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 		 [The United States is not the only supposedly democratic country
saddled with an undemocratic upper legislative chamber (ours just has
the most egregious malapportionment), but Americans have, so far, been
the least willing to push back.] [https://portside.org/] 

 THE SENATE IS AN INSTITUTIONAL BARRIER TO DEMOCRACY  
[https://portside.org/node/18611] 

 

 Sohale A. Mortazavi 
 November 9, 2018
Truthout
[https://truthout.org/articles/the-senate-is-an-institutional-barrier-to-democracy/]


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 _ The United States is not the only supposedly democratic country
saddled with an undemocratic upper legislative chamber (ours just has
the most egregious malapportionment), but Americans have, so far, been
the least willing to push back. _ 

 Electoral politics provides no sustainable path forward for a
progressive agenda, unless the Senate is abolished or reformed., Zach
Gibson / Getty Images 

 

The 2018 midterms offer more proof that the US Senate must —
someway, somehow — be democratically reformed or abolished. Unless
projected outcomes in Arizona or Florida change, the Democratic Party
stands to lose a net two Senate seats despite its senatorial
candidates racking up, as counted so far
[https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/06/us/elections/results-dashboard-live.html],
46.7 million votes versus Republicans’ 33.8 million. Even entirely
excluding the more than 6.4 million votes
[https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/06/us/elections/results-california-elections.html] cast
in California, where no Republican senatorial candidate appeared on
the general ballot, Democrats still secured 6.4 million more votes
nationally, an 8-percentage point lead.

Yes, the 2018 Senate map was historically bad
[https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-democrats-explainer/democrats-face-almost-impossible-map-to-retake-u-s-senate-idUSKCN1L920M] for
Democrats — but the map is always bad for Democrats. The 2020 map is
no exception. While Republicans will be defending 21 seats to the
Democrats’ 12, as the Cook Political Report
[https://www.cookpolitical.com/analysis/national/national-politics/will-senate-gop-feel-heat-2020] notes,
“The GOP has just three of their 21 seats that are up in states that
Trump either lost or won by 5 points or less.” In order to take back
the Senate, Democrats will have to: hold all of their seats, including
Alabama; win both Maine and Colorado; and flip several seats in red
states, an exceedingly unlikely outcome
[https://www.vox.com/2018/11/8/18072464/senate-midterm-election-results-democrats-disadvantage].

None of this should be surprising for a legislative body that gives
580,000 Wyomingites the same representation as 40 million
Californians. Conservatives may counter that there are also
“small” blue states, but the fact is that Republicans consistently
benefit more. Senate Republicans have now captured the majority in 6
out of the last 10 Congresses without representing a majority of the
public even once.

Short of a party realignment that decouples party politics from the
small/large state divide (unlikely
[https://www.apnews.com/c70031fe8d92403faf2056abf7752fd1] as long as
rural voters remain more conservative and urban voters more
progressive), malapportionment in the Senate will only get worse for
Democratic voters. The Democratic Party could move further to the
political right in an attempt to win more seats, the typical
suggestion from pundits both conservative and liberal, but doing so
may not work and does nothing to extend fair and meaningful
representation to left-leaning voters in large coastal states. More
Joe Manchins won’t fix the problem. Electoral politics provides no
sustainable path forward for a progressive agenda, no matter
how popular
[https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-election-progressives/] policies
like Medicare-for-All and free college tuition have become, unless the
Senate is abolished or reformed.

The conservative National Review
[https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/10/left-attacks-senate-constitutional-system/] dismisses
the notion, claiming that “fundamentally remaking the Senate is a
fantasy” given that the Constitution stipulates that “no state,
without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the
Senate.” It is no surprise to see conservatives discouraging
challenges to the undemocratic institutions that favor their party.
But similar arguments are coming from more liberal-leaning
publications that find attacks on American constitutional institutions
politically risky and ultimately for naught given that constitutional
amendments require a two-third majority in both chambers of Congress
and ratification by three-quarters of the states. _Be realistic_ is
the message. Writing for the Atlantic
[https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/11/why-democrats-won-2018-midterms/575179/],
David Frum warned Democrats that, while they may deplore undemocratic
American institutions, these cannot be changed before 2020 and “in
the interim, you must adapt. That means devising your political plans
for the terrain you have, not the terrain you might wish for.”

But this is a myopic pragmatism. Malapportionment in the Senate, a
vestige of state sovereignty from the early days of the union, now
gives conservatives a nearly unbreakable hold over much of the federal
government. Conversely, those seeking representation through the
Democratic Party get less of a say on national legislation, as well as
judicial and cabinet appointments that must be confirmed by the
Senate. Winning the Senate majority once every decade or so in a
blue-wave year won’t change these facts. For the left, acceptance of
the Senate as it exists is neither pragmatic nor realistic — not if
it wants to exercise political power. And if the left doesn’t
challenge undemocratic institutions now, when its grievances are at an
all-time high, then when?

The United States is not the only supposedly democratic country
saddled with an undemocratic upper legislative chamber (ours just has
the most egregious malapportionment), but Americans have, so far, been
the least willing to push back. While many Canadian politicians
are openly working
[https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/abolishing-the-senate-in-10-difficult-steps-1.3166774] to
reform their own undemocratic Senate, criticism on this side of the
border is mostly limited to left-wing thinkers and media. Even Don
Beyer, Democratic Representative of Virginia and noted proponent of
democratizing electoral reform in the House, has stopped short of
calling for Senate reform, reminding the Atlantic
[https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/10/senators-kavanaugh-represented-44-percent-us/572623/] that
“We’re not America; we’re the United States of America,” the
insinuation being that the nation is a union of co-equal, sovereign
states, similar to the actual nations party to the United Nations, a
comparison that falls short given that the states aren’t actually
sovereign. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, has been largely
successful in , an unelected and unrepresentative body that once
shared power more equally with the more representative House of
Commons. The Parliament Act of 1911 took away the upper chamber’s
absolute veto power entirely for money bills and limited their power
over most other legislation to a delay of no more than two years,
further reduced to a single year in 1949. While still undemocratic and
undergoing further reform, the House of Lords has been largely
defanged.

Electoral politics provides no sustainable path forward for a
progressive agenda, unless the Senate is abolished or reformed.

Of note, the reforms of the Parliament Act of 1911 were the result of
a constitutional crisis of the House of Lords’ own making when it
vetoed the “People’s Budget,” a progressive House of Commons
budget raising taxes on land and the wealthy to fund new social
welfare programs. The House of Lords ultimately acquiesced to the
lower chamber, not only on the budget, but also the abolishment of its
own veto power when King George V threatened to pack the upper chamber
with enough new peers to create a Liberal Party majority.

While Democrats may never have the supermajorities needed to reform or
abolish the Senate through constitutional amendment, there are ways to
create similar constitutional crises that could force Republicans to
the bargaining table. For instance, Democrats could threaten to pack
the Supreme Court with progressive justices to counterbalance those
appointed and confirmed by Republican presidents and Senate
coalitions, respectively, that came to power without the mandate that
electoral pluralities imply. Similarly, a Democratic Congress could
threaten to “pack” the Senate by dividing Democratic strongholds
into separate states. Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution gives
Congress the power to redraw states lines with permission of only
those state legislatures that are directly affected; no constitutional
amendment is necessary. There is ultimately little, besides democratic
norms, preventing simple congressional majorities and the state of New
York from dividing New York City into several states and giving each
borough its own two senators.

Malapportionment in the Senate gives conservatives a nearly
unbreakable hold over much of the federal government.

The US Constitution is a bumbling mess of a document capable of
allowing all kinds of crises that put constitutional procedures at
odds with democratic norms. The Senate, a powerful legislative body
now controlled by 51 Republicans representing only 43 percent of the
country, is just such a crisis and no less absurd than granting
Brooklyn its statehood — we could, after all, fit the population of
Wyoming into it four times over and then some.

The US Congress can be democratically reformed, the Senate perhaps
even abolished, but it is likely to require the same kind of
constitutional hardball that Republicans have been playing for years.
There is political risk in making such destabilizing moves, but given
how hopeless electoral politics are for the left under the status quo,
there isn’t much to lose.

_Sohale A. Mortazavi is a writer based in Chicago. Follow Sohale on
Twitter [https://twitter.com/SohaleMortazavi]._

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