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How the Founding Fathers' concept of 'Minority Rule' is alive and well today

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How the Founding Fathers' concept of 'Minority Rule' is alive and well today

A voter leaves a voting booth in Concord, N.H., the during primary election on Jan. 23, 2024.

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A voter leaves a voting booth in Concord, N.H., the during primary election on Jan. 23, 2024.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

It’s a fundamental tension in a democracy: How do you have majority rule in a way that also protects minority rights? Journalist Ari Berman says the Founding Fathers struggled with that question back in 1787 — except, for them, white male landowners were the minority in need of protection.

“Most of the founders were skeptical of the public’s ability to elect the president directly,” Berman says. “So they created this very complicated situation in which electors would elect the president instead of the people electing the president directly.”

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In his new book, Minority Rule, Berman connects the debates and compromises of the country’s founders to contemporary politics. He says the founding fathers created a system that concentrated power in the hands of the elite and that today, institutions like the Electoral College and the Senate — designed as a check against the power of the majority — are having much the same effect.

Berman notes that in the country’s first presidential election, in 1789, only a small fraction of the population was eligible to vote — and in certain states, voters were only allowed to vote for electors, not the candidates themselves.

Though the right to vote has since been expanded, Berman says the democratic process remains deeply flawed. He points out that in 2000 and again in 2016, the presidential candidate who won the popular vote did not win the electoral vote. Additionally, he says, because the Constitution stipulates that each state gets two senators, regardless of its population, “smaller, whiter, more conservative states have far more power and representation in the Senate then larger, more diverse, more urban states.”

“What we see right now is the same kind of thing, in which a privileged, conservative, white minority is trying to suppress the power of a much more diverse multiracial governing majority,” Berman says. “And that’s a very dangerous situation for American democracy.”

Interview highlights

Minority Rule, by Ari Berman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Minority Rule, by Ari Berman

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux

On the Constitution as a flawed document

We venerate the Constitution as a civic religion. I think we would be much greater served to look at the Constitution as a whole document and say, there are some remarkable parts of this document, but there’s also some really flawed parts of this document that we still haven’t corrected. Because the really remarkable thing is that even as America has democratized in the centuries since — and nobody would argue that America isn’t more democratic now than it was back then — some features of the Constitution have become more undemocratic.

On the creation of the Electoral College to uphold minority rule

Most of the founders were skeptical of the public’s ability to elect the president directly. They felt like the public would be uninformed, or it would be chosen by the largest states, or would be chosen by free states in a way that would hurt the South. So it’s interesting, one of the themes that runs through the book and runs through the founding is that these smaller minorities wanted protection. And when I may say smaller minorities, I don’t mean minority groups. I mean the small states wanted protection, the slave states wanted protection, and they felt like they would get that protection in the Electoral College. So they created this very complicated situation in which electors would elect the president instead of the people electing the president directly.

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On how representatives from Delaware scuffled the initial plan to have Senate representation being based on population

James Madison and other prominent framers wanted the Senate to be based on proportional representation, so they wanted it to be based on population. So larger states like Virginia would have more representation than smaller states like Delaware. But the smaller states rebelled. And there’s this amazing moment at the Constitutional Convention where the attorney general of Delaware gets up and he tells the likes of James Madison, if you don’t give us the same representation, we’re going to find a foreign ally who we’re going to join with instead, and we’re going to leave the United States of America. And that was a stunning demand. The idea that they would go rejoin England or they would join France instead, if they didn’t have the same level of representation, meant that the larger states had no choice but to give in to the demand of the smaller states to ratify the Constitution.

But what Madison worried about is that it would allow what he called a more objectionable minority than ever to control the U.S. Senate, because if the smaller states had the same level of representation as the larger states, that was inevitably going to lead to minority rule. And Madison worried that would get worse as more states join the union. And, of course, that’s what’s happened today, where the gap between large and small states is dramatically larger than it was back in 1787.

On how the two Senator per state representation affects minority rule

Just to give you one really stunning stat, by 2040, 70% of the population is going to live in 15 states with 30 senators. That means that 30% of the country, which is going to be whiter, more rural, more conservative, is going to elect 70% of the U.S. Senate. So the trend in the U.S. Senate is becoming more imbalanced and more undemocratic. And what’s really interesting to me is a lot of conservatives want to go back and they want to quote the framers, but they ignore that a lot of the framers, including James Madison, the architect of the Constitution, had grave concerns about some of the institutions they were creating, particularly the structure of the U.S. Senate.

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Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

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J. Kenji López-Alt talks food, science, and Winnie the Pooh onsies : Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me!

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J. Kenji López-Alt talks food, science, and Winnie the Pooh onsies : Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me!
This week, we’re live in Seattle with food genius J. Kenji López-Alt to talk about food, science, food-science, and the magic of Winnie the Pooh onsies. Plus, panelists Shantira Jackson, Luke Burbank, and Jessi Klein pass the blame around.WWDTM+ listeners! For contractual reasons, there will not be a sponsor-free version of this episode. We apologize. But we will have a sponsor-free program available to you as always next weekend. We appreciate your support!
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What’s better for the climate: A paper book, or an e-reader?

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What’s better for the climate: A paper book, or an e-reader?

In the face of human-caused climate change, paperbacks and e-readers each have pros and cons.

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The summer reading season is here.

Some people will opt for paperbacks because they’re easy to borrow and share. Others will go for e-readers, or audiobooks streamed on a phone.

But which is the more environmentally sustainable option? Reading’s carbon footprint is not large compared to other things people do, like travel, and it isn’t something most people consider when choosing how to read a book. But for those looking for small changes in their lives to reduce their impact on the climate, it might be worth exploring how the ways we choose to read books affect the planet.

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A complicated question to answer

Whether it’s better to read books in print or on a device is complicated, because of the complex interplay of the resources involved across the entire lifecycle of a published work: how books and devices are shipped, what energy they use to run, if they can be recycled.

Digital reading is on the rise — especially audiobooks. According to the Association of American Publishers, they now capture about the same share of the total US book market as e-books — roughly 15%. But print is still by far the most popular format.

“Publishers are interested in preserving the business that they’ve created over hundreds of years,” said Publishers Weekly executive editor Andrew Albanese, explaining why the industry is focusing most of its efforts on improving the sustainability of paperback and hardcover books, rather than digital formats. “They are looking to run those print book businesses as efficiently as possible, as cleanly as possible, as green as possible.”

On the one side: traditional book publishing

Traditional print publishing comes with a high carbon footprint.

According to 2023 data from the literary industry research group WordsRated, when it comes to pulp and paper, print book publishing is the world’s third-largest industrial greenhouse gas emitter, and 32 million trees are felled each year in the United States to make paper for books. Then there’s the printing and shipping — to say nothing of the many books that are destroyed because they remain unsold.

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Although it’s standard practice in the industry, publishers don’t want to destroy books. So instead, many are donating unsold copies, switching to on-demand printing, or, like Chronicle Books, are reducing their initial print runs to see how well the titles sell before they print more.

“We felt that it was better to have a higher cost and have less waste,” said Chronicle Books president, Tyrrell Mahoney.

Chronicle Books, like many other publishers, is also trying to use more sustainable paper.

“We have this great partner in India who has now figured out how to use cotton-based up-cycled materials to print as paper,” Mahoney said.

Publishers are also rethinking book design. It might be a surprise, but certain fonts can be more climate-friendly by using less ink and less paper.

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A side-by-side comparison of one of Harper Collins' new sustainable fonts (right) and a regular font (left.)

Harper Collins has introduced sustainable fonts that use less ink.

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“So far, these subtle, imperceptible tweaks have saved more than 200 million pages across 227 titles since September,” said Harper Collins’ senior director of design Lucy Albanese. NPR could not independently verify these page savings.

On the other: digital publishing

All well and good. But digital reading seems to have a considerable eco-advantage over print because it is paperless, so it saves trees, pulping and shipping. Moreover, tech companies that make e-readers such as Amazon, which sells the market-leading Kindle e-reader, offer recycling programs for old devices.

“By choosing e-books as an alternative to print, Kindle readers helped save an estimated 2.3 million metric tons of carbon emissions over a two year period,” said Corey Badcock, head of Kindle product and marketing. NPR could not independently verify these emissions reductions.

But digital devices also come with a substantial carbon footprint, predominantly at the manufacturing stage. Their cases are made with fossil-fuel-derived plastics and the minerals in their batteries require resource-heavy mining.

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The short answer to which is better: it depends

“It’s not cut and dried,” said Mike Berners-Lee, a professor of sustainability at Lancaster Environment Centre in the United Kingdom, of the comparative climate friendliness of digital versus print reading.

Berners-Lee, the author of The Carbon Footprint of Everything, said the average e-reader has a carbon footprint of around 80 pounds.

“This means that I’ve got to read about 36 small paperback books-worth on it before you break even,” he said.

Figuring out whether to take a digital device or a paperback to the beach ultimately depends on how voraciously you read.

“If you buy an e-reader and you read loads and loads of books on it, then it’s the lowest carbon thing to do,” Berners-Lee said. “But if I buy it, read a couple of books, and decided that I prefer paperback books, then it’s the worst of all worlds.”

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Yet Berners-Lee said that reading is still, relatively speaking, a pretty sustainable activity — regardless of whether you read using an e-reader, phone or old-fashioned paperback.

Both audio and digital versions of this story were edited by Jennifer Vanasco. Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento mixed the audio version.

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