The Crux Of The Problem

The Senate–which has managed to do pretty much nothing during the pandemic (granted, it wasn’t exactly productive in the months before that, either)–is rushing through the process of confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

There are many aspects to this unseemly exhibition, but one that has been less remarked upon is the connection between the Senate’s growing problem of disproportionate representation and that body’s importance to the seating of Supreme Court Justices.

A recent post by Nate Silver at connected those dots.

Silver says that the constitution of the Senate poses an “enormous problem for Democrats”–not simply because the parties as currently constituted map onto urban and rural representation. (Democrats dominate in cities; Republicans triumph in rural areas.) As he points out,

 because the Senate is responsible for confirming Supreme Court picks, that means the Supreme Court is a huge problem for Democrats too. Sure, Democrats might win back the Senate this year — indeed, they were slight favorites to do so before the Ginsburg news. But in the long run, they’re likely to lose it more often than not.

You can probably grasp intuitively that a legislative body which provides as much representation to Wyoming (population: 580,000) as California (population: 39.5 million) will tend to favor rural areas. But it’s a bigger effect than you might realize, so let’s run some numbers. At FiveThirtyEight, our favorite way to distinguish between urban and rural areas is based on using census tracts to estimate how many people live within a 5-mile radius of you.

Using this metric, Silver broke the country down into four categories: those with fewer than 25,000 people within 5 miles were classified as rural; those falling between 25,000 and 100,000 were exurban; between 100,000 and 250,000 were suburban or small city; and over 250,000 were urban. Using this (somewhat arbitrary) classification system, Silver found that these “buckets” were almost even: 25 percent rural, 23 percent exurban/small town, 27 percent suburban/small city, and 25 percent urban core/large city.

He then looked at the Senate, and– surprise! (no surprise; I’m kidding)– found a major skew to rural areas in that chamber’s representation. It turns out that the Senate has” two or three times as much rural representation as urban core representation … even though there are actually about an equal number of voters in each bucket nationwide.”

And of course, this has all sorts of other downstream consequences. Since rural areas tend to be whiter, it means the Senate represents a whiter population, too. In the U.S. as a whole, 60 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white and 40 percent of the population is nonwhite. But in the average state, 68 percent of people are white and 32 percent are nonwhite. It’s almost as if the Senate has turned the clock back by 20 years as far as the racial demographics of the country goes. (In 2000, around 69 percent of the U.S. population consisted of non-Hispanic whites.)

The post goes through a lot of mathematical calculations, which you can see if you click through, but the bottom line is stark:

the Senate is effectively 6 to 7 percentage points redder than the country as a whole, which means that Democrats are likely to win it only in the event of a near-landslide in their favor nationally. That’s likely to make the Republican majority on the Supreme Court pretty durable.

There is a lot to unpack in this article, beginning with my extreme discomfort with its underlying premise that the Supreme Court is merely another arena for American political partisanship. Granted, judicial philosophy has always been a significant cause of dissension, but it is only in the last few years that the judiciary has effectively been reduced to the status of partisan prize–as a tool for imposing political hegemony through the legal system, rather than a safeguard of fidelity to the Constitution and the rule of law.

What the article does make very clear, however, is the disturbing and undeniable fact of minority rule. White rural Republicans–who are advantaged by the current situation–like to recite that America is a republic, not a democracy, as if that somehow rebuts the fact that a true republic is a representative democracy. (Look it up.)

This situation is at the crux of our national problems. America is currently ruled by an unrepresentative minority–and the effect of that reality includes but is certainly not limited to the GOP’s intentional corruption of the nation’s judiciary.


  1. The Senate should according to our forefathers be appointed by state legislators. That was its original intent. Many are in favor of repealing the 17th amendment so that this branch of government is not controlled by either party and its platforms but each states legislators. Think of all the money being spent on campaigns. What good does it do our country when so many people are throwing money at electing senators, when that money could be spent on inner city schools and job creation.
    The House on the other hand is more representive of the people. We live in a democratic republic that has lost its republic.
    I’m for repealing the 17th amendment

  2. I have to disagree with John about repeal of the 17th Amendment. The States’ legislatures in red States are as bad, or worse, in regard to controls by this iteration of the GOP. Indiana is an example of one party (GOP) retaining super majorities in both houses of the General Assembly with far fewer popular votes. That is the effect of gerrymandering. (I do not excuse members of the Democratic Party from that party’s gerrymandering here in Indiana – that’s just as wrong.) Lee Atwater stressed local political goals. If the 17th is repealed, Indiana is far less likely to have a Senator who is anything but right wing and a member of this iteration of the GOP.

  3. “There are many aspects to this unseemly exhibition, but one that has been less remarked upon is the connection between the Senate’s growing problem of disproportionate representation and that body’s importance to the seating of Supreme Court Justices.”

    The Senate’s “disproportionate representation”? The actual majority number is low; the problem appears to me to be the “disproportionate representation” of Mitch McConnell who has ignored his Oath of Office to protect this country and uphold the Constitution which REQUIRES a hearing on all presidential nominees to SCOTUS…regardless of party. Simply ignoring Obama’s nominees has obviously made them “go away” or their names would remain on the nominee list till the Senate abides by the Constitution and holds hearings to fairy say “yea or nay”.

    “This situation is at the crux of our national problems. America is currently ruled by an unrepresentative minority–and the effect of that reality includes but is certainly not limited to the GOP’s intentional corruption of the nation’s judiciary.”

    The names of Gorsuch, Kavannaugh and Amy Cony Barrett were on the list of possible SCOTUS nominees given to Trump in 2016 from the Federalist Society so they have added two Catholics to the previous three and intend to push Barrett through, forcing a 6-3 count thereby “stacking the court” more heavily in their favor. If that is not Congress passing laws to “establishment of religion”; what is it? If it is not “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” of other religions; what is it?

    Talk about needing a “landslide victory” for Joe Biden all you want; it will get down to the “disproportionate representation” of the Electoral College who will decide the presidency AGAIN and it won’t take weeks of counting their votes to make that decision.

  4. It’s not just the SCOTUS problem. It’s not just Democrats’ problems with the Senate. The crux of the problem is the deterioration of the Republican party and its tragic, fetid descent into the slime of “patron politics”. For a very long time, Republicans have been the lap dogs of corporate/banking America. Even Teddy Roosevelt saw that and tried to get money out of politics. No wonder the GOP shunned him.

    Our Republican party is the engine of our own destruction as a democratic republic. Karl Marx knew that what the Republicans are now doing to OUR form of capitalism was reason for him prophesying our demise. And here we are.

    When was the last time the Republicans put forth any policy, legislation or even an idea that helped working people or the poor? I’ll wait…

    No, the crux of the problem is not ACB. It is the entire Republican party and its most recent move to become the cult of death with their embrace of perhaps the worst human being this country ever produced. This GOP, like its predecessor, must be removed from our political scene entirely if we expect to survive as a nation.

  5. I have always thought that Thomas and Scalia are/were political hacks (Read Scalia’s majority opinion in D.C. vs Heller). If you add 3-4 more hacks you have a solidly-partisan SCOTUS, as Sen. Whitehouse deftly presented.

    His short speech IMO served the interests of Americans better than any 30 minutes spent on a judicial confirmation in history. He also laid the groundwork for Dems to launch an effort to add 2 states, 4 (Dem) Senators and 4 SCOTUS judges next year if they have the opportunity. They’ve never been very good at consolidating power after gaining a majority. This time they must be resolute, or even ruthless.

  6. I just went to check census data. since this was a quick one-off, I didn’t do a deep dive and the first tables I found were for 2000. As an fyi Indiana had a 70.8% urban population in 2000. My math is pretty good, so I can safely say that 29.2% of the population seem to be in control there. Even Idaho had a 66.4% urban population.

    What these numbers tell me is that Democrats shouldn’t be having problems with the Senate. In Indiana the problem seems to be that Democrats are turned off by Republican lite candidates. Joe the lumberjack certainly never distinguished himself. Find better people to run and you might just win some of these races. Believe in SOMETHING and you might just win some of these races. Indiana Democrats should know by now that Evan Bayh and John Gregg aren’t the answers for your moribund party.

  7. Going with what Vernon has posted, the crux of the problem infests both parties. Too often both parties, Republicans to a larger extent, elect not honest representatives, but liars and thieves. In 2016, Republicans knew that Donald Trump was a liar and a thief, yet they nominated him and voted for him in lock step. That same broad sweep of the electorate continually goes for the unprincipled and the immoral, the bombastic and the bully. They vote for ignorance. They vote for religiosity over the Constitution. They vote for their own selfish interests, their own racism, their own hatred.
    I hope for a day when we write laws to block the criminality that passes for the representative government we have today. But what we really need is a better electorate… educated, charitable, principled, honest, kind, and with a true reverence for life sans religion.

  8. Barack Obama’s “Audacity Of Hope”, as a private citizen, elected Senator and twice elected President, needs to become the “Audacity Of Hope” of this nation before we will see democracy, Rule of Law or upholding the Constitution of the United States of America.

  9. Nate might be good with statistics, but he’s only scratching the surface of the core problem. The Great Sort has been going on for decades as the factories closed and went to China to boost their working class at the expense of our working class. People migrated to where the jobs are located since they have to make a living somehow.

    The great sorting of the working class also went against the EC. Add gerrymandering to the arsenal, and you can see where it’s going…

    In the 40s, Albert Einstein already provided the crux of the problem — we are an Oligarchy controlled by people and corporations of extreme wealth. They use that wealth to buy up politicians, media, etc. Einstein said Oligarchs in the 40s controlled all the major institutions.

    The Koch brothers basically own and control 23-24 states or nearly half of the senators. The Koch family has been working on their political network since FDR cost their daddy money with the New Deal. What we see in Washington and the USA didn’t just happen by chance. It was very strategic.

    Politically, the Democratic Party has no answer because they are an owned entity as well. Bill Clinton signaled defeat during his rise to power. He sold out what was remaining to Wall Street. The answer to the Koch’s power is socialism via centralized planning, which is not full-scale socialism. The Democratic Party prides itself on “defeating its left flank” or the working-class movement.

    Don’t worry, just like with FDR’s days, the socialists and communists are waiting and watching. In 2016, many Democrats defected to the more structured socialist parties like the Labour Party in the U.K. The sorting continues…

    Don’t forget; the Koch family business isn’t publicly-traded on the stock market. It is a privately-held company. ACB is a Koch shill.

    The former Tea Party ran by the Koch’s is now the Americans For Prosperity organization. It’s all about branding/marketing/public relations. All of it is propaganda.

    The media is used to divide and conquer. It’s sorting too…

  10. The true underlying crux of our national problem is GERRYMANDERING as a political tool to skew representation.
    Until we fix the gerrymandering issue across each State with non-partisan re-districting commissions composed of professional demographers and statisticians people living in the most populous areas of this nation that in reality are the drivers of our national economy this problem will never be solved !!!!

  11. Peggy Hannon – what you described is what our project, CommonGoodGoverning, is all about. Good people in an imperfect system will make it work to do the right thing, not the opposite. In 2018, we put four of them in the House – Dean Phillips, Elaine Luria, Conor Lamb and Elissa Slotkin. We are working really hard here in 2020 for 13 more and going full bore to assist Amy McGrath in “ditching Mitch”.

  12. I would agree with Todd: “Bill Clinton signaled defeat during his rise to power. He sold out what was remaining to Wall Street.”

    The Democrats even when they had majorities in the House and Senate, played slow pitch softball. The Republicans played fast pitch hardball. Raygun and Bush the Elder played the game somewhat. It was Newt who started the fast pitch. The Democratic Party swung and missed at his pitches. Even that was not enough for the New GOP. The rules were changed or exploited – So we get gerrymandering and voter suppression.

    From the Guardian: More than 10-hour wait and long lines as early voting starts in Georgia.

    Federal legislation is needed to establish various parameters on voting in federal elections.

  13. Now that the oligarchy has seized so much power (see Reich’s “The System”), controls the economy and so many politicians, rules so many red states, dictates the decisions of the Supreme Court, has the discipline of the Praetorian Guard, is growing in wealth and power with the epidemic, leverages the ugliest aspects of capitalism to achieve power surges, and pledges an unbreakable commitment to the continued rule of white people, it’s difficult to see how this situation gets turned around. Sheila’s advocacy of civics education would work, but we’d have to sneak it by the very people now in control, the same people who did such a brilliant job of executing their plan to make Americans dumber (in South Carolina we rejected the Common Core approach to enlightenment because it taught the principles of critical thinking which are, of course, anathema to SC politicians) and virtually unaware of how government affects their lives.

    I’m not pessimistic at heart, but forgive me for not understanding how any of the great ideas discussed above get translated into executable programs. Did I mention that cults and conspiracies are powerful forces in the thought patterns of people who see nothing wrong with Russian interference in our elections? May I repeat Sheila’s oft-mentioned statistic that most Americans get it wrong when asked how many branches of government there are?

    My most fundamental concern, however, is that Trump has put his finger on many of the weakest elements of our form of government and managed to exploit them for the benefit of himself and his party and the undermining of American institutions. Is this the template we will watch Republicans invoke to model the new absolutist world order? If Biden wins this election, Trump’s behavior at the first (and only?) debate is what we are most likely to see from Republicans in the next four years. They hold no values apart from self-enrichment and adding to their immense power, and so are unconstrained in their actions. Meanwhile, Democrats tend to view life through the ever-improving lens of civilization and decency , and thereby miss how putrid our politicians’ and our citizenry’s minds have become. Apart from Hillary’s “deplorables”, have you heard a single critique of how the Trump loyalists out in the countryside are abetting his destruction of democracy? If Democrats control both houses of Congress, should we consider increasing immigration quotas to flood the country with people disgusted with life under autocratic rulers?

  14. The official rationale for taking the appointment of senators away from state legislatures and having them stand for election was blatant corruption, an era which saw the rich taking sacks of money in broad daylight and placing them on senators’ desks. That didn’t solve the problem since they are still the receipients of sacks of money though they are delivered from PACs and Koch moneybags in back rooms and who knows where and how else. (Zurich? Deutsch Bank?)

    The answer? Public financing of political campaigns which also outlaws such practices, laws that provide felony classification for their breach for bribers, bribees and all those involved in the criminal pipeline. When senators and representatives have their only source of campaign income from the public, presumably they will (finally!) vote the interests of the public. We the people will be delighted to see our representatives forced to equate tax breaks for the rich and corporate class with the common good, not how much such class ponied up for their reelection(s).

    I think given public financing that repeal of the 17th Amendment a bad idea. I do not propose to send that method of selection of senators back to the snakepit of state legislatures and what each of the fifty would do to limit the effect of public financing. The process should be federal so that one interpretation fits all, like we should have done with handling the pandemic, for instance. Bribery, like the virus, does not stop at state lines.

    So, perfection? No, no remedial legislation is perfect in its application, but if politicians see some ex-senators (and perhaps the remaining Koch brother) busting rocks at Leavenworth it should cut down on the practices we are trying to remedy and focus their attention on the common good.

  15. Consider the multitude of foolish conspiracy theory advocates in the Republican party, which we on this blog routinely and rightly have called out and ridiculed for being, what, conspiracy theories. Then consider the many posts of Todd Smekens, John Sorg, Lester, Vernon, and others who post regularly on this blog, and tell me what the difference is between their conspiracy theories and Republican/Deplorable conspiracy theories. Frankly, I see little difference.

    Thus, I wonder who is pulling their–John, Todd, et al–strings in a finely-crafted conspiracy to undo the conspiracies of the 1990s which were crafted to undo the conspiracies of the 1960s which were invented to undo the…

    Hmmm; give me a few days and I may invent the answer to my own question, making me perhaps as smart as all of the other conspiracists.

  16. One way to define a political spectrum in any country is liberal vs authoritarian. Another way is between progressive and conservative.

    That latter scale depicts the role of progress, or change rate, of a population. That used to be a choice of the people in a country when most countries could be and were pretty separate entities, in other words independent of each other. Does resisting change sound like what’s typical among the rural residents of any country? Does resisting change sound like reality for the majority of people or countries today though?

    What used to be a choice is now an imperative. People who are not keeping up are falling behind the rest of the world that’s progressing. In fact in what will be a headline in history books is that now the reality is that China is progressive while we are conservative. How’s that for a profound switch. How is China accomplishing this? A lot involves moving people from the country to her rapidly growing cities. (Of course another profound difference between us and them is democracy vs tyranny. We choose where to live. There the state can choose pretty unilaterally but in both places, more and more, individual economics plays a strong role. Jobs are in the city.)

    Currently here what’s in the news is the best way to interpret our Constitution (and the Christian Bible), literally or figuratively. Given that both documents were drafted by people of a completely different time, the answer seems obvious to most but not all of us, to progressives but not to conservatives. Progressives would say that we used to lead the world and we enjoyed the bounty of that. Conservatives would say that they can’t keep up so the country should be governed by their pace which is no generation should suffer from too much change because it requires keeping up with and continuous learning and adapting.

    That leads to another spectrum. Competitively and worldly and leading vs isolated and locally focused and following.

  17. Pete – WADR – given everyday evidence of conspiracies documented by trusted journalism sources and the fragility of our democracy at this time, I would humbly suggest that considering “what they might do” and “what to do about it” is worth the time spent given already put in place results, like the “packing” of the Federal courts, including, in the last year alone, 10 new judges deemed “unqualified” by the pretty objective American Bar Association. Case rested….

  18. Award generous public funding to political parties (willing along with all their candidates to use no other money to compete for public office) in proportion to their membership and task each such party to fund all its nominees’ campaigns in a most democratic way.

  19. Pete,

    Yes, China is a tyranny, but they have become embarrassingly more pragmatic then we. That is why – not the tyranny – they seem to be more progressive. They solve problems by determining what is effective, not jerry rigging some back room work around to satisfy the business needs of billionaire contributors. At one point, 19 of the 19 members of the Politburo were engineers. I wouldn’t wish that on America, but one of the reasons they try to meet the needs of their people is that they are frightened of seeing 1.3 billion people take to the streets. Should we consider showing our (dis)loyal opposition what that looks like?

    In China infrastructure is regarded as an indispensable tool of progress on all fronts. In the U.S. it is seen as a ploy for winning votes, and for many years has not even been put to that use. By 2025 China will dominate the world the way we used to simply because no one in that country sees any value to divisiveness. Can we get our act together and start competing again? I don’t hear either party preaching that from the stump.

  20. “Life is like riding a bicycle; to maintain balance you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

    The crux of the majority of our problems today is that the Senate sits mute and idle.

  21. I am late responding to the blog post because it occurred to me overnight, that the reason the Senate is set up the way it is, was part of the one of the many compromises that had to be made to get all of the states to sign on. Small states felt they would be slighted. In the 1790 census, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina were the top three “big” states. Rhode Island, Delaware and Kentucky were the bottom three.

    Throughout US history, everyone has been aware of the over-sized power the senate has had. All the way up the Civil War, every new state was balanced between free and slave states.

    The real problem comes in when a political party is willing to tank the country in order to gain political power. This really started the day Obama was elected and Senate Republicans vowed to make sure he was a one term President. The result was a weak economic reform was finally picking up steam in 2015, from the Great Recession of 2008, where they claimed they were just trying to be “fiscally conservative”.

    It looks like the same tactic is going to be used here in 2020. While it looked like they still might win, they pumped more money into the economy than anyone could believe possible. Now that it looks like they may loose power, they are going to make sure things are as bad as possible for the incoming President, with the hope they can keep it bad.

    Rich Powerful Senators that have no moral compass, who don’t care about the guys that live in the cities, and only care enough about their rural base to get re-elected. That is the real problem.

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