How Slavery Continues to Undermine American Democracy

 By - 10/26/2020

In the months and weeks leading up to election day of 2020 we've all heard a lot about how important this election is for "preserving" American democracy. Donald Trump's niece, Mary Trump, has said that if Donald Trump wins, "democracy is over." The reality is that America is not now and has never been a democracy. If America were an actual democracy so much of American history would have been radically different and we certainly wouldn't be in this position today. Many people understand that in the early days of the Republic only property-owning white men were able to vote, which kept America from being a true democracy, but few seem to grasp the ways in which the entire American political system was intentionally designed to fundamentally thwart majority rule. Even today, many educated scholars still opine about the "founding wisdom" of the framers and still believe that the American system of government is fundamentally well designed, maybe just needing a few tweaks.

The reality is that nothing could be farther from the truth. The American system of government is flawed to the core. It is a system of government that was fundamentally designed to protect slavery against popular opposition, in which every facet of democracy was undermined because the framers of the Constitution knew that slavery was unpopular and could not survive within a truly democratic system. And make no mistake, the framers of the American Constitution weren't naive or simply unaware of the impacts of their designs. Indeed, the framers of the Constitution were quite likely some of the most well educated and studied men on subject of constitutional democracy in the history of the world. John Adam's work, A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States of America, is one of the most remarkable studies of ancient law and democratic theory ever produced. The founders understood how to make a political system more or less representative of the will of the people, and they consciously chose to design a system that prevented the will of the people from actually exerting control over the government. Indeed, they consciously chose to design a system that appeared more democratic than it actually was - a system that gave the illusion of democracy.

Understanding exactly how and why this happened all goes back to the issue of slavery. You see, when the movement for revolution started in the northern colonies, those colonies knew that they had to have the support of the southern colonies in order to have any hope of successfully winning a war for freedom against the British. The British controlled the Canadian territory to the north of the colonies, and they knew that it would be impossible to fight against the British if the southern colonies remained loyal to the British as well. In such a scenario, the northern colonies would have been sandwiched between British controlled territory to the north and British controlled territory to the south. Thus, it was vital to get the southern colonies on board with the revolution if there was to be any hope for success.

For the southern colonies, slavery was non-negotiable. The upholding of slavery was of paramount importance to the south, and they were unwilling to even consider joining the revolution unless they could be guaranteed that slavery would remain legal and have the support of the newly formed government. But this presented a significant problem for the framers of the Constitution, because slavery was far less popular in the more populous northern colonies. It was clear that any kind of "real democracy" could have quickly resulted in the ending of slavery by popular vote. In other words, everyone knew that the northern colonies were far less favorable to slavery and had enough votes to outlaw it if all thirteen colonies were to be governed by a unified "will of the people." Thus, what followed in the framing of the American Constitution was a conscious effort to devise a system that had a facade of democracy, but ensured that the southern colonies could maintain slavery in spite of democratic opposition to the practice. This desire to protect slavery, a compromise that the northern colonies had to accept in order to get the support of the southern colonies, is foundational to the design of American government.

The need to protect slavery is why every state gets two senators, regardless of population, and the Senate is the most powerful legislative body in the country. The need to protect slavery is why the votes of the electoral college are skewed to give smaller states more voting power. And of course the need to protect slavery is why votes for president aren't directly counted, but instead we have an electoral college that is apportioned based on a state's population, regardless of the voting rights of the individuals in that state. This is a system that rewards disenfranchisement. Famously, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person in terms of the population that was used to apportion Congress and the electoral vote. This gave southern states more political power. But it wasn't just the slaves. Voting restrictions on property ownership and gender also inflated the power of voters, because the apportionment of the House of Representatives, as well as the number of votes in the electoral college, was determined by the entire population of a state, not just the eligible voters. Thus, the bigger the non-voting population was in a state, the more power the voters of that state had. This actually encouraged voter disenfranchisement. And of course, the biggest block of non-voters were slaves, even when counted at only 3/5 of a person. But not only did southern states have more slaves, they had more white non-voters as well due to concentrated property ownership and larger family sizes.

It was through this system of "representational voting", that the South was able to maintain political power throughout the early years of the Republic. Prior to the Civil War, the South was able to maintain roughly equal legislative power in the Senate, despite the fact that slave holding states only accounted for about one third of the free population of the country. While holding only about 30% of the free population of the nation, the southern states were typically represented by between 55% to 45% of the senators. This is because every state was granted two senators no matter what, so the fact that southern states had lower free populations did nothing to diminish their legislative power. But the power of slave-holding states was disproportionate in the House of Representatives as well, because representation in the House of Representatives is based on populations, not actual voters, and of course slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person for political purposes. This inflated the number of congressmen allocated to the South in the House of Representatives. This is why our system is based on "population representation" instead of simply on votes. In a real democracy votes would be all that would matter, but in the American system the votes of voters are only cast toward representatives of populations. The entire American electoral system is a Rube Goldberg device that was originally designed to protect the interests of slavery.

Think about it this way: What if the number of congressmen in the House of Representatives was based simply on the number of votes cast. The more votes cast in a state, the more congressmen that state would have. What would the effect of such a design be? First of all, it would encourage political support for maximizing voter enfranchisement and participation, because then the most direct way to increase political power would be to increase voting participation. There would then be a direct link between voter turnout and political power. The founders knew that, but they chose not to adopt such a system because they wanted a system that didn't depend on voter enfranchisement. They wanted a system in which disenfranchisement could support the political power of unpopular minority control. Such a system was essential for the preservation of slavery.

By 1860, the last census before the Civil War, slave states constituted just 31% of the American free population but held 45% of the power in the Senate - actually a recent decrease with the admittance of California, Minnesota and Oregon between 1850 and 1859. During much of the time prior to the Civil War the South actually maintained a lead in Senate power despite representing a significantly lower portion of the free population. Likewise, as of 1860 slave states held 38% of the seats in the House of Representatives with just 31% of the free population. Prior to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, ten out of the first sixteen presidents hailed from slave-holding states.

So while only about 30% of American citizens lived in slave-holding states prior to the Civil War, the American South was able to maintain a firm grip on political power precisely because of the anti-democratic design of the American electoral system. Every aspect of the American electoral system was specifically designed to make this hold on power possible. Today, despite various voting reforms, the original system that was designed to protect slavery is still in place in America today. Real democracy is not complicated. The American electoral system is a complicated labyrinth that was intentionally designed to thwart majority rule precisely because the founders knew that slavery would not survive in a true democracy. They knew that the system had to be rigged to give slave holders disproportionate political power. The fundamental design of the American electoral system that was developed to undermine democracy in order to protect slavery is still with us today. While there is growing recognition of the fact that we are now living under minority rule, few recognize that this was true of early American history as well. While we often recognize that many of the founding fathers were slave holders, few reflect on the fact that the vast majority of Americans at this time were not slave holders, and in fact there were many prominent colonists who opposed slavery. It is not as though slave-holding was simply ubiquitous, it was not.

The idea that the American political system is rooted in some kind of noble founding wisdom is a complete sham. The complexities and machinations of the American electoral system aren't the product of some profound wisdom, nor do they stem from some enlightened sense of minority protections. It was all about protecting slavery, an already unpopular institution at the time of the founding of the country. The only way to ensure that an unpopular institution could survive in a "democracy" was to rig the system against majority rule. The situation that we find ourselves in today, with Republicans taking the presidency despite losing the popular vote twice in the past five elections and Republicans holding majorities in both houses of Congress for much of the twenty-first century despite having received millions fewer votes than the Democrats, is the direct product of a system that was designed to protect slavery against popular opposition. And it’s no mistake that rural conservatives are the beneficiaries of biases in the American electoral system. The American electoral system was designed from the outset to favor the rural conservatism of the plantation owners over urban progressivism.

The fact of the matter is that designing an electoral system for true democracy is not difficult. One person, one vote. Representation is based on the proportion of votes, not on population counts. The electoral system should be administered by independent commissions that are not under the control of political parties in any way. Indeed, the ancient Greeks even went a step further - they eliminated elections altogether and used lottery to select legislators from the public. They understood that elections meant that money and power would still play a role in politics, so they decided to eliminate the entire problem by just randomly selecting representative samples of legislators from the citizenry. This is to say nothing of direct democracy. The founders were well aware of these types of democratic systems. Indeed, when we imagine what a truly democratic government would look like in this country it becomes clear just how far from the mark America really falls.

Today, Republicans hold 53% of the seats in the Senate, despite representing 14.3 million fewer people than the Democrats. Roughly half of Americans live in the nine most populous states. Those states only receive 18 votes in the Senate. The other half of the population lives in the 41 smaller states. That half of the population receives 82 votes in the Senate. This is a massively disproportionate system. Half the population has 82% of the legislative power in the most powerful governing body. The legislation of this country is overwhelmingly controlled by small states. If we wanted a far more representative system of government, devising such a system, even loosely based on our current system, would not be difficult. The Senate could be replaced with a legislative body of randomly selected representatives from the population. Each state would get a number of randomly selected representatives based on the population of the state, so the representation would always be proportionate. The state with the lowest population could always have two such representatives, with the number of representatives for all other states being in proportion to that of the lowest population. Thus, a state with twice the population of the lowest state would have twice the number of representatives, or four, etc. For the House of Representatives, the number of house seats should be based on the prior election's vote totals. Thus, the more voters there are in a state the greater the state's representation would be in the House. This would encourage voter enfranchisement. States would then work to maximize their voter turnout and enfranchise as many voters as possible instead of working to suppress voters. Voting districts for the House of Representatives should be set by an independent election supervisory organization, not by the political parties. This would give us two legislative bodies, one with randomly selected legislators and one with elected representatives. The selection of a national leader should of course be based on popular vote. Every person's vote should count the same, no matter who they are or where they live. Further, broad aspects of the national agenda should be set by direct democracy, with voters voting directly to set the priorities of the legislators. I don't think that having voters vote directly on legislation works well, because there are so many opportunities for manipulation of such processes in the creation of the legislation to be voted on. But certainly, there is a role for direct democracy.

Yes, we are living under minority rule today. Even if the Democrats sweep the 2020 elections, taking control of the House, Senate and Presidency, the fact will still remain that the American electoral system is designed to allow unpopular minority rule to control the government, because it was designed that way from the outset in order to protect the institution of slavery. The structure of our political system is not a noble design worth preserving, it is a rigged system that was designed to facilitate slavery. If the Democrats are able to take control of the government in 2021, we should make it clear that the highest priority of a new Democratic government should be major structural reform of the electoral system to ensure true democracy. If we do not seize this potential opportunity to fundamentally change the structure of American government, the problem of regressive minority rule will persist in America indefinitely. This election isn't a question of, “saving American democracy” - there has never been such a thing. The question is, will America ever become a real demcoracy?


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