Many of the issues that dominated the just-concluded 2020 elections would be no surprise to a voter from, say, 30 years prior. Healthcare, criminal justice reform, the environment, defense spending—these issues will likely continue to occupy prime real estate on the websites of political candidates for decades to come. A select few issues, from coronavirus to presidential corruption, are products of the strange times we live in. One area, however, that has enjoyed a renaissance in the past few years is the idea of democracy reform. Far less tangible than a debate on schools or taxes, democracy reform proposals have been dragged into the mainstream of American political discourse because of the increasing frustration amongst Americans that their government no longer represents their interests. Solutions to political inequality woes abound: calls to end gerrymandering, abolish the electoral college, and stamp out money in politics are now mainstays on candidates’ platforms. One policy proposal, however, has received far less traction from progressive candidates and interest groups and yet looms larger than almost any other problem we face: the nature of the United States Senate.
The Senate—the upper chamber that was once, in all seriousness, referred to as the greatest deliberative body in the world—was never meant to be democratic. It came as a result of the “Great Compromise”, one of many such compromises that would have to be made to see our Constitution borne into existence. Needless to say, at the time of the Senate’s creation the United States was unrecognizable from its current state: created to govern a nation of 4 million, it will in my lifetime come close to governing a nation of 400 million. The vast disparities between representation of people from large and small states, the central argument against the Senate, have become more cavernous than our Founders could have possibly imagined. At the first decennial census in 1790, the spread between the largest state, Virginia, and the smallest state, Delaware, was nearly a factor of 13. Today? Our largest state, California, has about 68 times the population of our smallest state, Wyoming. And yet despite this enormous population inequality, by virtue of their 19th-century admittance as US States, they receive the exact same representation in the Senate: 2 Senators each for Wyoming’s 578,000 people and California’s nearly 40 million.
Besides being blatantly undemocratic, why is this an issue? The Senate doesn’t just skew power towards smaller states. It skews power towards whiter states, too—exacerbating centuries of disempowerment of black and brown people and standing as a massive obstacle in the fight for racial justice. Of the 2500 United States Senators that have served since our nation’s inception, only 10 have been black. Even more importantly, the Senate systematically biases the votes of white people, mostly by virtue of the fact that most nonwhite Americans are crowded into a smaller number of larger, more urban states than white Americans.
And what does the Senate get for being so blatantly undemocratic? It gets to be the more powerful of the two chambers, that’s what. On top of being an equal partner in writing and passing legislation with the more-representative House, the Senate enjoys the crucial advise-and-consent power, a tool that is increasingly influential as American bureaucracy grows. In effect, we are asking Americans to screen appointees for some of the nation’s most important posts, from Secretary of State to Fed Chair, through a hopelessly unrepresentative body.
The solution to this enormous institutional problem? Unfortunately, there is no easy or obvious solution, as any change must almost certainly be agreed to by the Senate’s own members. With that said, a number of solutions are obvious, like the elimination of the filibuster, or the admission of new states, like Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, that would make the Senate slightly more representative of the broader population. More ambitiously, we should strive towards a system like that which we see in many Commonwealth nations, where the Upper Chamber (typically a House of Lords) maintains a tradition of passing nearly all of the legislation passed through the lower chamber, affording itself a mostly advisory capacity and interfering only in dire circumstances. This level of change seems impossible to imagine in our current climate of hyperpolarization, but we must maintain hope that with proper education and persuasion over the course of the next generation, we can find ourselves in the coming decades in a more representative, more democratic America.