The U.S. is a representative democracy? Thoughts—and humor–on politics in the Trump era

Neil Blake/The Grand Rapids via AP

The U.S. is a representative democracy? Thoughts—and humor–on politics in the Trump era

By Marcia Pally

Die Tageszeitung

January 20, 2017 as: “Das ‘We the people’ Gefuhl”`

Visiting Europe since the Trump election, I’m not infrequently asked if, by being bad for American workers, Trump will re-invigorate the American left.

There’s an American left?

There was a “left” at the turn of the twentieth century, led by European immigrants and the American “Wobblies” (Industrial Workers of the World), with links to socialism and anarchism. There was a labor reform movement, substantial till the 1970s and in decline since. But a “left” never had the influence—either in policy or worldview—that it did in Europe.

Could Trump re-invigorate what’s left of this American “left”?– a reformist movement drawing on Sanders and Clinton supporters, with some social-market features, notably a greater role for government in providing for the common good (education, environment, infrastructure, health care), in regulating finance and market abuses, and giving the “common woman and man” a leg up (government grants for: college, child nutrition, health care, home ownership, etc.).

Not to worry, already invigorated–on steroids, with protests against Trump mucking up traffic in Manhattan, where I happen to live, and donations of time and money to civil society organizations such as The American Civil Liberties Union, Pro-Publica, Council of American-Islamic Relations, and the International Refugee Assistance Project. The ACLU raised $7.2 million in the week after Trump’s election compared to $27,806 raised in a comparable period in 2012.[1]

Will this strengthen Democratic opposition in Congress? Probably.

Will it matter, as Republicans control both houses? Less than congressional PR about “finding compromises” suggests.

Will Trump’s supporters vote Democrat in 2018/2020? His appointments heavily represent Wall St., fossil fuel, and other large firms hostile to labor-friendly policies. As they will likely worsen economic conditions, won’t people vote Democrat for better ones?

You’re kidding me. Americans haven’t voted their economic interests since the revolution, when long-term economics—not to mention common decency–dictated staying in the empire. Americans were among the most lightly taxed of the colonies, and the Brits had just spent hefty amounts defending them against the French in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). George Washington got his training in that war and then used it against the guys who trained him. That’s gratitude for ya’. To compensate for the financial loss, London raised taxes on stamps and sugar. The rest is history.

Like most people, Americans don’t vote their pocketbooks; they vote their belief systems. Pocketbooks tell us the problems, like the working and middle class economic pinch…

… So won’t Americans vote for a government that will address these problems?

Come on–Americans haven’t thought government solves problems since they tarred and feathered the crown’s customs agent in 1774. America was born in flight from the centralization power struggles between Charles I and parliament (1620s-1640s), and government has been suspect ever since. The many who were religious dissenters were doubly suspicious of government for its centralization and persecution. Protestantism added to suspicion of authorities (state and state churches) with its mandate to read the Bible for oneself. Reformed Protestantism, with great influence on American political thinking, saw sovereignty not in central government but in local covenanted communities, which form networks to constitute the nation. Add to that the rough settlement of the frontier, which encouraged government-wary self-reliance as there was little government to rely on. Though national government took a larger role as the country grew, the value of individual and local effort combined with suspicion of central authorities is rooted in our DNA.

Faced with problems, we’re apt to think “we, the People” are far better at solving them than is the corrupt, incompetent government.

This is the first impediment to Trump’s base voting Democrat for an increased government role in addressing problems. They don’t believe in it.

Americans don’t use government services?

Uh, they don’t believe in it even when they use it—and they hate themselves for using it (insufficient self-reliance) and resent the government that provides the services they need. In late 2016, 6.4 million signed up for health insurance through Obamacare. The states with the most enrollees were Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, all of which voted for Trump.[2]

So Trump was uniquely able to tap into this government-wary worldview for his populist campaign against the “Washington insider” Clinton?

Heck no, not uniquely. Sanders campaigned against the insiders, as did Obama, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and Teddy Roosevelt in 1904 and 1912. Belief in throwing out the corrupt and incompetent in Washington transcends political party. In America, “change” is absolutely traditional.

In the Democratic version, however, the “change” is to make government more responsible for giving the little guy a leg-up. This is America’s newer belief system, born amidst the labor abuses of the early twentieth century, when many were persuaded that government is needed to protect ordinary Americans from the greedy rich. It yielded Teddy Roosevelt’s (Republican) Progressive Era reform program and his cousin Franklin’s (Democrat) New Deal, both substantial increases in government to rein in the rich and aid the needy. Lyndon Johnson followed with his Civil Rights and Great Society social service legislation. In the 2016 election, The New York Times wrote, America had “Mr. Trump seizing on economic dislocation in mixing populist anti-trade positions with traditionally Republican tax cutting, and Mrs. Clinton seeing a strong government hand in creating jobs and driving up wages.”[3]

Disagreement about government’s role lies behind the division between rural and urban voters.[4] Rural Americans vote Republican as they tend to government-wary self-reliance and localism. Urban Americans vote Democratic as they tend to greater governmental responsibility in assisting the citizenry.

So won’t those who hold to this “leg-up” approach vote for it next time?

Yeah, sure, probably, maybe, kinda’. But it’s in competition with the nation’s older, deeper beliefs. People could vote Democrat or they could move to the right. Enough voted for government-wary populism in November to tip the election to Trump–though the U.S. economy has steadily improved since 2009. Jobs have increased for seventy-five months straight, the longest sustained growth since 1939.[5] Unemployment is at 4.7 percent; hourly wages have risen, especially for lower income earners.[6] The annual median household income rose to $56,500, up 5.2 percent, the largest rise since 1967.

But won’t a Democratic majority—nearly three million more voters for Clinton than for Trump–in a representative democracy bring more Democrats into government?

America has a representative democracy?

Sort of, except our voting districts give more weight to Republican rural areas than to urban Democrat ones. As Democrats are concentrated in cities, they can win a majority of a state’s population but not a majority of state districts and so end with a minority of representatives in state congresses. In the national Congress, rural, Republican Wyoming has two senators and one congressperson, three times more congressional representation than it would have if representation were based on population. The electoral college is based on congressional representation. If the proportion of electors-to-population enjoyed by (Republican) Wyoming were the same in (Democrat) California, California would have 159 electors instead of 55.[7] Urban voters are under-represented—an American tradition. Democrats won six out of seven of the last presidential elections but lost two presidencies in the electoral college.

So a majority of Americans could support a Democratic “left” while failing to get a Democractic “left” into government?

Yo—that’s what happened in 2016.


Marcia Pally teaches Multilingual Multicultural Studies at New York University and is a regular guest professor in theology at Humboldt University-Berlin. Her latest book is Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality.





[5] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; see also,

[6] household incomes rose 7.9 percent in the tenth percentile and 6.9 percent in the twentieth percentile (only 2. 9 percent in the ninetieth percentile),