Much as I hate to give credit to the Trump Administration for anything, I will (grudgingly) admit that its prolonged insult to the rule of law and simple competence made it impossible for the majority of Americans to continue ignoring the structural failures that facilitated its numerous offenses. Among those structural failures is the U.S. Senate.
Critics of the US Senate say that for years now, the chamber has not been a field of fair democratic play, paralyzed by its own internal rules and insulated from the popular will by a 230-year-old formula for unequal representation.
Instead, its critics say, the Senate has become a firewall for a shrinking minority of mostly white, conservative voters across the country to block policies they don’t agree with and safeguard the voter suppression tactics that shore up Republican power.
The numbers are staggering. Democratic senators represent approximately 40 million more voters than Republican senators–a disproportion hardly reflected in the Senate’s 50-50 split, a split that depends upon Kamala Harris to wield a tie-breaking vote.
By 2040, 70% of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states, and to be represented by only 30 senators, while 30% of Americans will have 70 senators voting on their behalf, according to analysis by David Birdsell of Baruch College’s School Of Public And International Affairs. The Senate has counted only 11 African American members in its history, out of almost 2,000 total.
The article provides several graphs that show the growth of disproportion, and they are visually stunning.
More than two centuries ago, to incentivize small states to join the union, the framers of the US constitution gave every state two senators, an arrangement that has always left some citizens vastly overrepresented in the body. But not until recent decades did a clear partisan split emerge in which Democrats were far more likely to represent bigger states, while Republicans represented many small states.
The trend has created an immense discrepancy in the influence that voters from less populous, mostly rural – and white, and Republican – states wield in the Senate, compared with voters from states with big cities and more voters of color.
A favorite example of how undemocratic things have gotten is a comparison between the state of California with the state of Wyoming. California has 70 times as many people as Wyoming – but each state still gets two senators. As the article points out, that gives a small, conservative state the ability to counterbalance a giant, liberal state in any vote on energy policy, taxation, immigration, gun control or criminal justice reform.
America is unlikely to change from two-senators-per-state, but there are other reforms that would make it at least marginally more difficult for a minority to constantly thwart the will of the majority. The current effort to eliminate the filibuster–or at the very least, return it to its former operation–is one. As it is currently used, it allows–even encourages– the Senate minority to block almost anything favored by the majority.
The filibuster has historically been used by both parties in different ways, but it “has always been used to block measures that would lead to racial equity and justice”, said Erika Maye, deputy senior director of criminal justice and democracy campaigns for Color of Change, a racial justice advocacy group.
“It’s been used to stop anti-lynching bills, to uphold the racist poll tax, to delay civil rights legislation – and more recently healthcare, immigration and gun violence reform,” Maye said.
The bottom line is that the disproportionate power exercised by rural states translates to disproportionate power for white voters. In a 2018 column, David Leonhardt calculated that there are 0.35 senators for every million White people, versus 0.26 senators for every million African Americans and 0.19 for Hispanic Americans–a calculation that prompted Times opinion editors to brand the Senate “affirmative action for white people.”
There’s a reason the federal legislature fails to pass even measures that are popular with all voters–Republicans and Democrats alike. The absence of “one person, one vote,” and America’s current failure to deliver even remotely democratic self-government, leaves policy firmly in the hands of the plutocrats and their GOP supplicants.