INDIANAPOLIS—In his classic work “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville issued a stark warning.






John Krull, editor, TheStatehouseFile.com


He feared that the American system of self-government, with its deference to popular opinion, would lead to a “tyranny of the majority”. By this he meant that unpopular minorities could find themselves overwhelmed and marginalized by the general public.

Tocqueville’s was an incisive warning. American history is replete with examples of minorities having their lives, rights and dignity trampled upon by arrogant or indifferent majorities.

The Constitution, particularly its Bill of Rights, is meant to serve as a check on such abuses. This august document generally does, even if justice according to its precepts sometimes takes years, decades or even centuries to come.

Now, however, we Americans face a dilemma that Tocqueville and others who feared the excesses of democracy did not contemplate.

It is a tyranny of the minority.

Much is said now about the weakness of the Democratic Party in rural America. This weakness is real. The most detailed poll suggests Democrats are more than 30 points behind Republicans in heavily rural parts of the United States.

What is interesting, however, is that there is a corresponding angst about the Republican Party’s similar weakness in urban America. The same polls show the GOP trailing the Democratic Party in cities and urban rings across the country by more than 20 points.

America has become an increasingly urban nation. About 83% of US citizens now live in urban areas, and that percentage is expected to climb to just under 90% by 2050.

This represents a big change. In 1950, only 64% of Americans lived in urban areas.

This movement towards the cities also explains certain things.

Over the past 30 years, Democratic presidential candidates have won the popular vote in seven out of eight elections.

But they’ve claimed the Oval Office in just five of those contests.

There is a reason for this.

The federal government as it was conceived when the Constitution was written involved a delicate balancing act when it came to selecting chief executives.

The rights of small rural states were protected. Each state, regardless of population, had the same number of senators – two – and each was also guaranteed to have at least one seat in the United States House of Representatives. The combined representation in the Senate and House represented each state’s electoral votes.

This system worked reasonably well until about a century ago. Until then, the size of the House increased in proportion to the increase in population.

But waves of immigration in the early 20th century prompted politicians in the 1920s to impose a permanent cap on the size of the people’s house.

This gave rural states disproportionate weight in every part of the federal government.

Wyoming, for example, has three electoral votes and a population of approximately 519,000. California, on the other hand, has a population of 39.5 million and 55 electoral votes.

This means that a Wyoming citizen’s vote in a presidential election carries more than four times the weight of a California vote.

The math is even worse when it comes to the Senate. California senators represent 76 times as many people as their Wyoming colleagues.

Even in the Chamber, which is supposed to be the place where the general will of the people is reflected, the disparity is glaring. Each of the California members of the lower house represents half as many people as the single member of Congress from Wyoming.

This overrepresentation of rural interests in our government distorts almost everything in this country. It increases to fury the frustrations of Americans representing the majority opinions.

And it encourages rural faction leaders to believe they can ignore the public will with impunity. (Yes, Mitch McConnell, we’re talking about you.)

Much of what afflicts America now stems from this drift of national purpose.

We were meant to be a representative democracy in which the rights of the minority were protected against the potential tyranny of the majority.

Now, however, we are in many ways a nation in which the powers of a minority are elevated above the needs and rights of the majority.

That’s not how it should be.

John Krull is director of the Pulliam School of Journalism at Franklin College and editor of TheStatehouseFile.coma news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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