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What it takes for a representative democracy to address political minority rule

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now here is another, perhaps more long-range view from Corey Robin. He is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. Corey Robin, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

COREY ROBIN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So here's how you frame this in a piece that you recently wrote for Politico. You say, we have one party currently out of power in the national government trying to legislate a future in which it can lose elections but legally acquire or hold on to power. We have a second party currently in power doing little to stop the first.

One of the things you say that people could do, that voters can do, at least the Democrats could do, or people who care about this, is pass the Freedom to Vote Act. And that could be one step toward a solution here. Could you just walk us through what this would do, how it would solve the problem that you and others this hour have enumerated?

ROBIN: Well, the first thing is is that it would remove a lot of the restraints that have been roadblocks that have been put in the place of people voting. It would really secure the right to vote for people, which is what the Voting Rights Act was supposed to do. Second of all, it would really empower the federal government to take much more of a firm hand in how elections are administered at the state level. And then finally, making sure that when people's votes are cast, that they can be assured that the winner of the majority of votes is then installed into office.

MARTIN: But why hasn't this gained enough traction to be passed? I mean, it would seem that the logical answer is that the people who benefit from the system as it currently is don't want it to be, right? Is - or is there more to it than that?

ROBIN: Well, there is more. I mean, you're right that's that's the case. But the other problem is is that the institutions and, in fact, the Constitution are set up so that even if an overwhelming majority of people want something to pass, that's not necessarily going to pass. There are so many what we call veto points that have been set up in our federal system that really - rather than empowering the majority, really empower the minority.

MARTIN: So what is to be done here? What are some of the most consequential changes that you think need to happen?

ROBIN: If you were to ask me what would be my ideal scenario, I would say, first of all, you have to get rid of the Electoral College. It really is a stumbling block on the road to majoritarian democracy. And then, in my super ideal world, we would significantly have defanged the Senate. It's not enough simply to get rid of the filibuster. This is an institution that, again, by design, was set up to stop numerical majorities. And I think the way we've always talked about it is people think of the Senate as protecting minorities, like dissenters or African Americans and so forth. And nothing could be further from the truth. The minority that the Senate has protected historically are propertied, wealthy white men. So that would be my ideal utopia, would be to really have what we call in political science a unicameral legislature so that the people can rule themselves. But that's a longer-term project.

MARTIN: So what's a near-term project?

ROBIN: Part of this, I would say, is really empowering ordinary people, social movements, to start taking the kinds of actions that you have seen in the past and to act. You know, any social movement has always had to deal with this question and to go out and persuade people that, in fact, you showing up actually really does make a difference in a way that is disruptive, in a way that Martin Luther King understood, in a way that Betty Friedan understood in a way that Walter Reuther understood. That is - put your body somewhere where it's not supposed to be, and then let's watch the kind of fallout that happens from that as you start shaking that tree.

MARTIN: Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. Professor Robin, thank you so much for joining us.

ROBIN: Thank you. Really enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.