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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