Minority Rule: The Right-Wing Attack on the Will of the People―and the Fight to Resist It

Image of Minority Rule: The Right-Wing Attack on the Will of the People―and the Fight to Resist It
Release Date: 
April 23, 2024
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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“The question of whether the United States will live up to Abraham Lincoln’s ideal of ‘a government of the people, by the people and for the people’ is the defining fight of our time.”

This question frames Ari Berman’s carefully researched and well-written challenge to Americans. Most succinctly, he repeatedly poses the question is the U.S. a “democracy” or an “oligarchy.” As he argues, “the United States has historically been a laboratory for both oligarchy and genuine democracy; the dualism is part of its DNA.” Sadly, as Berman makes clear, the fight comes down to how one defines “democracy.”

Berman is Mother Jones’ national voting rights correspondent, and this book builds on his 2015 study, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voter Rights (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Minority Rule consist of three interlinked arguments. The first considers how “democracy” was refashioned from a “direct” to a “representative” form of government; the second assess how this tension is played out on the political battlefield by examining a host of critical issues; and the third part considers how the ever-growing power of the 21st century “oligarchy”—the rich, white, corporate elite embodied in the Republican Party—is being contested through grassroots election campaigns.

One of the most illuminating arguments that Berman lays out—and that frames the book—is how the concept of “democracy” was reconceived from that envisioned in the Declaration of Independence to what was formally outlined in the Constitution.

The Preamble to the Declaration of Independence states emphatically:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

At the time of the American Revolution there were about 2.5 million “white” people in the country, the majority were from British backgrounds (i.e., England, Scotland, Ireland); 1.5 million were “free” females; in addition, there were an estimated half-million African Americans in the colonies, of which 450,000 were slaves. Most of the free white males were small farmers. Elections were limited to property-owning white men.

A decade after the Revolution, as Berman argues, the political landscape had changed. “In 1776, America’s leaders had designed a government to protect the many from the few. Now, said [James] Madison [who drafted the Constitution], it was time to protect the few from the many,” he stresses. In the move from a more “direct” to a more “representative” democracy, they created a two-tier electoral system—a “House of Representatives” made up of people elected from the states, thus favoring larger-populated states; and a “Senate” which gave equal representation to each state, thus favoring the smaller states.

Berman points out that by 1790, the country’s most populous state, Virginia, had 12 times as many people as its least populous, Delaware. Today, California has 67 times the population of Wyoming. By 2040, roughly 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states with 30 senators, while the other 30 percent—who are whiter, older, and more rural than the country as a whole —will elect 70 senators. This is the anchor of what Berman identifies as “minority rule.”

Using a series of illuminating political stories, Berman builds an argument that moves gracefully from the revolutionary era to today. His analysis covers all the major political issues defining the current moment, including voter gerrymandering, abortion rights, immigration and classroom curriculum (e.g., Critical Race Theory).

Berman gives special consideration of the role of Pat Buchanan, Pres. Richard Nixon’s speech writer who helped conceive the Southern Strategy that realigned the nation’s political landscape. He recalls that Buchanan insisted in a 1995 address, “if present trends hold, white Americans will be a minority by 2050.” And Berman adds most pointedly, “This underlying fear mongering became endemic to Republican politics and drove the ascendency of the 45th president [i.e., Donald Trump].”

Unfortunately, Berman doesn’t recall Buchanan’s 1992 speech at the Republican convention, foreshadowing struggles yet to come:

“There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, [Bill] Clinton and [Hillary] Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.”

He laid the grounds of the culture wars that define American social life today.

Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), the U.S. electorate qualitatively and quantitatively expanded, fashioning a more pluralistic democracy. Faced with this change—and a series of major Supreme Court decisions, including Roe v. Wade (1973)—the nation became a more humane, secular society.

These developments helped fuel the rise of what’s been called the New Right. Perhaps most scary, Berman notes that the Federalist Society raised an astonishing $580 million “through a shadowy network of a dozen dark money nonprofit groups” to put its “preferred judges on the bench.” It helped the securing of more than 500 judges appointed by both Bushes and 226 appointed by Donald Trump; its judges now control the Supreme Court.

So what do well-meaning Americans do in the face of the power forces of Christian Republican conservativism? Berman is small “d” democrat who, in a concluding chapter, highlights the amazing work of Katie Fahey, a 29-year-old Michigan activist, who undertook a little-funded by well-organized grassroots campaign (using Facebook and other social media sources) to gather 410,000 signatures for a ballot initiative that undercut the state Republicans election gerrymandering and, in a follow-up campaign that dramatically expanded voter access. Her campaigns enabled the Democrats to flip both houses in Michigan in 2022, that, as Berman notes, “giving them control of state politics for the first time in 40 years.”