Kermit Roosevelt and the Tyranny of the Minority

Professor Kermit Roosevelt. Source: law.upenn.edu

As controversy bleeds into all three branches of American government, reforming the Constitution to allow the government to be more reflective of its population has become especially relevant. The question of what structural amendments to American democracy should look like is complicated, and it was the subject of the most recent presentation of the GDS History Speaker Series.      

For the past six years, the student-led History Speaker Series Committee has given members of the GDS community the opportunity to hear from scholars and leaders about memory, race and current events. The committee works out the logistics of the presentations and serves as a liaison between the presenters and the GDS community. 

Last month’s speaker was Kermit Roosevelt, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on civil liberties, presidential history and constitutional law. Roosevelt gave a presentation about how the Constitution allows for a minority to seize control over a majority and the situation’s resulting crises that was pertinent during this year’s political tumult. 

According to senior Nicolas Moiseyev, a member of the committee, Roosevelt’s speech was illuminating. “He was really intelligent and thoughtful in all of his answers,” Moiseyev said. “It was clear to me during the whole presentation that he was incredibly knowledgeable on the topic as a whole.”

In his work, Roosevelt uses research on American history to contextualize and inform his understanding of the contemporary crises that the nation is facing. His presentation to the students, faculty and parents of the GDS community on Nov. 10 discussed in detail the intentions of the Constitution’s framers and aspects of their document that failed to stand the test of time. 

Junior Maddie Feldman, another member of the committee, found Roosevelt’s presentation to be helpful in informing her understanding of America today. “As a high schooler in D.C., hearing him explain the origins of the problems I’m seeing today and then also explaining how to remedy the current day issues like hyper-partisanship and Trump’s refusal to concede will equip me in my efforts moving forward,” she said. 

Roosevelt began his presentation by explaining the features of the Constitution that allow a minority of voters to control the government. In the executive branch, a minority can prevail because the electoral college means that election results are mainly influenced by swing states and do not necessarily align with the popular opinion. In the legislative branch, partisan gerrymandering allows a minority of voters to elect a majority of representatives, and smaller states are allowed the same number of senators as larger states. In the judicial branch, justices can be appointed by a president and approved by senators are not necessarily representative of the majority population, as has occurred with President Donald Trump’s three Supreme Court nominations.

According to Roosevelt, the type of minority control seen today was not anticipated by the framers of the Constitution. “This is not something the drafters of the Constitution planned for, because they did not foresee political parties,” he said in his speech, “and they certainly did not think that a political party representing a minority of the American people could capture all three branches of the federal government and use them in a mutually supportive way to try to hold on to power.”

Roosevelt went on to argue for solutions to the hyper-partisanship that harms American democracy, especially in regard to the tensions surrounding the composition of the Supreme Court. “In the longer term we want to stop the partisan warfare over nominations, not try to win it,” he said. “If we believe in good government, we want to improve the system, not just seize control.” In his opinion, the most important steps in creating that reform would be to enact term limits for justices and stagger appointments.

At the end of his speech, Roosevelt offered to return to speak to GDS about his views and research on where contemporary American ideals come from and identifying common misconceptions. The next History Speaker Series presentation will take place on Dec. 17, when Elsa Mendoza will speak about the Enslaved People of Georgetown Project. 

 Kira Grossfield ’22