The Senate and democracy (with a small “d”)

The Senate is not a democratic institution, nor was it set up to be. If I remember correctly from The Federalist Papers or Henry Steele Commager or High School Civics or something, the Senate was set-up to balance the passions of the people’s House.

The Founding Fathers were elites. They wanted a democracy, but their idea of democracy – while perhaps enlightened for a time of monarchs – would not be considered democracy today. In most States, only white property owners had the vote and even that select pool was considered too volatile not to have a check on their power. That check was the Senate which, originally represented the States. States as in separate Governments. When James Madison wrote about equal suffrage in the Senate, he was writing about equality between States, not people.

As representatives of the States, the Senators were presumed to be elites and, as such, they treated each other cordially (my guess is that it was an even bigger shock, in 1856, when Representative Preston Brooks – very un-cordially – beat Senator Charles Sumner with a cane). If a Senator had something to say, he was allowed to say it. That evolved into the filibuster and that distorted into the super-majority.

When James Madison wrote about equal suffrage in the Senate, he was writing against it. Not against it in practice but against it as being anything but an exceptional solution to the problem at hand (very similar to the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision to give the election to Bush when Scalia said Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances only). Madison and others agreed to  equality between states – as an exceptional compromise – in the Senate because they were afraid that states that didn’t join the Union might form other Unions, possibly with European powers. Just as the 3/5ths clause was put in the Constitution as a sop to slave states, the formation of the Senate with two Senators from each state no matter their size or population was a sop to the small states.

But, in 1800, the states were pretty close together in population compared to today. Rhode Island had a population of 69,122, more than 1/9th that of Pennsylvania with 602,545 souls. Today Rhode Island has a population of 1,052,567 people compared to California with a population 37,253,956. Both have two Senators and both States have equal political power in the Senate.

Because rural states which, by definition have smaller populations, are more conservative, the conservatives carry much more political power per capita. I haven’t done the numbers, but James Surowiecki of the New Yorker has and he says assuming that each senator represents all of the people in his or her state and that the currently open Senate seats (like Delaware, Illinois, and New York) will be filled by someone from the same party. And what you find, if you do the math, is that Republican senators actually represent about thirty-seven per cent of Americans.

Before the filibuster change, 45 Senators, representing 37% of the population could hold up any legislation they wanted. This is not Democracy. This is not Government of the people, by the people, for the people, even if we pretend it is. This is a Government setup by our Founding Fathers, a group of Elitist with, at least, some fear of the hoi polloi – the Great Unwashed as my mother called them – and they setup a government of elites that would be hard to change.

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