The American voters chose to give the Democrats the White House, but denied them a mandate. Even if Democrats somehow squeak out wins in both Georgia Senate races, the Senate will then pivot on Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Not only does this take much of the liberal wish list off the table, it also makes deep structural reform of federal institutions impossible. There will be no new voting rights act in honor of the late Representative John Lewis, no statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and no Supreme Court packing. For that matter, the filibuster will not be eliminated, which would have been the essential predicate for all of those other changes as well as expansive climate or health care legislation. Anything that Democrats want to do that requires a party-line vote is forlorn.
In response to this disappointment, a number of left-of-center commentators have concluded that “democracy lost” in 2020. Our constitutional order, they argue, is rotten and an obstacle to majority rule. The Electoral College and the overrepresentation of small, mostly conservative states in the Senate is an outrage. As Ezra Klein has argued, our constitution “forces Democrats to win voters ranging from the far left to the center right, but Republicans can win with only right-of-center votes.” As a consequence, liberals can’t have nice things.
The argument is logical, but it is also a strategic dead end. The United States is and in almost any plausible scenario will continue to be a federal republic. We are constituted as a nation of states, not as a single unitary community, a fact that is hard-wired into our constitutional structure. Liberals may not like this, just as a man standing outside in a rainstorm does not like the fact he is getting soaked. But instead of cursing the rain, it makes a lot more sense for him to find an umbrella.
Liberals need to adjust their political strategy and ideological ambitions to the country and political system we actually have, and make the most of it, rather than cursing that which they cannot change.
There are certainly some profound democratic deficits built into our federal constitution. Even federal systems like Germany, Australia and Canada do not have the same degree of representative inequality that the Electoral College and Senate generate between a citizen living in California versus one living in Wyoming.