Frances E. Lee on pro-rural bias in our electoral institutions

December 9, 2016
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A recent piece for the Upshot blog at the New York Times on the pro-rural bias of American electoral institutions made good use of political scientist Frances E. Lee’s research on the history of congressional partisan conflict, the subject of her latest book Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual CampaignIn considering the ideological residue from “Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian America” and its “yeoman farmer” ideal, the NYT posits how the ongoing influence of the rural vote triggers our very notion of the kind of person who should be able to hold office. which ultimately shapes just the conflict Lee specializes in:

Rural America, even as it laments its economic weakness, retains vastly disproportionate electoral strength. Rural voters were able to nudge Donald J. Trump to power despite Hillary Clinton’s large margins in cities like New York. In a House of Representatives that structurally disadvantages Democrats because of their tight urban clustering, rural voters helped Republicans hold their cushion. In the Senate, the least populous states are now more overrepresented than ever before. And the growing unity of rural Americans as a voting bloc has converted the rural bias in national politics into a potent Republican advantage.

“If you’re talking about a political system that skews rural, that’s not as important if there isn’t a major cleavage between rural and urban voting behavior,” said Frances Lee, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. “But urban and rural voting behavior is so starkly different now so that this has major political consequences for who has power.

The Electoral College is just one example of how an increasingly urban country has inherited the political structures of a rural past. Today, states containing just 17 percent of the American population, a historic low, can theoretically elect a Senate majority, Dr. Lee said. The bias also shapes the House of Representatives.

To read more about Insecure Majorities, click here.

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