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How the Founding Fathers' concept of 'Minority Rule' is alive and well today

A voter leaves a voting booth in Concord, N.H., the during primary election on Jan. 23, 2024.
Timothy A. Clary
AFP via Getty Images
A voter leaves a voting booth in Concord, N.H., the during primary election on Jan. 23, 2024.

It's a fundamental tension in a democracy: How do you have majority rule in a way that also protects minority rights? Journalist Ari Berman says the Founding Fathers struggled with that question back in 1787 — except, for them, white male landowners were the minority in need of protection.

"Most of the founders were skeptical of the public's ability to elect the president directly," Berman says. "So they created this very complicated situation in which electors would elect the president instead of the people electing the president directly."

In his new book, Minority Rule, Berman connects the debates and compromises of the country's founders to contemporary politics. He says the founding fathers created a system that concentrated power in the hands of the elite and that today, institutions like the Electoral College and the Senate — designed as a check against the power of the majority — are having much the same effect.

Berman notes that in the country's first presidential election, in 1789, only a small fraction of the population was eligible to vote — and in certain states, voters were only allowed to vote for electors, not the candidates themselves.

Though the right to vote has since been expanded, Berman says the democratic process remains deeply flawed. He points out that in 2000 and again in 2016, the presidential candidate who won the popular vote did not win the electoral vote. Additionally, he says, because the Constitution stipulates that each state gets two senators, regardless of its population, "smaller, whiter, more conservative states have far more power and representation in the Senate then larger, more diverse, more urban states."

"What we see right now is the same kind of thing, in which a privileged, conservative, white minority is trying to suppress the power of a much more diverse multiracial governing majority," Berman says. "And that's a very dangerous situation for American democracy."

Interview highlights

<em>Minority Rule,</em> by Ari Berman
/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Minority Rule, by Ari Berman

On the Constitution as a flawed document

We venerate the Constitution as a civic religion. I think we would be much greater served to look at the Constitution as a whole document and say, there are some remarkable parts of this document, but there's also some really flawed parts of this document that we still haven't corrected. Because the really remarkable thing is that even as America has democratized in the centuries since — and nobody would argue that America isn't more democratic now than it was back then — some features of the Constitution have become more undemocratic.

On the creation of the Electoral College to uphold minority rule

Most of the founders were skeptical of the public's ability to elect the president directly. They felt like the public would be uninformed, or it would be chosen by the largest states, or would be chosen by free states in a way that would hurt the South. So it's interesting, one of the themes that runs through the book and runs through the founding is that these smaller minorities wanted protection. And when I may say smaller minorities, I don't mean minority groups. I mean the small states wanted protection, the slave states wanted protection, and they felt like they would get that protection in the Electoral College. So they created this very complicated situation in which electors would elect the president instead of the people electing the president directly.

On how representatives from Delaware scuffled the initial plan to have Senate representation being based on population

James Madison and other prominent framers wanted the Senate to be based on proportional representation, so they wanted it to be based on population. So larger states like Virginia would have more representation than smaller states like Delaware. But the smaller states rebelled. And there's this amazing moment at the Constitutional Convention where the attorney general of Delaware gets up and he tells the likes of James Madison, if you don't give us the same representation, we're going to find a foreign ally who we're going to join with instead, and we're going to leave the United States of America. And that was a stunning demand. The idea that they would go rejoin England or they would join France instead, if they didn't have the same level of representation, meant that the larger states had no choice but to give in to the demand of the smaller states to ratify the Constitution.

But what Madison worried about is that it would allow what he called a more objectionable minority than ever to control the U.S. Senate, because if the smaller states had the same level of representation as the larger states, that was inevitably going to lead to minority rule. And Madison worried that would get worse as more states join the union. And, of course, that's what's happened today, where the gap between large and small states is dramatically larger than it was back in 1787.

On how the two Senator per state representation affects minority rule

Just to give you one really stunning stat, by 2040, 70% of the population is going to live in 15 states with 30 senators. That means that 30% of the country, which is going to be whiter, more rural, more conservative, is going to elect 70% of the U.S. Senate. So the trend in the U.S. Senate is becoming more imbalanced and more undemocratic. And what's really interesting to me is a lot of conservatives want to go back and they want to quote the framers, but they ignore that a lot of the framers, including James Madison, the architect of the Constitution, had grave concerns about some of the institutions they were creating, particularly the structure of the U.S. Senate.

Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.