NYT columnist Jamelle Bouie examines U.S. political inequality in annual Wilkins Lecture

man at lecturn in main reading room
New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie delivered a thought-provoking look at the U.S. political system as the featured speaker at Mason’s Roger Wilkins Lecture. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

American Democracy is “severely lacking” in political equality, and the problem is only going to worsen unless steps are taken to help the nation fully realize our democratic aspirations, New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie said Tuesday.

Bouie delivered a thought-provoking look at the U.S. political system as the featured speaker at George Mason University’s Roger Wilkins Lecture, created in honor of the late Mason professor and civil rights leader.

Mason President Gregory Washington welcomed Bouie as “one of the most exciting political minds of our time.”

Speaking at the Fenwick Library on the Fairfax Campus to an audience that included inquisitive students, faculty and staff as well as members of the Wilkins family, Bouie gave his take on the current American political system in which the voices of every citizen are not treated equally.

“It is the moral promise of democracy and the reason why democracy holds any appeal in the first place,” he said. “If you don’t believe in a self-governing society with political equals, then, in a critical sense, you really don’t believe in democracy. You may believe in something else, but it’s not democracy.”

a man and two women discuss something
From left, Jamelle Bouie and Schar School professor Jennifer Victor with a Mason student following the lecture. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

Bouie, a 2009 University of Virginia graduate who joined the New York Times in January 2019, cited the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College as institutions systemically hindering true political equality.

The U.S. Senate, he noted, empowers each of the nation’s 50 states equal representation with two votes apiece. Wyoming, the nation’s least populous state with roughly 600,000 residents, is on equal footing with California, the nation’s most populous state with nearly 40 million residents. That means that Wyoming residents have 67% more voting power than their counterparts in California.

That disparity will become each more pronounced over time as densely populated states like California, Texas, Florida and Georgia continue to see major population spikes, he said. By 2040, roughly half of the nation’s population is projected to live  in just eight states, meaning that half the nation’s residents will get 16 votes in the U.S. Senate, while the other half of the population spread across the remaining 42 states will account for the remaining 84 votes in the nation’s highest legislative body.

“You can’t possibly say in that scenario that Americans have equal political representation,” Bouie said. “They simply do not.”

In noting that the Electoral College has five times awarded the presidency to candidates who lost the popular vote, Bouie pointed out that such a scenario was hardly an accident. The Founding Fathers, he said, intentionally designed a system where everyone was not treated equally so as to protect the hierarchy of the time, which favored wealthy white men.

Partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010 that allowed unlimited amounts of money into the political system, and the steps taken in some states to limit to access to voting have only further exacerbated the gap in true political equality for all, Bouie said.

Bouie, who is based in Charlottesville, Virginia, suggested a number of possible solutions. Chief among them was amending the U.S. Constitution to lower barriers to access and even the playing field for as many citizens as possible.

“We have spent nearly 250 years trying to shoehorn a democratic political system into a decidedly un-democratic document,” Bouie said. “There’s only so far you can go with that.”

Other possibilities he mentioned included enlarging the U.S. House of Representatives beyond its current 435 members, developing new political parties, removing U.S. Senate authority to propose national legislation and possibly introducing Australian-style compulsory voting.

Bouie’s youth and fresh perspective resonated with Mason student Bennett Freeze. The senior Government and International Politics major from Chicago said he came away impressed with what he’d heard.

“It was incredible,” he said. “I think Jamelle has a voice for a new generation of Americans who understand that the Constitution—as it currently stands—is inadequate to resolve the problems we now see.”

The Wilkins Lecture was presented by Mason’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program, the Schar School of Policy and Government, the African and African American Studies Program and the Scalia Law School.

Previous featured speakers at the Roger Wilkins Lecture have included Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Forman Jr. (2018) and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kegan (2019).

Wilkins was the nation’s first African American assistant U.S. attorney general, serving under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. An accomplished journalist, he was part of the team at the Washington Post that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973 with his editorials about the Watergate scandal.

Wilkins was a Robinson Professor of History and American Culture at Mason for nearly 20 years. The Johnson Center’s North Plaza was renamed in his honor in 2017.