Throughout the Trump era it was a frequent theme of liberal commentary that their political party represented a clear American majority, thwarted by our antidemocratic institutions and condemned to live under the rule of the conservative minority.
In the political context of 2016-20, this belief was overstated. Yes, Donald Trump won the presidential election of 2016 with a minority of the popular vote. But more Americans voted for Republican congressional candidates than Democratic congressional candidates, and more Americans voted for right-of-center candidates for president — including the Libertarian vote — than voted for Hillary Clinton and Jill Stein. In strictly majoritarian terms, liberalism deserved to lose in 2016, even if Trump did not necessarily deserve to win.
And Republican structural advantages, while real, did not then prevent Democrats from reclaiming the House of Representatives in 2018 and the presidency in 2020 and Senate in 2021. These victories extended the pattern of 21st century American politics, which has featured significant swings every few cycles, not the entrenchment of either party’s power.
The political landscape after 2024, however, might look more like liberalism’s depictions of its Trump-era plight. According to calculations by liberalism’s Cassandra, David Shor, the convergence of an unfavorable Senate map for Democrats with their pre-existing Electoral College and Senate disadvantages could easily produce a scenario where the party wins 50 percent of the congressional popular vote, 51 percent of the presidential vote — and ends up losing the White House and staring down a nearly filibuster-proof Republican advantage in the Senate.
That’s a scenario for liberal horror, but it’s not one that conservatives should welcome either. In recent years, as their advantages in both institutions have increased, conservatives have defended institutions like the Senate and the Electoral College with variations of the argument that the United States is a democratic republic, not a pure democracy.
These arguments carry less weight, however, the more consistently undemocratic the system’s overall results become. (They would fall apart completely in the scenario sought by Donald Trump and some of his allies after 2020, where state legislatures simply substitute their preferences for the voters in their states.)
The Electoral College’s legitimacy can stand up if an occasional 49-47 percent popular vote result goes the other way; likewise the Senate’s legitimacy if it tilts a bit toward one party but changes hands consistently.
But a scenario where one party has sustained governing power while lacking majoritarian support is a recipe for delegitimization and reasonable disillusionment, which no clever conservative column about the constitutional significance of state sovereignty would adequately address.
From the Republican Party’s perspective, the best way to avoid this future — where the nature of conservative victories undercuts the perceived legitimacy of conservative governance — is to stop being content with the advantages granted by the system and try harder to win majorities outright.
You can’t expect a political party to simply cede its advantages: There will never be a bipartisan constitutional amendment to abolish the Senate, on any timeline you care to imagine. But you can expect a political party to show a little more electoral ambition than the G.O.P. has done of late — to seek to win more elections the way that Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon won them, rather than being content to keep it close and put their hopes in lucky breaks.
Especially in the current climate, which looks dire for the Democrats, the Republicans have an opportunity to make the Electoral College complaint moot, for a time at least, by simply taking plausible positions, nominating plausible candidates and winning majorities outright.
That means rejecting the politics of voter-fraud paranoia — as, hopefully, Republican primary voters will do by choosing Brian Kemp over David Perdue in the Georgia gubernatorial primary.
It means rejecting the attempts to return to the libertarian “makers versus takers” politics of Tea Party era, currently manifested in Florida Senator Rick Scott’s recent manifesto suggesting tax increases for the working class — basically the right-wing equivalent of “defund the police” in terms of its political toxicity.
And it means — and I fear this is beyond the G.O.P.’s capacities — nominating someone other than Donald Trump in 2024.
A Republican Party that managed to win popular majorities might still see its Senate or Electoral College majorities magnified by its structural advantages. But such magnification is a normal feature of many democratic systems, not just our own. It’s very different from losing the popular vote consistently and yet being handed power anyway.
As for what the Democrats should do about their disadvantages — well, that’s a longer discussion, but two quick points for now.
First, to the extent the party wants to focus on structural answers to its structural challenges, it needs clarity about what kind of electoral reforms would actually accomplish something. That’s been lacking in the Biden era, where liberal reformers wasted considerable time and energy on voting bills that didn’t pass and also weren’t likely to help the party much had they been actually pushed through.
A different reform idea, statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, wouldn’t have happened in this period either, but it’s much more responsive to the actual challenges confronting Democrats in the Senate. So if you’re a liberal activist or a legislator planning for the next brief window when your party holds power, pushing for an expanded Senate seems like a more reasonable long ball to try to train your team to throw.
Second, to the extent that there’s a Democratic path back to greater parity in the Senate and Electoral College without structural reform, it probably requires the development of an explicit faction within the party dedicated to winning back two kinds of voters — culturally conservative Latinos and working-class whites — who were part of Barack Obama’s coalition but have drifted rightward since.
That faction would have two missions: To hew to a poll-tested agenda on economic policy (not just the business-friendly agenda supported by many centrist Democrats) and to constantly find ways to distinguish itself from organized progressivism — the foundations, the activists, the academics — on cultural and social issues. And crucially, not in the tactical style favored by analysts like Shor, but in the language of principle: Rightward-drifting voters would need to know that this faction actually believes in its own moderation, its own attacks on progressive shibboleths, and that its members will remain a thorn in progressivism’s side even once they reach Washington.
Right now the Democrats have scattered politicians, from West Virginia to New York City, who somewhat fit this mold. But they don’t have an agenda for them to coalesce around, a group of donors ready to fund them, a set of intellectuals ready to embrace them as their own.
Necessity, however, is the mother of invention, and necessity may impose itself upon the Democratic Party soon enough.