J. Douglas Smith
On Democracy's Doorstep
The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought
Hill and Wang 2014
This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, a legal revolution with far-reaching cultural, political, and economic import. But as J. Douglas Smith argues in On Democracy’s Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought “One Person, One Vote” to the United States (Hill and Wang, 2014),the early 1960s witnessed a comparable sea change in voting law that deserves far more attention. Indeed, when journalists asked Earl Warren what he regarded as the Supreme Court’s most important accomplishment under his tenure, the Chief Justice — who oversaw a series of landmark cases, from Brown to Miranda –– did not hesitate to answer: Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims. Few Americans today could identify and explain what these rulings did. But as Smith explains, they represented a dramatic break with a long-reigning electoral system that now feels almost unimaginable.
America is exceptional among modern democracies for elevating the idea of unequal representation to a theory of”checks and balances;” the Senate being the most obvious example (California, with more people than the twenty-one least-populous states combined, has as tiny a fraction of the power in Congress). Yet the situation was far worse before the Court’s forgotten revolution, with state legislatures across the country effectively disfranchising voters on a mass scale. Los Angeles County, with more than 6 million residents in 1960, had just one state senator. Three nearby counties, with less than 15,000 voters, each had the same.
Many have argued that these facts have been inconsequential to U.S. political history, a very counterintuitive notion if so. But the early twentieth century politicians who relied on the inflation of rural and small-town districts — some of whom numbered among the most powerful arbiters of legislation and debate in Washington — certainly did not share this view. In reaction to the Court’s decisions, Everett Dirksen, the Republican Minority Leader in the legendary 89th Congress, hired the consulting firm Whitaker and Baxter, widely thought to have pioneered modern campaigning, to repeal or roll back the rulings. Dozens of states lined up, with enormous funding from the nation’s biggest corporations. The group even considered a Constitutional Convention, what would have been the first since 1789. Those efforts failed. But in the wake of this half-realized democratization, legislatures underwent dramatic political change. Notably, they also turned to gerrymandering and increasing reliance on the filibuster.
Dubbed by the Washington Post one of the notable works of the year, Smith’s book is well worth your read.