anything, even when children are gunned down in their classrooms. 

Democrats' options are clear enough: Dump the filibuster, restructure the Senate to be fairer, find a way to win 60 seats — or uselessly rage and whine, choosing powerlessness.

A recent opinion piece in Reason magazine suggested that Democrats use the filibuster as a scapegoat instead of confronting their own inaction, and while the argument carries a whiff of disingenuousness — please, Democrats, reveal your powerlessness on more issues, frustrate majorities even more often — there's an important kernel of truth there. This minoritarian veto power stands in the way of every progressive priority, and it's not going away. The options are clear enough: Change the rules, build support for restructuring the Senate to be fairer and more representative, find a way to win a 60-seat majority — or uselessly rage on, having chosen powerlessness.

The Senate may have been designed to be a cooling "saucer" that slows down political action, but it was not intended to render all action impossible. Our national crises keep on mounting. Our political institutions leave us no option but to bury the dead and await the next numbing catastrophe. We are broken and nearly beyond repair. We the people are weaponized. And a small faction of our people have weaponized our political institutions against us as well. 

Read more from David Daley on the failure of democracy:

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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Commentary Filibuster Gerrymandering Gun Control Guns Mass Shootings Republicans Senate