Article — From the May 2004 issue

What Democracy?

The case for abolishing the United States Senate

Americans believe in the idea of democracy. We fight wars in its name and daily pledge allegiance to its principles. Curiously, the fervor with which we profess our faith in democracy is matched only by the contempt with which we regard our politics and politicians. How interesting that we should so dislike the process that we claim to revere. Perhaps, however, our unhappiness with politics points to something significant; perhaps Americans dislike the daily reality of their political system precisely because it falls short of being a proper democracy. Indeed, in the last presidential election, we saw a man take office who did not win the popular vote. Money above all else shapes our political debate and determines its outcome, and in the realm of public policy, even when an overwhelming democratic majority expresses its preference (as for national health insurance), deadlocks, vetoes, filibusters, and “special interests” stand in the way. No wonder so few people vote in national elections; we have become a nation of spectators, not citizens.

The United States of America is not, strictly speaking, a democracy; indeed, the U.S. Constitution was deliberately designed to prevent the unfettered expression of the people’s will. Yet the Founders were not, as some imagine, of one mind concerning the proper shape of the new American union, and their disputes are instructive. The political dysfunction that some imagine to be a product of recent cultural decadence has been with us from the beginning. In fact, the document that was meant to prevent democracy in America has bequeathed the American people a politics of minority rule in which our leaders must necessarily pursue their unpopular aims by means of increasingly desperate stratagems of deceit and persuasion.

Yet hope remains, for if Americans have little real experience of democracy, they remain a nation convinced that the best form of government is by and for the people. Growing numbers of Americans suspect that all is not right with the American Way. Citizens, faced with the prospect of sacrificing the well-being of their children and grandchildren on the altar of supply-side economics, the prospect of giving up new schools and hospitals so that the colony in Iraq might have zip codes and modern garbage trucks, have begun to ask hard questions. Politics, properly understood as the deliberate exercise of citizenship by a free people, appears to be enjoying a renaissance, but the hard point must be made nonetheless that tinkering with campaign-finance reform is unlikely to be sufficient to the task. True reform becomes possible only if Americans are willing to return to the root of our political experiment and try again. And if democracy is our aim, the first object of our constitutional revision must be the United States Senate.

In America today, U.S. senators from the twenty-six smallest states, representing a mere 18 percent of the nation’s population, hold a majority in the United States Senate, and, therefore, under the Constitution, regardless of what the President, the House of Representatives, or even an overwhelming majority of the American people wants, nothing becomes law if those senators object. The result has been what one would expect: The less populous states have extracted benefits from the rest of the nation quite out of proportion to their populations. As Frances E. Lee and Bruce I. Oppenheimer have demonstrated in their Sizing Up the Senate, the citizens of less populous states receive more federal funds per capita than the citizens of the more populous states.[1]And what happens if the larger states, with a majority of the people, object? Not much. Today, the nine largest states, containing a majority of the American people, are represented by only 18 of the 100 senators in the United States Senate.

[1] Many federal entitlement programs, once distributed to the American people in proportion to their needs and entitlements, have been converted to block grants for lump-sum distributions to the states, disguising the fact that citizens of smaller states get more of these benefits per capita than an equitable “entitlement” would allow.

The fact that a Senate majority reflects a majority of states rather than a majority of the people originated in what is erroneously and euphemistically called the “Great Compromise,” which small states extracted from larger states in 1787 at the federal Constitutional Convention. All states, large and small, wanted each state’s vote in the House of Representatives to be proportioned to the size of its population. Small states wanted an equal vote for every state represented in the Senate, regardless of population. What followed was hardly a compromise, just the unhappy acquiescence of larger states to an undemocratic demand by smaller states, which were otherwise refusing to be part of a new national government.

When we look back on this so-called compromise, we should be wary of exaggerating the enthusiasm of the drafters or the public. When the proposal for an equal vote for each state in the U.S. Senate came before the federal Constitutional Convention on July 16, 1787, three states (New York, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island) failed to cast a vote; four states (Virginia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia) voted against the proposal; the Massachusetts delegation split evenly (thereby dividing their state’s vote pro and con); and only a minority of five of the thirteen states (Delaware, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, and Connecticut) carried the day. Furthermore, as the census of 1790 would later confirm, the plurality of five states that carried the day actually represented a smaller portion of the American people than the four states that voted against the proposal. The yeasaying states represented less than 33 percent of the nation’s non-slave population (and no greater percentage if one counted slaves). Unfortunately, voting at the federal Constitutional Convention was as undemocratic as voting in the United States Senate is today. Each state had an equal vote, regardless of the state’s population. As convention delegate James Wilson observed, “Our Constituents, had they voted as their representatives did, would have stood as 2?3 against the equality, and 1?3 only in favor of it.”

In the aftermath of the federal Constitutional Convention, many naysayers became yeasayers in persuading the thirteen states to ratify the final document. James Madison, who had argued vigorously against states having equal votes in the U.S. Senate, performed a lawyerlike pirouette in The Federalist Papers, as he propagandized for ratification of the final document. The states agreed in the end, and the Union was created. Today, however, we are not thirteen but fifty states, all of which (except the original thirteen) accepted the Senate’s undemocratic voting system not as a concession to get smaller states to form a union but rather as a constitutional fact of life. Furthermore, except for Texas and California, the additional thirty-seven states were not independent before they became part of the Union; they were sections of territory that the United States already owned or claimed to own. Consequently, the inhabitants of the other states were already U.S. citizens before Congress allowed them to become citizens of the new states, which were created by Congress. There is thus no reason to apply the rationale of the Great Compromise to the vast majority of states that are part of this nation today. So what rationale shall we apply for our Senate?

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is the author of American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns. The Suppressed History of Our Nation’s Beginnings and the Heroic Newspaper That Tried to Report It, which recounts the battle for civil liberties and a more democratic federal constitution in the early American republic.

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  • Steve

    You must live in a large state. You are probably not a minority.

  • Ron

    The Senate was originally made up of Senators appointed by the states, this ensured they would fight for states rights. They should have left it that way. Now they fight only for themselves or special interest groups.

    • MrKamikaze

      Exactly and the unintended consequences of the civil was was to strip the states of their Constitutional rights and create a centralized federal government…its been downhill ever since.

  • sdinfoserv

    As you point out, the US is not, never has been and was not designed to be a Democracy. It is a Representative Republic. The problem as you grazed on, is the election process, or more precisely, the financing of the election process.

    Over the past 30 years the chasm between have and have nots has widened beyond any time in American history. The average CEO’s pay has grown from 50x an average workers wages to 350x the average workers wages. The average worker today brings home less then they did in 1987. All of the technical efficiencies and advances in the 30 years have benefited ONLY the top 1%. Meanwhile, health care costs have risen 17%-22% annually, jobs have been pushed overseas, pensions are thing of the past, tax rates for top 1% have dropped from 70% during the Carter administration to in most cases sub 5%. (return on dividends is a major income for the wealthy is taxed at a ridiculously low rate. ) Wealthy move their wealth off shore to pay zero taxes in most cases.

    In order for the wealth to continue their climb, they require legislatively friendly environments. If a representative were to support the people rather than international corporations, they would lose their jobs in 1 election cycle. We end up with ridiculous laws like ‘corporations have the rights of people’… all the benefit, none of the responsibility. This results in incidences like this weeks Texas “Affluenza” case. Wealthy have no concept of responsibility – because in reality they don’t! They decry paying taxes, sending their children to private schools, hiring private security, keeping personal physicians in tote while public schools crumble, areas of inner cities are abandoned by under funded police departments and millions of Americans are without health care.

    Another example: greedy bankers almost broke the world’s economy in 2007 yet legislators have yet to reinstate Glass-Stegall. It’s insane.

    The only way to take this country back is through campaign finance reform. Force our elected representatives to answer to the people instead of their corporate masters.
    There’s an excellent speech on ted by Lawrence Lessig about this. I recommend you watch it.

  • ultra1bob

    The article doesn’t go into the effects of gerrymandering. In this case, the right has redrawn congressional districts so that their people are less likely to be voted out of office, and there are fewer Democratic Districts. After his area was re-drawn, Kucinich had to compete with another Democrat who before, had her own district.

    • Fact-of-the-matter

      Gerrymandering has been done in most states by both democrats and republicans by now. The practice is out of control and usurps the democratic process, but rest assured both parties have blood on their hands.

  • Daniel R. Luke

    Another fine example of common sense. I wonder how much worse things will have to become before it is finally heeded.

  • OutPastPluto

    Without the Senate we would be at the mercy of the House of Representatives that is distorted by state-level Jerrymandering to be even LESS representative of our population than the Senate is.

  • WmThomas2424

    We are not a democracy we are a republic……and this is how public schools have failed us. The republic took a big hit with the 17th amendment which made the senate elected by the populace which made it closer to a democracy because a democracy is essentially mob rule.

  • Kathy Renee Jopling

    with dissolving the senate we would get rid of the checks and balances our nation needs. with out them the house could pass whatever they wanted and that would be a scary thing considering the right has a majority there. i do agree that we need to get the people in charge working for us again and not their contributors/special interest groups. the only money that they should receive should be their paychecks. but good luck passing that law since they would effectively be cutting out millions from their own bank accounts. this is something that needs to happen without their help.

  • Natural Election

    The author, like others who pine for a system without the representation offered by the Senate, conveniently omit that the idea of having Senators elected by the state legislatures is (was) intended to protect the rights of the sovereign states against the federal government.

    America, as the cliche goes, is a republic, not a democracy. While this oversimplifies the system as a whole, there is no question that the nation, even after the replacement of the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution, valued states’ rights much more than today.

    There’s also no question that some view the transition of power from the states to the federal government as welcome. And there are some benefits: guarantees of civil rights, pooling of resources, etc. But the cost is local autonomy over one’s lifestyle.

    Does it make sense that the citizens of California, New York, Texas, and North Dakota share a common set of laws? Does it make sense, in a country with such a diverse and widespread citizenry, to centralized so much legislation? Wouldn’t we be better served by maximizing the ability of citizens, who are much more likely to share common philosophies at the local level, to govern themselves that way?

    The problem is the attitude that one knows what is best for others, whether the subject is reproductive rights or “junk” health insurance or any number of so-called “issues” that don’t directly affect anyone but the person making that decision. It’s become commonplace, not only to try to legislate those in one’s area into sharing one’s opinions, but to extend that control to everyone across the country. Ironically, this is often done in the name of protection, as if no one else is capable of controlling their own life.

    Unfortunately, the move to popular election of Senators is not likely to be reversed without a constitutional convention. The passage of the Seventeeth Amendment, part of the so-called “Progressive Era”, was sold at the time as bringing democracy to the people. And now the author and others complain that the equal representation of the states, an artifact of its original purpose, threatens democracy.

    We would do better to return the Senate to the state legislatures, and autonomy to the states themselves. This alone would do more for representation and democracy than anything else. Let local groups determine what works best for them.

    …Of course, this all rides on the assumption that the author is actually concerned with democracy, and not at all related to the fact that those small states that are so unfairly overrepresented are steadfastly Republican.

    Democracy, or political maneuvering?

  • AvangionQ

    The core issue with our democracy is that we’ve not actually living in a democracy anymore, but a plutocracy or corporatocracy ~ where those wealthiest capable of bribing politicians always get their votes passed, while the majority suffers for it.

    • AvangionQ

      Now for the core of this author’s argument ~ the house of representatives has been corrupted by district gerrymandering … counterbalancing that with a senate that counts votes by entire states is a necessity.

  • nobody significant

    An article from 2004? I guess it is still rather relevant, but a lot has changed since 2004…


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