As a buzzword, "democracy" is hard to beat: it hits all the right notes, evokes all the right emotions, quashes all the "wrong" arguments. Protean as plastic, "democracy" is one of the words that's required in every American political discussion: often both sides invoke the sacred term in an effort to prove their respective points. I have never, however, seen it mangled quite so badly as in Richard N. Rosenfeld's essay for the May issue of Harper's, titled "What Democracy? The case for abolishing the United States Senate."

The offense of the Senate, says Rosenfeld, is that it is not truly representative of the American people: the twenty-six smallest states, with 18 percent of the nation's population, have 52 percent of the Senate. The result:

[U]nder 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 far out of proportion to their population.

By "benefits," Rosenfeld means "federal programs." As we shall see, he is quite enamored of such things.

What he doesn't want, curiously, is actual majority rule:

Today, African Americans and Hispanics make up only 11 percent of the population in the twenty-six smallest states constituting a majority in the U.S. Senate, though they are 30 percent of the population in the nine largest states, holding a majority of the people. Similarly, Catholics are only 16 percent and Jews less than 1 percent in the smallest states with a majority in the U.S. Senate, but they are 28 percent and more than 3 percent, respectively, of the largest states with a majority of the people. For Muslims, Asian Americans, the poor, and virtually every other group and category of voter, there may be important differences between the demographics of the smallest states and those of the largest states or of the average state or of the median state, so that an equal vote for every state in the Senate is not only increasingly undemocratic. It is increasingly unrepresentative as well.

The Bureau of the Census reports that as of 2000, the population of the nation was 75 percent white, which includes some unspecified number of Hispanics, who "may be of any race." If Rosenfeld were actually interested in the will of the majority — assuming that white voters have substantially different priorities than minority voters, an assumption I'd like to see him try to prove — he should have no trouble with the overwhelming whiteness of the Senate. Of course, he does:

The statewide election of senators (as opposed to the election of representatives by small congressional voting districts) works a further discrimination against minorities, denying them the ability to elect "one of their own" and thereby to have a voice in Senate debate. Even if blacks, for example, make up more than a third of a state's population (as they do in Mississippi), they could still find their voice in the Senate to be someone like Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott, who has supported racially segregated schools and opposed a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. To the shame of us all, the Senate's "small representation" and correlatively large (statewide) voting constituencies mean that it will remain a singularly white institution, even as the House of Representatives continues to reflect changes in the nation's racial complexion.

"One of their own"? It takes a black person to represent a black constituency? Should I, as a mostly-white guy, feel disenfranchised if I am represented by a black politician? All those years I lived in Oklahoma [State] Senate District 48, represented by Angela Monson, I was really being ripped off by an "undemocratic" system? Jeebus, why did I even vote for her? What was I thinking?

America, says Rosenfeld, "falls short of being a proper democracy," and points to the Presidential election of 2000 as evidence:

[T]he unfairness of an equal number of senators for every state also corrupts the entire presidential election process, which in election year 2000 awarded 271 electors to George W. Bush and only 266 to Al Gore, despite the fact that Gore was the popular favorite by a margin of more than 500,000 votes. Had the number of each state's electoral votes simply been the number of its representatives in the House (and, therefore, been proportional to the size of its population), Gore would have enjoyed an electoral vote victory of 225 to 211, consistent with the preference of the American people.

Well, 48.4 percent of the American people anyway, though in the United States of Rosenfeld, 48.4 percent of the voters (which is not a majority, folks) translates to 51.6 percent of the electoral vote. (In the real world, George W. Bush, with 47.9 percent of the popular vote, got 50.4 percent of the electoral vote; numerically, at least, this is less of a distortion than Rosenfeld's notion.) And Ralph Nader will be so pleased to hear that nobody voted for him in 2000.

But what concerns Rosenfeld most of all is money:

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.)

Paging Lord Woodhouselee: the voters are ready to vote themselves money from the Treasury.

And finally, you can't actually abolish the Senate, unless you can get every single state to agree to it (Article V of the Constitution). Rosenfeld suggests, therefore, doing unto the Senate what the English did unto the House of Lords: making it largely ceremonial, and assigning primary legislative duties to the lower house. The Brits, of course, have national health insurance. Sort of.

Harper's does not generally post its essays on their Web site; if you want to read the whole thing, you'll have to subscribe, or pony up $5.95 for a single copy. If you're on blood-pressure medication, as I am, I suggest you take it before reading.

The Vent

15 April 2004

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 Copyright © 2004 by Charles G. Hill