The Senate confirmation spectacle of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanagh has brought a renewed focus on whether the Senate and the presidency (and thus the Supreme Court) democratically reflect the preferences of American citizens.
Thanks to the Electoral College, both George W. Bush (2000) and Donald Trump (2016) lost the popular vote but won the presidency. Meanwhile, Michael Tomasky points out that the 54 senators who voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch received 54 million votes, while the 45 who voted against his confirmation secured 73 million votes. Kavanaugh received only 50 votes; his supporters got 1.5 million fewer votes than the senators who voted for Gorsuch.
Because every state elects two senators, Wyoming, with fewer than 600,000 inhabitants, has the same Senate representation as California, with a population of almost 40 million. This has important implications for political representation, beyond simple geography.
Benjamin Waddell pointed out that demographic groups that tend to support Democrats ― blacks (88 percent for Hillary Clinton in 2016), Hispanics (66 percent for Clinton) and Asians (65 percent for Clinton) ― tend to reside in densely populated states such as California. The upshot is that our current system strongly favors white voters, and migration patterns mean the imbalance is only getting worse.
Should the Constitution be amended to correct the democracy deficit? Of course.
However, in current times, amending the Constitution to change how the Senate or the president is elected is almost impossible. Any amendment needs to be approved by two-thirds of the Senate and the House and ratified by three-fourths of the states. The Republican Party and smaller states, benefiting from the status quo, have the power and incentives to block any such constitutional amendment.
Can the Senate and presidency be made more representative of the popular will even within the existing system? The answer is deceptively simple: yes, by populating red states with liberal voters.
Young and educated individuals lean liberal. They also want to live in urban areas. Cities in small red states often do not have jobs that young professionals want. As Bill Bishop pointed out in his 2009 book, The Big Sort, “Americans have been sorting themselves over the past three decades into homogeneous communities — not at the regional level, or the red-state/blue-state level, but at the micro level of city and neighborhood.”
How to re-sort the American political landscape so that the democratic deficit is closed? Alec MacGillis in The New York Times advised young hipsters to move to the Midwest. But without jobs, young and educated people are unlikely to move. The trick then is to create desirable employment opportunities in those areas.
What if major employers relocated from blue state cities ― such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle ― to red state cities, especially in states with small populations? These jobs would attract voters who could eventually turn red states blue.
Until about a decade ago, Virginia was considered a red state. With the growth of the Northern Virginia corridor, the demographics of the Old Dominion have changed. Its senators and governor are Democrats. Clinton carried the state in 2016. Similarly, Californication has changed Colorado from solidly red to blue.
Imagine if the Gates Foundation relocated from Seattle to a wonderful town in the West such as Boise, Idaho; Cheyenne, Wyoming; or Bozeman, Montana. Suppose Howard Schultz’s Starbucks joined the Gates Foundation in the relocation effort. Imagine the national spotlight these towns would receive. It may even start an Amazon HQ2 type of stampede among various cities to attract such companies. With new jobs, these towns would eventually grow into major metropolitan areas and eventually have the Northern Virginia effect on their states’ presidential and senatorial politics.
The companies could justify this relocation in economic terms. In relation to Seattle, the cost of living is cheaper by 58 percent in Boise, 44 percent in Cheyenne and 32 percent in Bozeman.
Liberal billionaires such as George Soros and Tom Steyer could establish venture capital funds to support new companies in a handful of key red states. Of course, if Jeff Bezos, who is not a liberal (but certainly a billionaire), decides to locate Amazon’s HQ2 (and its 50,000 jobs) in a small red state, that alone could bring about a major demographic transformation and flip the presidential politics of that state.
Our thesis might also appeal even to a nonpartisan billionaire, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, with strong policy preferences about issues such as public health, education or the environment. After all, with the current institutional arrangements, these issues will probably not get addressed. Even billionaires who love tax cuts and strongly favor a deregulatory agenda might find some merit in our argument. Think of billionaires who support the revenue-neutral carbon tax but find that the current institutional arrangements block their policy proposals.
To illustrate our argument, we looked at the difference in votes received by Trump and Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Our logic is simple: The smaller the vote gap, the easier it would be to flip the state in presidential elections. Here are the 10 states with the smallest 2016 margins, along with their vote differences:
South Dakota: 110,263
North Dakota: 123,036
North Carolina: 173,315
A couple of big states can also be included in the list. While these states may send liberal senators, they voted Republican in 2016 presidential election. These are:
The bottom line is that to correct the democratic deficit in our politics, one does not need to amend the Constitution. Billionaires either liberal in their persuasion or supporting a specific policy issue that is being blocked by the current institutional structure should deploy their wealth in a politically strategic manner. So far, they have focused on funding election campaigns or grassroots advocacy organizations. Another way they can influence national politics is by creating jobs in a handful of red states in order to bring about a demographic shift.
This may not be what Mitt Romney meant when he said corporations are people, but they do employ people who vote. Those people just have to live in the right states for their votes to matter.
Nives Dolšak is the associate director of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, and Aseem Prakash is the founding director of the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington, Seattle.