Politics & Media
Jan 12, 2015, 05:59AM

Is the Senate Undemocratic?

Of course not.

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The Senate is a sclerotic, dysfunctional, deliberately unrepresentative body that gives disproportional power to vast swathes of uninhabited wasteland, as well as to individual grandstanding narcissists like John McCain. That means it's undemocratic and should be done away with, right?

Some people think so. As the Republican-controlled Senate grinds into session, Dylan Matthews at Vox posted a piece arguing that in 2014 Democrats won more votes than Republicans overall for the Senate, and that the fact that Republicans control the chamber means that the Senate is a broken institution." The problem isn't that the deck is stacked in favor of Republicans. The problem is that the deck is stacked in favor of small states, which receive equal representation in the Senate despite dramatic variance in population," Matthews argues. And this disproportionate representation, he concludes, means that the Senate violates democratic principles.

The assumption here is that the ideal democracy is one in which every person receives exactly the same amount of representation. And that sounds logical enough. But is it logical, or even possible? Look at the House. Representation there is proportional. But because of the way districts are drawn, and the clustering of Democratic voters in cities, it has arguably even more of a Republican bias than the Senate does. That's not because small states are empowered over large ones, but because rural areas are empowered over cities. But however you slice it, the House is not any more perfectly representational than the Senate is.

Could you even create a perfectly democratic representative body? Presumably a truly perfect democratic body would be one in which the entire population voted for everything—but that's impossible. Instead you need to create representative structures. You could hold nationwide elections for every legislator—but then you lose local representation and connection to a particular constituency. Many regions would have no one in Congress from their area, or maybe even from their state. Would that be better than what we have now? No.

Democracy is an ideal, but there's no system that's going to fulfill that ideal perfectly. Any method of determining the will of the people is going to be flawed in one way or another. The Senate, in particular, is designed to protect states with small populations from being at the mercy of regions with larger populations. It also gives individual Senators a lot of power to set the agenda, which means that small, committed interest groups can prevail against the less-strongly-held beliefs of an unimpassioned majority. That can be frustrating, but it's not exactly anti-democratic. Instead, it's a different way of trying to balance interests.

There are some policies or mechanisms that are clearly undemocratic. Refusing to allow blacks or woman to vote is undemocratic, and violates the principal of one person, one vote. I think preventing children from voting is undemocratic for similar reasons. Taking the vote away from those who’ve been imprisoned is, again, undemocratic. Residents of Washington D.C. have voting members in neither the House nor Senate; that's undemocratic. Republican efforts to restrict voting right through driver's license requirements, or through reducing the number of days which people can vote, are also undemocratic. If democracy means anything, it means that people are able to vote to determine their government. Any policy which prevents that is undemocratic.

You could also see cases in which the apportionment of representation could be anti-democratic. If you have a situation in which one person has the hereditary right to choose a Senate seat, as per the old English Parliament system with its rotten boroughs—well, that's anti-democratic too. But the Senate isn't the 18th century English Parliament. It's a representative body that isn't perfect, but which, combined with the House and the Presidency, makes a reasonable attempt to represent the will of the people. Could it be changed for the better in some ways? Sure.

Again, I'd probably start with giving D.C. representation. That sort of tinkering isn't as exciting as denouncing the Senate wholesale. But it would have the benefit of actually making our country, in a small way, more democratic.

—Follow Noah Berlatsky on Twitter: @hoodedu


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