A recent Princeton study by Martin Gillens and Benjamin I. Page concludes that the U.S. no longer has a democracy. “Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.” See here. Citizens, they say, have little independent influence.
If Alexander Hamilton were here, he would tell us that this is the way it should be. The Constitution is designed to prevent the people from having their way. It is a fundamentally undemocratic document designed to prevent change. Alexander Hamilton argued in The Federalist Papers, No. 73 that making change difficult restrained the “excess of lawmaking” and “kept things in the same state in which they happen to be at any given period.” He argued that “the injury which possibly may be done by defeating a few good laws will be amply compensated by preventing a number of bad ones.” Underlying this sentiment is a fear of popular democratic movements which, if not, checked could sweep in a number of “bad laws.” Thus, as every school child knows (or should know), a measure in most cases cannot become law without passing the House and the Senate and not being vetoed by the President (in the absence of an override), or struck down by the courts. The House was initially designed to be the voice of the people, but gerrymandering has made it possible (as was the case in 2013) for a majority of the representatives to be elected by a minority of the electorate.
This anti-populist feature is compounded by what has come to be called the “winner take all” system combined with the districting system. So, if a party candidate wins a congressional district by 51% to 49%, the candidate wins the seat. If the same party carried every seat by the same margin, the party would have 100% of the representation with only 51% of the vote. Of course, that does not happen. But even without gerrymandering, representation in the House can fail to reflect the interests of voters.
Even more obviously, the Senate is deliberately structured not to reflect the voice of popular movements. States with small populations like Mississippi and Alabama each get two representatives in the Senate; so do heavily populated New York and California. To get an idea of the impact of this structure on popular representation, consider that according to the 2000 Census, Senators from the twenty-six smallest states, who represented only 17.8% of the nation's population, nonetheless constituted a majority of the Senate. This one state – two votes – feature of the Constitution cannot even be amended. In addition, only one third of the body is up for election at any time making it difficult for a popular majority to transform the body in a single election. Moreover, the blocking feature of the Senate is compounded by the existence of the filibuster in which a small minority of a body that already represents a minority of the population can in many circumstances prevent a measure from becoming law.
All this even before the Supreme Court determined that the unlimited expenditures of billionaires in election campaigns do not trigger a realistic fear of corruption. Call it what you will – a plutocracy, an oligarchy, or a corpocracy. The Princeton scholars have it right. We do not live in a democracy. The next time we celebrate our Constitution, we should recognize that there is too much bitter accompanying the sweet.