Rich Lowry: The left’s foolhardy attack on the Senate
Democrats suffered a stinging loss in the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and have concluded that the constitutional system is to blame.
You see, if only the Founders hadn’t forged the Great Compromise between large states and small states at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, giving each state equal representation in the U.S. Senate, they would have defeated Brett Kavanaugh handily. It’s only because smaller red states have two senators just like larger blue states that the judge got confirmed.
For the left, the U.S. Senate is now looming, together with the Electoral College and the Supreme Court, as an institution of villainy in American life. In the words of Vox, the Senate is “a grotesquely unrepresentative body.” ThinkProgress deems it “an immoral, anti-democratic institution.” One reason Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne calls the ascension of Kavanaugh to the high court “a coup” is that he was “confirmed by senators representing 44 percent of the population.”
Democrats have gone from bragging about their permanent majority a few years ago to complaining it’s impossible for them to win under the governing regime that we’ve had for more than 200 years, since it’s so tilted toward “minority rule.”
It’s certainly true that the Senate is not fully democratic and gives an outsized role to small states, since this was the price they exacted for signing on to the Constitution. This arrangement isn’t a conspiracy against the left.
Yes, Wyoming, population 560,000 in the 2010 census, cancels out California, population 37 million, with two Republican senators to the Golden State’s two Democrats. But Vermont, population 630,000, cancels out the two Republicans from Texas, population 25 million, with a Democrat and a socialist.
Gross population disparities aren’t anything new. In 1790, shortly after the ratification of the Constitution, Virginia had 747,160 people, Delaware 59,096. The gap between the largest and smallest state got bigger. In 1900, New York had 7,268,894 people, and Nevada all of 42,335. The republic survived.
The design of the Senate recognizes the status of the states as real governing entities with their own prerogatives under the Constitution. Like the equally hated Electoral College, the Senate ensures that flyover country isn’t ignored. It reflects the dizzying geographic diversity of a continental nation and promotes national cohesion by giving every corner of it a voice.
The Senate also is meant to be a check on the unbridled popular will. Its members are elected in staggered six-year terms, and, originally, they were selected by state legislatures, not in a direct vote. The House is the more democratic body. California has 53 representatives; Wyoming has one. Yet Democrats don’t control the House, either.
The root of the problem is that Democrats, who threw all in with an urban-oriented “coalition of the ascendant” beginning in 2008, don’t have much appeal to the middle of the country anymore. As recently as 2010, both senators from North Dakota were Democrats, and back in 2004, both senators from South Dakota were Democrats.
The disenchantment with the Senate is a function of the left’s preference for coastal rule. It wants California to have the whip hand in our national life. But why should Los Angeles and San Francisco have an outsized role in governing distant, rural parts of the country, with which they have no sympathy?
Fundamentally remaking the Senate is a fantasy, regardless. The Constitution says the arrangement is unamendable, stipulating in Article 5 setting out the amendment process that “no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” Even if this language can be struck by amendment anyway, it would require the assent of some smaller states that wouldn’t be enamored with reducing their own relative power so California can have more.
Rather than cursing the design of the Senate, Democrats would be better-served simply winning Senate elections, a cause they materially harmed with their fevered attack on Brett Kavanaugh.