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The Great Sorting

Roy Christman is a retired political science professor and has a farm in Pennsylvania.

I currently live in Carbon County, Pennsylvania, about 90 miles north of Philadelphia. In November 2008 Barack Obama won Carbon County. In 2012, he lost Carbon with 45.27% of the vote to Romney's 52.79%. In 2016 the bottom dropped out. Clinton received 31% of the vote in Carbon, while Trump piled up 65.2% and also won the state. Incidentally, the other three Carbon Counties in Montana, Utah, and Wyoming also went for Trump by large margins. 

Demography is destiny
My Carbon County is a small part of a nationwide sorting of voters. Rural areas are swinging to the Republican party, suburban areas are tending Democratic, and urban areas are solidly Democratic. Rural areas are generally older, whiter and more religious. Many have stagnant or declining populations. Employment opportunities are limited, and the economy is often depressed. College grads move to the East and West Coasts or to cities like Denver and Austin. Voters in the rural areas often vote their anger instead of their objective interests.

If you look at a color-coded U.S. county map, your first impression is that the whole country is a sea of red with some blue dots. In New York, a very liberal state, most counties are red, but most New Yorkers live in and around the City, and they vote Democratic. Even California, where Clinton received almost 80% of the vote, has large red areas in the northern third and down the Central Valley. (Those small blue areas you see in states like North Dakota and Wyoming are usually counties with Indian reservations.) 

The problem for American democracy
I'll be brief. If democracy means rule by the people, we are no longer a democracy. While U.S. House districts are based on population, that is not the case for the U.S. Senate or the President. Since judicial appointments are made by the President and approved by the Senate, the entire judicial branch fails to represent the desires of a majority of the citizenry. The result is that only one-half of one-third of the branches reflects the popular will of the people of the United States.







The Senate is the worst example of misrepresentation. California, with 39,557,045 people (2018 est.) elects two U.S. Senators. Wyoming, with 577,737 people and probably about as many pronghorn antelopes, is also awarded two U.S. Senators. 

The Electoral College, based on the number of a state's Representatives plus the two Senators, also over counts the rural states. Since the presidential electors are picked in 50 separate state contests, a candidate can be elected with fewer popular votes than her opponent. This is not some hypothetical. Al Gore received over half a million votes more than Bush in 2000, and Clinton topped Trump by 2.9 million. It is likely to happen again in 2020. 

As for the judiciary, in his first three years in office, President Trump has appointed almost 300 federal judges. Many of them were marginally qualified (I am being kind), yet they were approved by the Republican Senate.

The effect of the Great Sorting
None of this mattered all that much before the polarization of our politics. Democratic Senators could get elected in states like Utah and Nebraska; Republicans could win seats in Massachusetts and Oregon. Now, however, almost no Senate elections are competitive. 

Ted Cruz is a limited thinker, unpopular with his colleagues, with few redeeming qualities (I am being extremely kind), yet he can win an election in Texas because he has an R after his name. While the Democrats can and did win the House, where districts are based on population, they will be a minority in the Senate for years to come. 

What this means is continued gridlock. It also means deep dissatisfaction with the system. That dissatisfaction will grow to massive proportions if Trump wins the presidency in 2020 but loses the popular vote by 10 or 15 million. We, of course, could change the system, but when is the last time you heard of a legislative body taking steps to limit its own power?

Happy 2020!

~ Roy Christman































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