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
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.