The power of populism: Flipping the script on the urban-rural divide
America’s urban-rural divide.
It’s easy to think of American populism as disempowered rural residents versus the urban elite.
But when it comes to influencing national policy, who has the real power?
“The parties end up taking up issues and forming alliances with groups in ways that create a ratchet effect where the urban-rural divide starts to grow as those new issues get folded into the political system,” Jonathan Rodden says.
Today, On Point: Episode four of our special series The power of populism.
Jonathan Rodden, professor of political science at Stanford University. Senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. Author of Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide.
Danielle Allen, professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. (@dsallentess)
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI. Episode four. Flipping the script on the urban-rural divide. The dictionary definition of populism … a political approach that appeals to people who feel that their concerns have been disregarded and ignored by the elite. Well, often that sense of diminishment is most sharply expressed along the urban-rural divide.
And in our previous episode about the politics of resentment, we heard from Wisconsin political scientist Kathy Cramer. She described how rural communities feel disempowered in her state.
CRAMER: In these smaller places, rural communities people were basically saying, We do not get our fair share. You city people who make all the decisions, you don’t know us. You don’t understand what our lives are like and the challenges that we face. And you think we’re all racist and sexist and backward and uneducated.
We see ourselves as good, hardworking Americans, and we’re not getting what we deserve.
CHAKRABARTI: So this rural, urban version of the real people versus the elite has been repeated so often in American politics that it’s almost never questioned anymore. After all, when we think about who the quote-unquote elite are, we automatically presume that we’re talking about the financial or academic elite, people who do have enormous economic and cultural power and the financial elite also exercise considerable political power in this country via their wealth. So all that is true. But today, I want to challenge that assumption.
I want to challenge the notion that the quote-unquote elite must be defined so narrowly by just those two pols, financial and academic. The quote, city people who make all the decisions, according to the rural consciousness that Cathy Cramer just described. So here’s the hypothesis that I’m going to offer you today. There is another crucially important kind of power in the United States right now. It is the power to elect presidents and the power to shape national policy, to shape the judiciary, to shape federal spending. It’s a kind of power that has an impact on every single American. I’m talking about electoral power.
And given how the American system of governance works today, it’s rural Americans who are the powerful electoral elite, and it’s ordinary urban Americans whose needs and concerns may have been disregarded and ignored. So what do you think of that? Let’s vigorously test that hypothesis today. Jonathan Rodden, what do you think? Should our conception of the elite be expanded to include the electoral elite as I’ve described?
JONATHAN RODDEN: Well, that’s not the way I’ve typically thought about it, but I think we’ll probably end up getting somewhere near the same place. I think getting to this focus on legislatures and the executive and trying to understand who actually is in power, who makes decisions, who appoints judges. This is something that, you know, we can identify, we can analyze. And there are lots of things built into the system that generate significant power for rural areas.
Even just thinking back to your introduction, thinking back to Wisconsin, in the case that Kathy is talking about it, this is a place where the Wisconsin legislature has been controlled by the Republican Party, which is an overwhelmingly rural party for some time. So it’s hard to see the Madison elites as really misguiding policies away from rural Wisconsin in a setting where the party of rural Wisconsin has really had significant power, unbroken power for some time.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So this is exactly why I’m thrilled that you could join us today, Professor Rodden, because we want to sort of get a new understanding or perhaps a new perspective on the urban rural divide in this country. And I should say that Jonathan Rodden is a professor of political science at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He’s also author of a book titled “Why Cities Lose the Deep Roots of the Urban Rural Political Divide.”
So in the book, you actually suggest that the major axis of conflict in American politics right now isn’t necessarily left versus right, but rural versus urban. Tease that a part for me, because I feel like rural versus urban, the overlap between that and left versus right is actually pretty strong. So I don’t really understand how you make the difference between the two.
RODDEN: Yeah, in a sense they’ve, they’ve come to two to be one in the same over time. The way we understand left and right is essentially a bundle of issues. You know, there are economic issues, social issues, issues related to immigration and race that are all bundled together in these packages that we refer to as left and right. And what I argue is that over time, the way these things have been bundled, you know, there’s really no necessary reason why these different bundles of ideas have to go together.
And some of them really don’t go very well together intellectually, but they’ve been packaged together by the parties in a certain way that over the years it’s been urban voters who have pushed the Democratic Party to adopt a set of policies and platforms and values that have been driven by urban interests. And the same thing is true of the Republican Party with rural areas. And so as new issues have been added to the political process, as they’ve been activated over time, the Republicans have become more and more rural and the Democrats have become more and more urban. And that doesn’t have to be the case. There are other countries where such a thing has not happened.
CHAKRABARTI: I see. And it hasn’t always been the case in the United States or has it? I mean, how far back would you go in U.S. history to see the beginnings of this rural urban divide?
RODDEN: Yeah, we can go all the way back and think about the rise and fall of urban and rural divides going back to the beginning. But I look at this as sometime around the beginning of the 20th century, just to get a sense of the roots of the current situation. It was the case in lots of states that the Democrats were a bit more successful in rural areas up until around 1928. This is when Al Smith got the Democratic nomination.
So this is an urban Catholic from New York who gets the Democratic nomination. And we all the sudden see a correlation between Democratic voting and population density emerge in 1928. And then after that, soon after that, we have the New Deal. And this alliance that the Democratic Party makes with labor unions in cities. And then that’s the point at which the connection between urban places and the Democratic Party really takes off. And we see it then at first in the Northeast, in the kind of core manufacturing area where there were lots of factories and labor unions early in the 20th century and then in the rest of the country slowly starts to catch up. And it’s a really slow process.
But really, you can see in the data, the correlation between density and voting really starts to take off and increase with every election starting sometime around the Reagan era. In the ’80s, it really kind of takes off. In every election, we see it become more intense. And we also see that this thing that’s been around, this thing has been happening in the Northeast and Massachusetts, ever since Mayor Curley, back in the in the machine days in massive. She sits. This thing that’s been around since the machine politics days in New York. That kind of relationship starts to emerge.
Even in the Mountain West, you know, even Boise is starts to become politically different from the rest of Idaho. You know, we even see a difference between Salt Lake City and the rest of Utah eventually. And then, of course, it happens in the Deep South as well, where there was once the opposite correlation. The Democrats were more powerful in rural areas. But then part of this alignment realignment of the South in recent decades has slowly created the same pattern, so that now this kind of correlation between democratic voting and density is the same everywhere. It’s converged, so every place looks more or less like Boston and or New York. And it is really one of the most polarized, urban, rural kind of divides in the world.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I mean, I would say that in the South, I mean, we can particularly trace that back right to the Southern strategy following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I mean, that realignment, couldn’t you say was very strongly based in the issue of race in America?
RODDEN: Yes, certainly. But there is even more to the Southern realignment. There’s been a lot of work recently trying to understand the impact of globalization and the impact of NAFTA in particular. And, you know, if we look at the success of rural Southern Democrats, it’s not like they suddenly just kind of fell off the map in the ’60s, with the civil rights movement. The Democrats have controlled some Southern state legislatures until relatively recently.
So some recent work has been looking at the role of NAFTA and the kind of textile manufacturing that was once in the South, but then moved, and for which Clinton and the Democrats were blamed.
CHAKRABARTI: I just wanted to take note for a moment about something you said earlier. That it was the industrialization of cities, I presume not just in the United States, even perhaps in European countries that led to the kind of straw, the beginnings of this realignment that you were talking about between Democrats and Republicans in the country.
And that’s really fascinating to me because it’s yet another example of something we don’t talk about that much, about how maybe technological revolutions, and in this case, the industrial revolution end up shaping, you know, a society, they end up shaping politics. I mean, have we seen this same realignment, post-industrial revolution in other countries?
Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, you asked earlier about left and right versus urban and rural. These two really started to become fused as a result of the industrial revolution, where there’s a great concentration of economic activity and cities in the era of manufacturing. And then that led to labor unions and their supporters, which then created social democratic and worker’s parties, which we refer to as the left. You know, that’s the conception of the left that we really kind of start with and write with.
Then we can think about changes, you know, technological changes that lead to a different type of industrial revolution in which now so much of prosperity is based on the knowledge economy and investments in a very different type of production, which is heavily favored. It’s also very concentrated in urban areas, but in a very different way. So now manufacturing in the United States has moved from the urban core to exurbs and rural areas along interstates, whereas it used to be in the urban core on rail corridors.
And so now many of those old industrial cities have become knowledge economy hubs like Boston and San Francisco and cities like that, where there’s tremendous concentration of activity in what we call the knowledge economy. And then those groups somehow attach themselves to the parties that we still refer to as the left. That came from the industrial era, the Social Democrats in many European countries and the Democrats in the U.S. These parties then kind of surprisingly or incongruously in some ways become the champions of the new urban concentrated activity, which is knowledge, economy, employment.
Okay. So as you described, we have this bifurcation, essentially this rural, urban bifurcation that in the United States starts mapping with Democrats and Republicans, Democrats emerging as being stronger in the cities, Republicans as being stronger in rural areas. But then you also said that divide grows further as new issues in American life come up and get folded into the political system. I mean, what issues are you talking about, socio economic, civil rights and how does that work?
Yeah, so this whole thing starts with class and labor unions and all of that. But that can’t be the explanation for this big increase in the urban rural divide since the ’80s, because if anything, the class divide has become less powerful. And if we look at just income and voting behavior, income is really not a good predictor of voting behavior at all anymore, especially among whites. Lower income folks are more likely to vote for Republicans. So as the class divide has become less important, some other things have come along.
And one of them you already mentioned, the civil rights movement and race was an important part of the story, but also a class of issues that followed from the women’s movement in the ’60s and ’70s. And this has happened in lots of other countries. A growing salience of issues like abortion and issues related to gender. And then in more recent years, the rise of issues like immigration. And then related to the conversation we were just having about economic change, some issues related to free trade very recently.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, our news analyst, Jack Beatty, calls this what you’re talking about, a socially reactionary populism. What do you think about that?
RODDEN: There is some truth to this. You know, there’s a kind of a correlation between population density and conservative views on social issues. And in some ways, a lot of the transformations that are taking place have been taking place for a long time in cities.
And so there’s a lot of social change that’s happening very rapidly in urban areas. And it all seems very foreign to people in rural areas. And this is true in Hungary and Poland and true in Western Europe and certainly true in the United States. So there is a kind of a reaction to big changes that have happened in the world, but mostly happening in cities since the ’60s and ’70s.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So let’s drill down a little bit and help me understand more about how this then translates into politics and political power in particular. And let’s choose a specific example that I think you’re quite familiar with, and that’s in maybe some of the industrial cities of Pennsylvania.
RODDEN: So, I mean, starting with the Industrial Revolution, even before the rise of all these other social issues where we have been talking about the Democrats started to become highly concentrated in the urban areas. I mean, not just Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but also in a ring of smaller industrial towns outside of eastern Pennsylvania that kind of link together mines and rail hubs that feed into this Philadelphia rail network.
And so smaller cities like Lancaster and Allentown and so forth, and Redding, Pennsylvania, and these places became very strong. I mean, actually, in the early part of the century, some of them had strong socialist movements and had socialist mayors. But then eventually the Democrats kind of steal the thunder of the socialists. And these become core Democratic areas. And so over time, we see that Democrats become very concentrated in these urban areas. And so the way we choose our legislatures in the U.S. is by drawing small, single member districts with only one representative.
And so, these winners-take-all districts end up in urban Pennsylvania with Democratic candidates winning with 80% of the vote. And there just aren’t so many places in rural Pennsylvania where Republican candidates win by nearly such large majorities historically. And so this leads to a concentration of support for Democrats in cities that is inefficient when they’re trying to translate their support into seats in the legislature. So that Democrats end up with a seat share in the legislature that’s significantly below their vote share. And this has been true ever since the 1940s.
CHAKRABARTI: So is this one of the reasons why you point to this notion that, quote-unquote, cities are losing?
RODDEN: Right. I mean, if you think about the conversation we’ve been having, cities are winning in economics, with the rise of the knowledge economy, and they’re winning in some respects in terms of, you know, what you might think of as the cultural moment. But when it comes to political power, the parties have emerged in ways that are highly associated with urban and rural residents. And the party of rural residents has a distinct advantage in several different respects. So these winner-take-all legislatures. Another that people are even more familiar with is the Senate, which of course over represents rural areas pretty substantially. And then for a time at least at the moment, the Electoral College.
CHAKRABARTI: So this brings us back to my hypothesis about the electoral elite being rural Americans. It sounds like here’s some data that would support that hypothesis.
RODDEN: Yeah, I guess it all depends on how we define elite. You know, I think that in some ways elite are maybe just a stand in for other people who disagree with us, let’s just, you know, refer to them as the elite. And so if you know, for urban residents who feel underrepresented, say, in a state like Texas. Yeah. I mean, whether they want to think of the Texas legislature dominated by rural interests as elites, I suppose that is a way of thinking that probably does occur to people in Austin or Dallas.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So I take your point about perhaps not getting too hung up on the word elite. Because earlier you said power, and perhaps that’s the better way of describing this. In fact, I think it’s a better way of describing the forces that feed into populism as a whole different version of power and people who feel like those who are exercising that power aren’t representing their interests.
So with that in mind, do you think that urban Americans are perhaps feeling some resentment about the political power that perhaps rural residents hold if they’re able to, you know, control state legislatures like you were talking about.
RODDEN: Yeah, that’s a really good question. This idea of, well, what is the nature of urban resentment toward rural areas? Because we’ve done, you know, people like Kathy have done a lot of research on this notion of rural resentment. And people have taken her work and they’ve tried to apply it in surveys and ask questions of people to understand what the nature of resentment of rural Americans towards urban areas [is]. We haven’t done nearly as much research to ask the opposite question. And so what little research I have seen suggests that the level of resentment expressed by urban Americans toward rural Americans is not as strong as the resentment of rural folks toward urban folks.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, perhaps it’s expressed in a different way, right? Because perhaps it expresses resentment towards those folks. But resentment about the system that’s created this lopsided distribution of electoral power, because you’d often hear people in in voters in particular in urban areas and blue cities saying, well, why should I even bother to vote?
Because my vote won’t count no matter how I vote. It doesn’t matter. It won’t have an effect on the presidential election. It won’t change necessarily. Well, maybe the Senate races are a different story, but there’s this sense that it’s a futile action because no matter what they do, it won’t matter. So maybe not resentment towards people, but resentment towards the system.
RODDEN: Yeah, there is certainly a rise in that type of feeling toward the parties and toward the system. And it’s something that … it’s going to be greater in some areas than others. There are still some places where urban voters can be pivotal, you know, in a really tight statewide race in a place like Georgia, you know, turnout among urban voters is quite crucial for the Democratic Party. And it can put them over the top, as it has recently. But in lots of places … I think there is a feeling of hopelessness and there’s a growing, you know, interest among some progressive circles in reform. And trying to do something to change the system and make it less asymmetric.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So let’s give me a more a clearer definition so that I don’t lead us astray about exactly what you think cities are losing. Right. Because I feel like I’ve been actually talking a little bit too much in in abstraction. So first of all, are cities losing? And what do you think they are losing?
RODDEN: And what I mean by that is really just looking at the parties that represent cities, and how their votes translate into seats. How much of the time do they control government and then whether they get the things they want in the policy process. And one thing we can see is that in the countries like the United States, so that also includes Great Britain and Canada and Australia, where these are just the places that were colonized by Great Britain.
So places that have these winner take all single member districts really have a different profile of policies than countries like continental Europe that use proportional representation. A lot of the policies are much more friendly to urban areas in continental Europe. So that’s one way of thinking about this in terms of policy. When it comes to just power, it’s also the case that the parties of the left, so the Labor Party in Britain, has been in power for much less of the postwar period than the conservatives, although even though if you aggregate up their vote shares, they’re actually pretty similar over time.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Suddenly occurs to me that perhaps I’m falling into the same trap that I was trying to get us out of at the beginning of this show. About seeing the sort of axis of American life as defined by two poles, rural and urban. I mean, I think we should talk a little bit about how this plays in suburban America, because a huge number of Americans, that’s where they live, that’s their environment. That’s their communities. I mean, does the same divide play out in suburban America?
RODDEN: Yeah, that’s right. We’re increasingly a suburban country and, you know, rural America is shrinking. And for that matter, the urban core, big cities are shrinking. More and more of us are moving to these sprawling suburban areas, like those areas around Phenix and Houston and Dallas and Orlando. That’s really where things are going. And these are, in fact, the pivotal areas that determine the makeup of the legislature.
So one of the things that becomes interesting, the parties have to be extremely heterogeneous. In order to win the legislature, you have to win these competitive suburban districts. But then you also have to deal with your more extremist urban representatives, in the case of the Democrats. Or your more extremist rural representatives, in the case of the Republicans. And managing that internal party divide is a big part of what has become so difficult and so nasty about U.S. politics.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I mean, in a sense, that’s the dream of some people who want to drain the extremism out of politics, that the idea is that in more heterogeneous locations, the policies would be forced closer to the center. But, I mean, is that actually happening? If we take into account sort of the fact that things have been pulled so far to the extremes, what is the center anymore?
RODDEN: Well, Americans really are by and large, typically described themselves as centrists. And we’ve had a little bit of an uptick over time. And people who describe themselves in surveys as having more extreme views, it’s not really that large. Most people are still seeing themselves as somewhere in the middle. And we still have lots of electoral districts where most of the people are describing themselves as centrists. And we also have lots of representatives trying to represent these places who are frustrated by the extremists from the very rural or very urban districts who are making their lives so difficult.
But one of the problems they face is there is the intense focus of the media on the extremists. So if you just look at the coverage of people in Congress, there’s very little coverage, very little interviews, very few news stories about people from these moderate suburban districts. All the talk on the left is about AOC and the squad and very urban representatives. And all the attention currently to the Republican Party is going to Marjorie Taylor Greene and people like that from very poor rural districts.
CHAKRABARTI: Point taken. But you could also make the argument that the Republican Party as a whole has moved so far to the right that, I mean, even if we didn’t pay attention to Marjorie Taylor Greene, that there would be plenty of other elected Republicans, especially in Washington right now, who subscribe to those more extreme views.
RODDEN: I think that’s absolutely true. But there are still lots of folks … Republicans who need to win in suburban districts where people are not impressed by this type of rhetoric. And those representatives really are trying to they’re really hoping that they can just distinguish themselves from that. And that’s what they’ve been trying to do with some success. But it’s not clear how long that will last.
CHAKRABARTI: I’d like to introduce into the conversation now Danielle Allen. She’s a professor at Harvard University and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard. Professor Allen, welcome back to the show.
DANIELLE ALLEN: Thanks, Meghna. Always a pleasure to be here with you.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So first of all, I want to give you a chance to shoot down my hypothesis that offered at the beginning of the show. We’ll take out the word elite and replace it with the word power. Do you think that in this country it’s possible to look at political power as being disproportionately offered to rural Americans versus urban Americans? And do urban Americans have to have a reason to feel a little resentful about that?
ALLEN: Well, first of all, Meghna, let me just thank you for digging into the topic of our broad shared frustrations with the health of our democracy right now. I think a lot of people feel frustrated, whether urban or rural. So it’s good to have the chance to sort of try to think that through.
And in short, yes, I think you’re right that it is important to see that there is a strong weighting towards rural voters in our present system, both in Congress and the Senate. And then, of course, that flows through to the Electoral College. So there’s a lot to be said for your hypothesis. I appreciate your shifting from the word elite to the word power, because I do think that when we’re talking about urban and rural, we do see … a real economic predominance for those urban and ex-urban areas over rural areas. In that regard, it makes sense, honestly, that rural communities would exercise their power to try to fight back against that.
CHAKRABARTI: But then if we’re still nevertheless diagnosing a kind of a problem here, what would be a potential remedy? Because I want to just take a second to acknowledge in earlier episodes, we definitely took a look at populism, as has been expressed, particularly in the 20th century, as having a potential tilt towards authoritarianism and anti-democratic systems of governance. And I don’t want to necessarily forget that. But if we’re talking about a form of populism here in the United States, where urban residents may feel that their needs are being ignored or haven’t met, what would be a potential remedy for that, Professor Allen?
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I mean, you’ve put your finger on it that political institutions have the job in a healthy democracy of finding the cleavages and tension points and conflicts in a society and providing a deliberative structure that permits their resolution. You never achieve a once and for all resolution. There’s always winners and losers in every policy configuration.
So the competition, the contests, the arguments are perpetual. But the goal is to move out of the worst tension points and conflicts into new configurations that bring good things to people. So that’s all very abstract. Our institutions are clearly not delivering that way right now, and to some extent that is a problem with the institutions themselves. We have made some mistakes with regard to the structure of our institutions that mean they can no longer operate in that sort of synthesizing and solution finding way.
From my point of view, one of the biggest problems is the fact that 100 years ago we capped the size of the House of Representatives. So the national legislature, which really is meant to be the voice of the whole people — and in that regard always has a sort of populist element in it — has, over time shifted to disproportionally weight the voices and votes of people in rural communities. And in contrast, the other idea originally was that the Congress, the House of Representatives, should always grow. It should change in its composition as the demography of the country changed. But in the last hundred years, seats have been regularly reallocated from the more densely populated areas to less densely populated places.
You know, so that is a really important point. We need to increase the size of the house that would give, you know, rebalanced representation that would flow through to the Electoral College as well and reduce the protective weighting in favor of rural areas.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Rodden, let me turn back to you on this for a second, because I think in your scholarship, you talk about perhaps proportional representation being something we should think even more about. Do I have that right?
RODDEN: Well, that’s a comparison that I make with other countries that have not had the same kind of development of this urban rural polarization. And they don’t, of course, don’t have the same sort of disproportionality. But as a you know, as a realistic reform proposal, the United States that, you know, I am optimistic. This is something that can happen in the next ten years. And I think the answer would be no. I think something that Danielle is proposing is a lot more realistic.
CHAKRABARTI: But in order to help us understand what you specifically mean by proportional representation, that doesn’t lead you down the back to optimism. How are you dividing it in the immediate?
RODDEN: The extreme case would be someplace like the Netherlands where there’s just one big district. And the seats in the legislature are allocated according to party. And there’s a party list and then the seats are allocated according to the share of the votes that the party receives. So there is no disproportionality in the end and it leads to a multi-party system.
CHAKRABARTI: How would that work here in the United States?
ALLEN: Oh, right. In the U.S. it would probably work something like with the states as units of analysis. There’s such thing as a mixed system, which is what Germany and New Zealand … used. Where there are still winner-take-all districts and part of the legislature. This actually could be combined with the notion that we should increase the size of the legislature. You could have some share some existing number of seats that states currently have, but then add some number of seats per state that would be allocated according to proportional representation. And so some people view that as kind of having the best of both worlds by having some proportionality, but also the kind of local representation that comes from having a district ID system.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So again, theoretically, I suppose this system would have quite a large impact on the Senate, right? Because if I understand correctly right now, Democrats actually have to win a lot more votes to put their senators in office than Republicans do, even though we have that, you know, that roughly 50/50 split in the Senate.
RODDEN: Yeah. I’d be interested to hear more about what Danielle thinks should be done about the Senate. That is, you know, that’s an issue where no matter how we choose, whether it’s proportionality or winner take all, as long as we have two seats for South Dakota and two seats for California, the problem that you’re identifying is going to be there.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Allen, you want to jump in here?
ALLEN: Sure. Well, I mean, it’s important that we see that our system is a set of interacting parts. So there is a lot of attention on the Senate right now. A lot of frustration there, which is understandable for sure. Both because of the overweighting of less populous parts of the country and because of the filibuster, frankly, which blocks the entire legislative system from functioning. So the question of what to do about the Senate, I think, actually depends on what we do with other parts of the system. The original conception, as you all know, is that this was a sort of federation of states.
And we had a compromise where states needed protection as such. And so two votes per state in the Senate and then the population needed protection as such and therefore proportionality in Congress, in the House of Representatives through that increasing size over time. I actually have a person who thinks that we do still need an element which is about state by state protection. So in that regard, I am not a current advocate for reforming that to see allocation per state for the Senate. That said, the entire system would have a different kind of dynamism in it if Congress were bigger. If that fell through to the Electoral College.
And so we had fairer outcomes out of presidential elections. And then with those two elements, if we put pressure on the Senate to get rid of the filibuster, then if we got rid of a filibuster, the House would have power again. Right now, the House doesn’t have power because of the Senate filibuster. So in addition to increasing the size of the House, we have to get rid of the filibuster to put the Senate back in its proper, sort of more constricted sphere of power.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I want listeners to know that not only is Professor Allen a profound expert on the current state of American governance, but she’s also one of the nation’s four preeminent scholars on our founding documents, in our founding philosophies. And I wanted to mention that because I was interested to hear what you had to say about the Senate, because I was thinking back to the Tocqueville. In his discussion, in his writings about the protecting against the tyranny of the majority. And that I mean, he was an observer of America, but that the idea that checking the excesses of unbridled majority rule has been a part of sort of how this nation has thought about its governance from the beginning.
ALLEN: Yes. I mean, that really comes to a core point. So first of all, there’s just a kind of question of what is the definition of democracy? Lots of people start by thinking the definition of democracy is majority rule, but that can’t be quite right, because we do know that you can have majorities that just do terrible things to minorities in a given political system. So true democracy is about equal empowerment of all citizens for free and equal self-governing processes. That equal empowerment of all citizens requires protection of minorities as well as taking majority rule as one of the most important tools in the toolkit.
So it’s really a question how do you balance majority rule with appropriate minority protection? So to a meaningful degree, smaller states are a certain kind of minority who need a certain kind of protection, but you can’t overweight that protection to the degree that it undermines completely the principle of majority rule. That’s the situation we currently have.
So coming back to the Senate again, for instance, the strongest allies for getting rid of the Senate filibuster are members of the House of Representatives. They know they cannot do their job right now because of the Senate filibuster. So really, we the people have to really activate Congress and activate our electoral system collectively to go after that Senate filibuster so that we can get the legislative process operative again and again, rebalance that allocation of power between the House and the Senate.
CHAKRABARTI: I want to turn back to what you’ve written extensively about, but about the urban rural divide and how we might apply the things that Professor Allen is talking about when it comes to, to take the phrase from your book, Why cities Lose. Now until we can get more seats in the House or until we can get the Senate to, we wouldn’t even need to make procedural changes. Even just a cultural change in the Senate might relax the power of the filibuster a little bit.
I want to be more optimistic than I am about those things happening. This leaves the question of if cities wants to lose less. To put it bluntly, what are their other options? What are the Democratic Party’s other options since they found their power base there? Well, you know, is there a gap between what the Democratic Party stands for, what their with their their candidates stand for and the, you know, the needs of the rural voters? Can that gap be closed? Should it? Is there another way of rebalancing the power?
RODDEN: I guess there are several different ways to think about answering your question. I mean, the some of them suggested in the comments it just made. Is that so? You know, is there something the Democratic Party can do to kind of bridge the divide and become more competitive in rural areas? And there’s been a lot of thinking about that. And there’s certainly people within the Democratic Party who have ideas about that and people who have been somewhat more successful in in those places.
And part of what they’ve tried to do is kind of playing from a very old playbook in the Democratic Party, which is to try to put different things to different people in different places. And the Democrats have done that for a long time. But it becomes much harder in a nationalized media environment that we’re currently in. So there are still versions of that strategy that the Democratic Party can pursue.
But some of the other some of the other ways the Democratic Party can try to solve its geography problem short of proportional representation, are really major Changes to the Constitution are things like redistricting reform. It’s something we haven’t really talked about gerrymandering or redistricting, but this is part of the equation, and it is possible in some cases if you have a redistricting process that attempts that actually explicitly focuses on partisan fairness, this is something that the Michigan Citizens Redistricting Commission, that the changes to the Constitution in Michigan actually require efforts to achieve partisan fairness in the drawing of districts.
And the Commission took this task seriously and tried to achieve it the last time around in Michigan. And what we saw is a much more competitive set of districts throughout for both Congress and for the for the state legislature and Michigan, much more competitive set of districts that led to some very close races and a much more close, much more proportionate outcome in terms of votes and seats. So that’s another possibility, one that’s not really possible everywhere, but certainly can be attempted and with some success.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Professor Allen, we’ve got about a minute and a half left here, and I want to give you the final word. I mean, do you feel a sense of optimism or possibility that, you know, even just taking Democrat or Republican or rural urban out of the equation, that we can take strides forward in this country to improve our system of government so that we get to what you talked about before, the equal empowerment of citizens in this country that would then obviate the need for any kind of populism.
ALLEN: Well, I do actually feel a strong sense of hope about what’s possible. I think the thing that gives me the greatest sense of hope right now is what we all watched in Alaska in this past cycle. Alaska introduced a new electoral system in the state called Top four No More party primaries and said they have a preliminary election for all comers. Everybody from all the different parties is in the same preliminary. And then they take the top four finalists on to a final general round and then have a victory there with that instant runoff. And that was both how Lisa Murkowski retained her Senate seat and also how Mary Matola defeated Sarah Palin.
So in both cases, the results were elected officials who definitely built coalitions across the whole state and reflect a problem-solving orientation. So the fact that Alaska could do it is a sign that we can do it. If we can change those electoral mechanisms at the state level, get folks who are ready to build those big coalitions and be problem solvers in Congress, then we can get some of these other reforms through as well.
Washington Post: “The House was supposed to grow with population. It didn’t. Let’s fix that.” — “What if we increased the size of the House? Given that most of us are pretty frustrated with Congress, this might sound crazy. But growing the House of Representatives is the key to unlocking our present paralysis and leaning into some serious democracy renovation.”
Washington Post: “‘Red’ America is an illusion. Postindustrial towns go for Democrats.” — “Media professionals and intellectuals in the large coastal cities have long struggled to understand the white, non-metropolitan counties in the middle of the country.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.