Friday, March 11, 2005

How Undemocratic is the Senate?

Hendrik Hertzberg has, as usual, a terrific column in the latest New Yorker and it's a must read if you want to know just how undemocratic the Senate is. The numbers are devastating.

The filibuster allows a minority within a legislative body to thwart the will of a majority. But that is hardly the worst of the Senate’s democratic imperfections, most of which spring from the arithmetical disparity among state populations. Fifty-one senators—a majority—can represent states with as little as seventeen per cent of the American people. Sixty senators—enough to stop a filibuster—can represent as little as twenty-four per cent. That’s theory. What about reality? Well, if each of every state’s two senators is taken to represent half that state’s population, then the Senate’s fifty-five Republicans represent 131 million people, while its forty-four Democrats represent 161 million. Looked at another way, the present Senate is the product of three elections, those of 2000, 2002, and 2004. In those elections, the total vote for Democratic senatorial candidates, winning and losing, was 99.7 million; for Republicans it was 97.3 million. The forty-four-person Senate Democratic minority, therefore, represents a two-million-plus popular majority—a circumstance that, unless acres trump people, is at variance with common-sense notions of democracy. So Democrats, as democrats, need not feel too terribly guilty about engaging in a spot of filibustering from time to time.
In an ideal system, there'd be no Senate. But I wouldn't be for eliminating it - as if that's even a possibility - given the undemocratic nature of how the House and the presidency are currently elected (i.e., first-past-the-post districts and the Electoral College, respectively).

The trickier question is the filibuster, since it could realistically be abolished. It, too, is undemocratic and, as Hertzberg points out, has been used for ill more than for good. But when a legislative minority actually represents a popular majority, it might be a good way to restore some balance. In the current circumstances, think of it as a device for protecting majority rights.


At 9:34 AM, Anonymous Stephen Maynard Caliendo said...

While these are excellent issues to be raised, I think the framing is somewhat overly inflamatory. The word "undemocratic" is similar to "un-American" in the way it is perceived (and used -- less often by scholars and journalists than by public officials). These aspects of the Senate are certainly non-majoritarian, but that doesn't mean they are undemocratic. As Madison and others have argued, we are not set up for "playground democracy." (OK, Madison didn't use that term.) Majority will must be balanced by concern for minority interests, and the filibuster and the very existence of the Senate have the potential to do just that (though the cloture rule undermines the former significantly).

Stephen is wise to be concerned about what life would be without the Senate, even though these non-majoritarian (and often counter-majoritarian) elements can be frustrating. I want to be careful not to take the point to an illogical extreme (I don't hear anyone arguing for a full-out majority rule system that would potentially still have us with slaves or Jim Crow) because both Stephen and Hertzberg are very much aware of the poitns I raised above. Statehood mattered so much at the founding that these compromises had to be made, of course, and while I find that it is often hard for me to wrap my brain around that today, it has left us with a system that has pores that look much larger under the magnifying glass of unforeseen growth and pluralism.

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