A year ago today, I helped organize a discussion on civil/human rights rhetoric in America at the Schomburg Center. The impetus for the program was the 100th birthday on civil rights legend Bayard Rustin, and with Occupy still fresh in minds, there was a great hook to discuss the need for greater social and economic equality. We brought together NYU’s Burt Neuborne, Columbia’s Kendall Thomas, and historian Ida E. Jones in a conversation moderated by Cathy Albisa, the executive director of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. While the full event was two hours long, I made a quick highlight reel.
In an anecdote-filled piece on Republican obsolescence by Robert Draper in The New York Times Magazine, Draper discusses the results of a focus group of average Ohioans. When asked to describe the Republican brand, the following terms were generated:
When Anderson then wrote “Republican,” the outburst was immediate and vehement: “Corporate greed.”“Old.”“Middle-aged white men.” “Rich.” “Religious.” “Conservative.” “Hypocritical.” “Military retirees.” “Narrow-minded.” “Rigid.” “Not progressive.” “Polarizing.” “Stuck in their ways.” “Farmers.”
A number of those terms fit easily together, and I was struck instantly by the last term: “Farmers.” It’s no surprise that the Republican Party has an increasingly rural base.
Unfortunately for our ever-urbanizing country (and fortunate for our rural minority), the fruited plains and vast open “flyover country” that Republicans dominate affords them out-sized political power despite their dwindling numbers. While Democratic House candidates received more than 1.4 million votes than their Republican counterparts, they still face a thirty-some seat disadvantage in the House. Their Senate majority rests largely on Republican candidates that were . . . confused about rape. Combined with well-timed gerrymandering, the result is that Republicans have “drawn themselves into a durable House majority,” but one that is elected by “an alternate universe of voters that little resembles the growing diversity of the country.”
While the country has long trumpeted majority rule, Republican political power is the beneficiary of the powerful protections given to the minority in our Constitution. Instead, what the Constitution rewards political power to a landed majority. Since the Founding, agrarian America has been bolstered by structural guarantees such as the Electoral College and, yes, the long-stricken Three-Fifths Clause.
This made sense in Eighteenth Century when the American populace was widely dispersed throughout the former colonies. In fact, in 1790, at the time of the first Census, nearly 95% of Americans lived in rural areas. By 1900, this percentage had declined to 60%, but still, ensuring the political dominance of rural America still made sense. Today, rural America accounts for only 16% of the total population.
Republicans have embraced this 16% of the population to the country’s detriment. Certainly political polarization impacts the Democratic Party as well, but because Republicans can still have substantial national political power while representing a shrinking part of the country, the United States’ political development is stunted. Obviously, many parties instead see this state of affairs as an appropriate check on fluctuating democratic impulses. That notion may well be true in some circumstances, but because our politics has become perpetually locked into a two-party system, rural domination has unduly warped our political discourse. We have a party in lockstep with “conservative” rural interests against a broad base of “Democrats.”
As the Republican base has shrunk, the Democrats have become a big tent party. This creates its own set of problems: I was talking to a member of the Maryland state legislature, a state that’s utterly dominated by Democrats, and he bemoaned the single-party rule that’s spreading to more and more states. ”We should have Democrats versus Greens, and Greens could well represent farmers,” he said.
Instead, farmers are trapped with Republicans, and Greens are trapped with Democrats, and America suffers as a result. Our political discourse demands that we disconnect the landed majority from the trappings of political power. Some of this made sense at our Founding. It no longer does.