Friday, August 23, 2013

In Praise of America's "Unfair" Senate

Every few years, the conventional carp about America’s Senate arises anew, that its inflexible apportionment of two Senators per state, regardless of population, subverts American democracy. How can we claim small-d democratic principles when Wyoming, population barely half a million, has the same representation as California, numbering over thirty-eight million? Can two Jewish women from Frisco really represent all California interests?

Such complaints lack imagination, rehashing elderly ideas as they do. The Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews joined the chorus this week, whining that the Senate is “unfair.” What is this, Little League? Where is “fairness” ensconced in the Constitution? America’s founders considered the narrowly constructed Senate so important that it is one of only two Constitutional provisions specifically excluded from amendment. (The other is the “one man, one vote” principle.)

Matthews, in this, merely echoes his immediate boss, Ezra Klein, for whom this issue is a long-standing peeve. Klein, whom I frequently respect, was born in Irvine, California, educated at UCLA, and currently lives in Washington, DC. Not surprisingly, his pet issues tend to run very urban in nature. And the US Senate’s supposed unfairness has always irked urban-dominated states, since it puts them on equal footing with small, rural states like Idaho.

Yet the necessity for this very lopsided balance in America’s legislative body defines why the Founders created the Senate. Delegates from small, sparsely populated states like New Hampshire didn’t want large, wealthy, conservative Virginia dominating the federal government unopposed. The Senate was intended to impede population-based governance. This remains important, as demonstrated in this map by Neil Freeman, which Matthews cites approvingly:
Click to enlarge
Notice that this putatively “fair” map creates tiny city-states around New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where running for Senate would be as strenuous as the morning commute. It also creates pocket states like Trinity, Orange, and Yerba Buena, easily dominated by one or two large cities. But what about massive states like Ogallala and Shiprock, where running for governor would require only slightly less travel than running for President?

This map may seem fair to Klein and Matthews, who live in the large coastal cities which would dominate both houses of Congress under this regime. But farm bills, Interstate Highway maintenance, or the Keystone XL pipeline, could have their most disastrous potential far from the centers of state power. In this environment, America’s breadbasket would have only paltry legislative protection from potentially destructive urban greed.

Moreover, by making each state homogenous in population, Freeman and Matthews make them homogenous in other ways, and thus vulnerable. These redrawn states would have few economic protections, because they’d have little economic diversity. Fluctuations in domestic tourism could completely derail the tax base in Canaveral or Adirondack, as could rollercoaster oil prices in the state of Houston. Rust Belt industrial states like Gary or Detroit would come into existence already broke.

America’s Founders specifically wanted to avoid the situation this map extols. Read the Constitution, and note that the word “democracy” never appears. That’s because our Founders, who knew their Classical history, feared the ancient Greek democracies, which were little better than street gangs. Though lauded for its intellectual accomplishments, Athens nearly destroyed itself because popular whims could shift literally overnight, and there was no check on votes.

At one time, Americans thought women and non-whites shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Recently, a narrow majority of Californians approved a ballot referendum circumscribing marriage rights. The deep and continuing divisions over Obamacare demonstrate that popular opinion can be both deeply split, and geographically localized. The Founders realized, as Matthews and Klein evidently do not, that democracy only works within rigorous civic safeguards.
Liberals and progressives like the idea of a proportional Senate, because a narrow but secure majority of Americans favor their policies. If not for astute midterm gerrymandering, Democrats would have retaken the House in 2012. Klein and Matthews think, if the Senate were “fair,” Democrats could notarize their favored legislation. If they consider rubber-stamp governance better than the current system, I have three words for them: USA PATRIOT Act.

Americans believe the admirable claim that all humans have equal worth. But our system is founded on federal principles: we are the United States, not the Identical States. Sparse rural populations should have protection from urban might. Nebraska shouldn’t have to speak California-ese just because there are more Californians than Canadians. Our system is unfair, because fairness is a phantom. And Ezra Klein’s campaign to rig national debate undermines the very small-d democratic principles he claims to espouse.

On a related topic:
When In the Course of Human Events... 

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