The Island States Of America: American Democracy At Risk?

07/12/2017 09:48 am ET Updated Jul 12, 2017

For more than a decade now, much has been written about the increasing polarization and the tremendous philosophical and political differences among those in various states and regions of this country.

There are: The red states and the blue states. The coastal states and the heartland states. The big states and the little states.

The question becomes is the American democracy at risk because of this balkanization? The answer is it all depends.

Truth be told – and it should. The United States of America have never been all that united.

A retrospective look at the U.S. over time does not reveal an integrated, interdependent and unified America. To believe otherwise is to ignore or misread history.

In fact, given our country’s history, the United States of America might even be a misnomer. A more accurate name might be the Island States of America.

Those Island States are held together by a constitution and a central government. But, they have fought with each other and together since this country’s founding to elevate states rights above the rights of the federal government to exercise certain controls over them.

The Island States of America: The Historical Perspective

The Articles of Confederation adapted in 1777 which established the Confederation of States created a weak form of federal government and gave Congress virtually no power to regulate domestic affairs and absolutely no power to tax or regulate commerce.

By 1786 many of the individual states were bankrupt and the states were in an ongoing war of discrimination against one another. Recognizing these problematic conditions, in 1787 the Continental Congress called for a Constitutional Convention (Convention) “to devise such further provisions as shall appear to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the union.”

The Convention of 55 delegates from 12 states (Rhode Island which opposed the Constitution sent no delegate) was convened in Philadelphia in May of 1787. The delegates considered a number of proposals and plans such as the Virginia Plan which would have created a much stronger federal government and the New Jersey Plan which would have kept federal powers quite limited.

By September 17, 1787, through a series of negotiations and compromises the delegates drafted a new Constitution. 39 of the 55 delegates – barely enough to win majority support from each of the attending state delegations – voted to adopt the Constitution.

That Constitution gave new powers to Congress such as regulating commerce, currency and the national defense. But, it also restricted Congress from regulating the slave trade for 20 years and allowed a slave to be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportionment and electoral votes. Importantly, the Constitution also called for representation in the House of Representatives to be based on population and for each state to be guaranteed an equal two senators in the new Senate. 

Getting the Constitution adapted in Philadelphia was the easy part. Getting it ratified by the states required even further compromise and amending the Constitution itself.

During the debate on adoption of the Constitution between 1787 and 1790, many citizens raised concerns that the Constitution gave too much power to the central government and would have resulted in tyrannical rule similar to that experienced under the British. They demanded further protection both of civil rights and states rights.

Based upon this feedback on Sept. 25, 1789, the First Congress of the United States put forward 12 amendments for ratification by the states. The 10 amendments to the Constitution that were approved became known as The Bill of Rights.

The majority of those amendments dealt strictly with protecting the individual’s rights. The Tenth Amendment, which reads as follows, protected states rights:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

As we look back on it now, this amendment might be labeled the Island States of America Amendment. In spite of the addition of this amendment and the entire Bill of Rights, ratification of the Constitution was not a slam dunk.

It just squeaked by in some states. For example, the vote in Massachusetts was 187 for and 168 against. The vote in Rhode Island, the last of the 13 states to approve the Constitution was the closest with 34 for and 32 against.

The Constitutional Convention and the Bill of Rights were major pivot points in American history that impacted the social and economic terrain of the nation and its citizens. There have been scores of other pivot points through the years that have impacted the tensions between states rights and federal rights and have determined whether our island states have drawn closer together or drifted further apart.

To name just a few: The Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment, Brown v. Board of Education; Roe v. Wade; and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 2017, we are at another pivot point in terms of those island states. We will examine that pivot point further in a bit. Before doing so, let’s take a look at what our history has wrought from another perspective.

The Island States of America: The Contextual Perspective

As the foundation and framework for this democratic republic and our representative democracy, the U.S. Constitution is unquestionably one of the greatest documents ever written. Unfortunately, that same document establishes the context not only for the United States of America but for the Island States of America as well.

The Constitution does that by:

  • Assigning the same number of U.S. senators (2) to each state regardless of its population

  • Giving the states the right to redistrict their federal Congressional districts and state senate and house districts in accordance with census results

  • Establishing the electoral college with electors from each state as the means for electing the President and Vice President of the United States

Those provisions in the Constitution make the states the fulcrum for political decision-making and give the smaller states disproportionate power in the governance of the nation.

The assignment of two U.S. senators per state may have made some sense at some point in time. But, that time is long past.

Larry J. Sabato, Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, makes that point in his book, A More Perfect Constitution. He comments,

In the early years of the Republic, the population ratio of the most populated state, Virginia, to the least populated state, Delaware was 12 to 1. In 2004, the ratio was an incredible 70 to 1 between California and tiny Wyoming. Therefore, the current Senate is absolutely skewed in the direction of the small states. Theoretically, if the twenty-six smallest states held together on all votes, they would control the U.S. Senate with just under 17 percent of the country’s population.

The Constitution gives each state the right to draw federal congressional districts. As L. Paige Whitaker writes in a Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report, however, “The legal framework for congressional redistricting involves, in addition to various state processes, both constitutional and statutory requirements, and case law interpretations of each.”

Whitaker notes that prior to 1960, redistricting plans “were considered non-justiciable political questions.” The 1962 Supreme Court ruling in Baker v. Carr, held that the plans were justiciable. Since then, “…a series of constitutional and legal challenges have significantly shaped how congressional districts are drawn.”

So, there’s no problem in the drawing of district lines any longer. Right? Wrong!

An AP analysis conducted of the 2016 election results found that political gerrymandering is alive and well. The AP looked at the outcomes of the 435 U.S. House races and approximately “4,700 state House and Assembly seats” using a “new statistical method of calculating partisan advantage.”

It found that “four times as many states with Republican-skewed state House or assembly districts than Democratic ones.” Moreover, the AP also found significant Republican advantages in their U.S. or state house races in battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and Virginia. Each of these states “…had districts drawn by Republicans after the last census in 2010.”

Finally, there is the Electoral College (College) – a political anachronism in the 21st century if there ever was one. The College is presently comprised of 538 electors from 50 states (435 electors based upon the number of U.S. Representatives and 100 electors based upon the number of U.S. senators), and the District of Columbia (3 electors).

The College is probably the ultimate testimony to the pre-eminence of the Island States in our political system. It gives supremacy to the states over the individual voters. It gives greater influence to the smaller states and the voters in those states over those in larger states. And, it gives the states virtually complete latitude to determine how electors are selected and votes are allocated

In conclusion, these island states that are legitimately constructed are insular and polarizing by design. Because of their “legitimacy’ and the advantage they give to a minority over the majority of voters, it will probably be impossible to break their stranglehold unless the general public perceives it is threatened by the status of the current political, economic and social condition of America.

The Island States of America: The Future Perspective

The populist uprising of 2016 during the presidential primaries is evidence that the public in general was not pleased with the political status quo. We believe that this dissatisfaction extends far beyond things political.

In March of this year we posted a blog asserting that “The United States of America is in an apocalyptic state.” We went on to declare that state was created by a variety of factors including:

  • A dysfunctional U.S. Congress
  • Ignorant and apathetic citizens
  • Political polarization
  • Negative perceptions of our institutions
  • Economic inequality
  • Diminished hopes and dreams
  • The changing nature of work
  • A culture clash between different segments of society
  • Global corporations
  • The fear factor toward Muslims and other immigrants
  • Internet disconnection and the unsocial media

Sadly, we must report that due to the extreme emphasis being placed by the current administration and our Congressional leaders on the Island States of America that the apocalyptic state has worsened in the nearly four months since we posted that blog rather than gotten better.

A primary example of that worsening is the healthcare bill as passed by the House and being considered by the Senate. As we noted in a blog on the Senate bill, it “…was less about improving health care for the majority of Americans and much more about: reducing the nation’s budget deficit; giving large tax breaks to the wealthy; and elevating state governments’ rights over the federal government’s.”

Other examples of this elevation of the state governments’ rights and the deepening of the island states approach to governing include:

  • The EPA’s aggressive dismantling of environmental regulations and orders.
  • The proposed Trump budget cuts to all things domestic and transferring of greater responsibility to the states to provide for those citizens who will literally be left hungry or out in the cold because of those cuts.
  • The use of pre-emption laws, as Emily Badger reports in the New York Times, by red states to prevent blue cities within their boundaries “... from adapting more progressive policies.”

Finally, President Donald J. Trump continues to tweet to his more than 30 million twitter followers who live in his island state – the state of Trumpsylvania. He does that not to make the United States more united but to maintain a divide which has served him well both during his presidential campaign and in his initial months as President.

Donald Trump loves a winner. So, he must be happy at this point in time because the Island States of America are winning.

If the Island States win now though, the United States loses. As our divisions grow deeper and the distances between us grow larger, we are losing the ties that bind. That puts the American democracy as we have known it at considerable risk.

The United States of America and our democracy is truly at another pivot point. That’s not just our opinion.

It’s the case that political science and government professors, Robert Mickey of the University of Michigan, Steven Levitsky of Harvard University and Lucan Ahmad Way of the University of Toronto, make forcefully in their Foreign Affairs article “Is America Still Safe for Democracy? Why the United States is in Danger of Backsliding.”

Unfortunately, given the evidence they present and the conclusions they draw, the professors see America more at a precipice than at a pivot point. In their article, Mickey, Levitsky and Way observe, “Scholars have long identified political polarization as a central factor behind democratic breakdown.”

They go on to place the majority of the blame for the current polarization in the United States upon the Republicans with a list of charges including:

  • “…Republican elected officials, activists, and media personalities have begun to treat their Democratic rivals as an existential threat …and have ceased to see them as legitimate.”
  • At the federal level, “…the Republican Party has increasingly abandoned established norms of restraint and cooperation.” For example not holding a confirmation hearing on Merrick Garland, President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.
  • “At the state level, passing laws aimed at disadvantaging their rivals.” For example, states placing new restrictions on voting rights and more than a dozen states introducing legislation “to criminalize certain types of protests.”

The professors state that “Ultimately, the fate of American democracy under Trump may hinge on contingent events”. They see the potential “greatest brake on backsliding” being the unpopularity of the President and “a war or terrorist attack” having the opposite effect and leading to a weakening of the “commitment to civil liberties.”

Mickey, Levitsky and Way conclude their article on a pessimistic note by writing:

U.S. Democracy is not immune to backsliding. In fact it now faces a challenge that extends well beyond Trump: sustaining the multiracial democracy that was born a half a century ago. Few democracies have survived transitions in which historically dominant ethnic groups lose their majority status. If American democracy manages to do that, it will prove exceptional indeed.

We agree with many of the professors’ points. And, as we have demonstrated throughout this blog, we understand the bind in which the island states place us.

We do not believe, however, that the fate and future of our American democracy should be determined by “contingent events” or “surviving transitions.” Rather, the course should be one of seizing the initiative and taking affirmative action.

This begins by recognizing and acknowledging that the United States democracy is at a major pivot point. A pivot point, as we defined it in our book, Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again, is “an area that must be leveraged and addressed effectively in order to effectuate change and achieve positive outcomes.”

We have sketched out the general dimensions of this pivot point in this blog. The next step is to mobilize Americans of good will to work together to address it.

Given the critical importance of this pivot point, we recommend that that a national commission be established to develop a plan of action to ensure the American democracy not only survives but that it thrives in the 21st Century.

That Commission should be titled The Commission to Unite the States of America. It should be similar to the 9/11 Commission in its bipartisan nature and the unfettered scope of its reach.

The Commission’s members should be drawn from national leaders with expertise and experience in business, politics, government, civic and community service, and academia. It should include a few former elected officials. But, they should be the minority of the membership. The charge to the Commission should be to develop a non-partisan plan and have it in place within 12-18 months.

This proposal to develop such a Commission might be viewed as a pipe dream. But, the citizens of the United States are living through a nightmare at present. Something substantive and substantial must be done to enable them to awake from it with a renewed sense of hope and optimism for themselves and this democracy.

The President of the United States has established an Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. That Commission exists to address a problem that doesn’t.

We don’t expect the President to appoint a Unite the States of America Commission to address a very real problem that does. That does not mean, however, that concerned citizens and leaders from across the country should not form an alliance to call for the formation of one.

Calling for change begins the process. Frequently, that change takes a long time in coming. That is why we must make that call now.

Our constitution and democracy has evolved over time. It took from 1790 and a civil war for former slaves to be made citizens and given the ostensible right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 – 80 years after the Constitution’s ratification. But, African Americans didn’t really get unimpeded voting rights until the Twenty-Fourth Amendment was passed in 1964 – 174 years after ratification. Women did not get the right to vote until the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920 – 130 years after ratification.

Our Constitution and democracy were and are not perfect. As the nation has demonstrated from its founding, the United States of America and the Island States of America can co-exist.

In the year 2017, however, as some would make the Island States of America more and more dominant and try to move us as Americans further apart rather than closer together, the basis for that co-existence and the strength of our American democracy is threatened. It is time for patriotic citizens to unite in a common and collective effort to save the democracy.

The United States of America will be better off when this is done. So, too will the Island States of America.

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