Thursday, November 11, 2010

Stuck In The Muddle

When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention debated the form of government under design by James Madison, those from small states declared an unwillingness to support a Constitution that codified political domination by the large states. Accordingly, the United States Senate came into being, an upper house composed of two representatives from each state regardless of size. In 1789, the largest state was about twelve times the size of the smallest state. Moreover, senate rules evolved to give great power to individual senators, a development that further favored small states.

Today, the biggest state (California) is 62 times the size of the smallest state (Wyoming). Nonetheless, both are equally represented in the senate. Thus, there is one senator for every 18.5 million Californians and one for every 272,000 Wyomingites.

Were that the extent of the problem with the senate, things might be manageable. But the centrifugal forces of history have dispersed the majority of Americans into ten states. Consider the implications for a legislative body that requires 60 of 100 votes to pass legislation:
  • Over 50% of the population is represented by 20% of the senate
  • 41 senators representing 10% of the population can block any piece of legislation they wish
  • 60 senators representing 25% of the population can pass any piece of legislation they wish
Although the latter two have never happened in practice, they nonetheless illustrate the extreme structural bias of the senate toward small, rural states in a nation of large urban populations.

The Nation points out that California senator Barbara Boxer received more votes than ten teabagger senate candidates, and yet they were in position to give control of the senate to the Republican party. Boxer received 4.3 million votes, easily outpolling the combined totals of media darlings and teabagger losers Sharon Angle (321,000), Ken Buck (783,000), Joe Miller (68,000), and Christine O'Donnell (123,000). In other words, 100,000 or so more votes judiciously applied would have given 1.3 million voters more political power than 4.3 million and handed control of the senate to the Republican party.

This in no way resembles any concept of democracy, even faintly. Combine it with an arcane apparatus of rules, procedures, and multiple committees and subcommittees, mix in stark polarization, and you have an utterly dysfunctional legislative body incapable of accomplishing anything progressive but very capable of extreme obstructionism. The left has harshly criticized Barack Obama over the makeup of his economic team, an irrelevant waste of effort if there ever was one: Had Obama enlisted the modern day equivalents of Karl Marx and Michael Harrington, we would be nowhere appreciably different. The Senate and the political system it epitomizes are that bad.

But suppose that by some miracle the Senate got fixed. We'd still have a political tradition that denies the necessity of domestic policy and that extols that rights of property over the rights of man. Lobbyists would still infest the halls of Congress. Corporate personhood -- a legal reality that goes back to the 19th Century -- would still exist, enabling the unobstructed flow of money into the electoral process.

Moreover, a divided country would still lack a sense of national purpose. Thirty years of bare-knuckled right-wing assaults on liberal values have accomplished what the Confederate states could not: It's split us in two. And a house divided cannot stand.

Enormous problems face our nation. The political momentum belongs to a faction that touts an easy fix: Turn back the clock to the glories of Reaganism and the Traditional Values of...of...well, sometime...and everything will be The Way It Is Supposed To Be, with white people on top and minorities properly invested in the success and comfort of whites. No wonder the corporatists poured money into the teabagger campaigns: They saw those suckers coming from a mile away.

Whatever easy answers the teabaggers have convinced themselves exist, it's not at all clear that the American political system can move with the alacrity, boldness, and imagination needed to pull our fat out of the fire. If yesterday's Bowles-Simpson report is an example, it can't.


Steven said...

I know that I'm in a distinct minority as I really see no need for states at all. Arbitrary borders within a nation are meaningless in this century. How am I different than a Nevadan, an Oregonian, a South Dakotan? The nation could be divided up into equal sized (by population) districts and then 'Senators' could be elected from within that district. Same with Congress. This is the 21st century and we're still trying to govern ourselves with 18th century foolishness.

Jerry Critter said...

In a sense, the Senate is our House of Lords. Individual senators have extraordinary powers. It is arguably the most undemocratic part of our democracy. The exception might be the Supreme Court. They have a lifetime appointment and have usurped much of the power of the constitution.

K. said...

Steven:States are convenient political divisions, that's all. Unfortunately, the all-knowing Founding Fathers created a system that encourages Wyomingites and Californians to think of themselves as Wyomingites and Californians instead of Americans. Of course, the FF's saw themselves in that light, so it's no surprise that they'd invent a political system that fomented state power at the expense of national unity.

Jerry: At least the Brits had the good sense to neuter their House of Lords.

injaynesworld said...

Thanks for writing this. I learn something new with every post of yours. I was hoping the Dems would keep the House. I didn't give a damn what happened in the Senate. We had the majority and still couldn't accomplish squat.

K. said...

The senate does not have a long history of progressive accomplishment. At one point during the New Deal, Democrats enjoyed a 70-30 edge, and FDR still had to make some pretty rank compromises with segregationists to get his programs through.

TAO said...

..oh, you forgot the electoral college which basically reinforces the individual states with a winner take all system. So, you end up with Al Gore winning the majority of votes by a comfortable margin but GWB becoming president with the most absurd margin...if any.

K. said...

Emphasis on the "if any."

Darlene said...

Now I'm really depressed. How long do you think this country can survive as a Democracy if we continue down this path?

Jerry Critter said...

I am afraid that we may have already become a Plutocracy. I think it time for Democrats to steal a teabagger slogan,

We want our country back!

K. said...

They stole the slogan from us. The first time I heard it was in a Greg Brown song: