Trump assaulted American democracy – here's how Democrats can save it

Robert Reich
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

Barring a miracle, Amy Coney Barrett will be confirmed on Monday as the ninth justice on the US supreme court.

This is a travesty of democracy.

The vote on Barrett’s confirmation will occur just eight days before election day. By contrast, the Senate didn’t even hold a hearing on Merrick Garland, who Barack Obama nominated almost a year before the end of his term. Majority leader Mitch McConnell argued at the time that any vote should wait “until we have a new president”.

Barrett was nominated by a president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3m ballots, and who was impeached by the House of Representatives. When Barrett joins the court, five of the nine justices will have been appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote.

The Republican senators who will vote for her represent 15 million fewer Americans than their Democratic colleagues.

Once on the high court, Barrett will join five other reactionaries who together will be able to declare laws unconstitutional, for perhaps a generation.

The constitution says nothing about the number of justices. The court changed size seven times in its first 80 years

Barrett’s confirmation is the culmination of years in which a shrinking and increasingly conservative, rural and white segment of the US population has been imposing its will on the rest of America. They’ve been bankrolled by big business, seeking lower taxes and fewer regulations.

In the event Joe Biden becomes president on 20 January and both houses of Congress come under control of the Democrats, they can reverse this trend. It may be the last chance – both for the Democrats and, more importantly, for American democracy.

How?

For starters, increase the size of the supreme court. The constitution says nothing about the number of justices. The court changed size seven times in its first 80 years, from as few as five justices under John Adams to 10 under Abraham Lincoln.

Biden says if elected he’ll create a bipartisan commission to study a possible court overhaul “because it’s getting out of whack”. That’s fine, but he’ll need to move quickly. The window of opportunity could close by the 2022 midterm elections.

Second, abolish the Senate filibuster. Under current rules, 60 votes are needed to enact legislation. This means that if Democrats win a bare majority there, Republicans could block any new legislation Biden hopes to pass.

The filibuster could be ended with a rule change requiring 51 votes. There is growing support among Democrats for doing this if they gain that many seats. During the campaign, Biden acknowledged that the filibuster has become a negative force in government.

The filibuster is not in the constitution either.

At the least, statehood should be granted to Washington DC

The most ambitious structural reform would be to rebalance the Senate itself. For decades, rural states have been emptying as the US population has shifted to vast megalopolises. The result is a growing disparity in representation, especially of nonwhite voters.

For example, both California, with a population of 40 million, and Wyoming, whose population is 579,000, get two senators. If population trends continue, by 2040 some 40% of Americans will live in just five states, and half of America will be represented by 18 Senators, the other half by 82.

This distortion also skews the electoral college, because each state’s number of electors equals its total of senators and representatives. Hence, the recent presidents who have lost the popular vote.

This growing imbalance can be remedied by creating more states representing a larger majority of Americans. At the least, statehood should be granted to Washington DC. And given that one out of eight Americans now lives in California – whose economy, if it were a separate country, would be the ninth-largest in the world – why not split it into a North and South California?

The constitution is also silent on the number of states.

Related: Revealed: ex-members of Amy Coney Barrett faith group tell of trauma and sexual abuse

Those who recoil from structural reforms such as the three I’ve outlined warn that Republicans will retaliate when they return to power. That’s rubbish. Republicans have already altered the ground rules. In 2016, they failed to win a majority of votes cast for the House, Senate or the presidency, yet secured control of all three.

Barrett’s ascent is the latest illustration of how grotesque the power imbalance has become, and how it continues to entrench itself ever more deeply. If not reversed soon, it will be impossible to remedy.

What’s at stake is not partisan politics. It is representative government. If Democrats get the opportunity, they must redress this growing imbalance – for the sake of democracy.