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Structurally, The Senate Is A Disaster-- Is There Any Way Around That?

Look, if it was up to me, I would abolish the Senate, one of the most anti-democratic institutions in the government. But it isn’t up to me and, after 7 decades on earth, I’ve come to the conclusion that it never will be. Writing for the New York Review, Alexander Burns, proposes some ad hoc reforms for the Democrats instead.

In case you missed the day in middle school when they explained what the Senate is, keep in mind that On July 16, 1787, the Constitution's framers arrived at the so-called "Great Compromise," to protect the interests of the small (rural) states, which demanding they have the power to block anything the states where all the people lived wanted to do. Apologists claim that “Without that compromise, there would likely have been no Constitution, no Senate, and no United States as we know it today… In selecting an appropriate visual symbol of the Senate in its founding period, one might consider an anchor, a fence, or a saucer. Writing to Thomas Jefferson, who had been out of the country during the Constitutional Convention, James Madison explained that the Constitution's framers considered the Senate to be the great ‘anchor’ of the government. To the framers themselves, Madison explained that the Senate would be a ‘necessary fence’ against the ‘fickleness and passion’ that tended to influence the attitudes of the general public and members of the House of Representatives. George Washington is said to have told Jefferson that the framers had created the Senate to ‘cool’ House legislation just as a saucer was used to cool hot tea.”

The most obvious reform— the one that conservatives will never agree to— would be getting rid of a rule that not events wealthy slaveholders who wrote the Constitution suggested: the filibuster. But Burns began by rehashing what’s wrong with the Senate in a more fundamental way. “The Senate’s two-seats-per-state structure,” he wrote, “is a preposterously distorted one, granting the people of South Dakota or Wyoming the same voice as the people of Georgia— even though each of those western states boasts a population smaller than Georgia’s Gwinnett County.” Obviously North and South Dakota and Wyoming should be combined into one godforsaken state called Dakota— with just 2 reactionary senators instead of 6. Just that one reform would solve the Senate problem. That’s my idea, not Burns’. He just noted that “With the remaking of the Republican Party in Donald Trump’s image, America’s rural and white constituencies have swung rapidly to the right, putting Democrats at an ever-deepening disadvantage in the competition for power in the Senate. Indeed the makeup of the Republican coalition these days is so ideally suited to winning elections in sparsely populated states that it takes political malpractice and misfortune on an almost comical scale for the conservative party not to win control. Happily for Democrats, Republicans have hit that mark on several occasions, including in 2020, when Trump reacted to his defeat in the presidential race by taking revenge on his party’s Senate candidates in a crucial Georgia runoff election. Trump gave a reprise performance in the midterm elections, installing buffoonish and offensive candidates for the Senate in swing states like Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia, dooming Republicans in those races.”

Democrats would be wise to treat the 2022 elections not as a vindication but as a stay of execution. The party still needs a better way to fight for power in what Obama and Pelosi recognized many years ago as a warped republic. The most important Democratic leaders have tended to shy away from frank and reflective discussion, at least in public, of the Senate’s fundamental unfairness and what their party might do about it.
In practice, most Democrats mainly accept that the Senate is what it is, periodically venting about the injustice of it all but making no concerted attempt either to challenge the system or to evolve as a party to better compete within its arcane structure. If the Senate makes American politics into something of a sucker’s game for the party of big cities and diverse suburbs, Democrats appear resigned to keep playing the game in much the same way, over and over again. After all, as long as Republican Senate candidates keep self-destructing on a routine basis, the competition can almost feel fair. This approach is pitiably short-sighted, as Democrats may well discover in 2024, when they must contest an even more difficult set of Senate races in states like West Virginia and Montana.
Democrats need to look this challenge in the face. As of yet, they have been unable to answer one of the greatest questions confronting them: How will the party win back the sections of the country that dominate the Senate? Any attempt to do so will mean reckoning more fully with how Democrats lost them in the first place.
…It was in the middle of the last decade that the Senate’s unrepresentative composition intersected with the rise of Trumpism. Not only could Trump win the presidency despite losing the popular vote, but he could also govern throughout his term with near-total confidence that his party would keep control of the Senate no matter how ferociously most of the voting public wanted to repudiate him.
In the 2018 midterms a majority of the country voted to punish Republicans. But even as Democrats gained scores of seats in the House and won the popular vote by a margin of nearly 10 million, Republicans picked up Senate seats in places like North Dakota and Missouri, states far whiter and more conservative than the country as a whole. In those places, Trump and Trumpism were not unpopular at all.
The endurance of institutions like the Senate and the Electoral College means that an American political party dedicated to opposing right-wing populism cannot be content simply to assemble a competing national majority. Instead, they— that is, the Democrats— must build a particular kind of majority that involves cracking the foundations of Trump’s electoral coalition in the most frustrated and insecure parts of the country.
That would likely require a long-range commitment from Democratic leaders to updating the party’s political brand and speaking more consistently to voters’ sense of economic and cultural vulnerability. Democrats may never appeal to the segments of Trump’s base that are animated most intensely by feelings of racial resentment or male self-pity. But the party could do far more to share a persuasive vision of the economy with working-class voters who feel victimized by a distant and dysfunctional government, by wealthy elites, by nefarious foreign regimes, and all-powerful multinational corporations…
… It feels easy to blame a handful of passive elected officials for the Democratic Party’s failure to devise a large-scale plan for winning and wielding power in a system that disfavors liberal, urban political parties. But there are no simple answers. The shape of the American government is so impervious to revision that it’s pointless to discuss the most straightforward solutions. Democrats cannot plausibly propose to abolish the Senate, as Britain’s Labour Party has contemplated doing with the House of Lords. That would require amending the Constitution, a process as obscure and as deferential to rural power as the Senate itself.
One form of Democratic reinvention would be to swerve back toward a 1990s-vintage version of centrism and repudiate the most strident factions on the left. There is no shortage of voices counseling Democrats to jettison their most left-wing social policies, stop talking about gender identity, and take more aggressive stances on fighting crime and securing the country’s border with Mexico. This is credible defensive advice, but veiling the party’s most culturally polarizing forces is probably not enough to make Democrats newly attractive to the conservative-leaning rural voters who are so powerful in the Senate. (Not to mention that if you tell the left to take a hike, some progressive voters would surely oblige.)
What more can the Democrats do? … Since the onset of the Great Recession, Democratic leaders as [conservative] as Rahm Emanuel and as progressive as Bernie Sanders have experimented with policies to address voters’ perception that there are no longer good jobs available to the middle class and that America is losing ground to the rest of the world. But too many Democrats have not defined an optimistic vision of the economic future so much as they have promised to cushion the blow of economic dislocation with various social programs.
Whatever the merits of those ideas, they have not inspired the voters most excited by Trump’s rhetoric about restoring the great age of American industry, punishing companies that ship jobs abroad, and attacking China’s growing might in the marketplace. Before the next election, Democrats have an opportunity to claim much of that message as their own and make it a defining cause of the party— however belatedly. There is no good reason why the aspiration to take back control of a disordered world must remain the intellectual property of the right wing. Indeed, the cohort of voters who correctly believe that they have been American losers in the global economy also includes many lower-income communities of color that usually support Democrats.
The Biden administration and congressional Democrats have laid the groundwork for such a gambit with some of their major legislative projects. Biden’s biggest attempt at a lawmaking legacy came in the form of a New Deal–style social welfare agenda that collapsed in the Senate. From the ruins of that legislation rose a more limited set of important breakthroughs in clean-energy and high-tech manufacturing policy in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act, a climate bill in all but name, and the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, a substantial investment in boosting domestic microchip production and competing with China.
Those achievements arrived too late to transform the midterm elections, and Democrats were not in a position to break open the electoral map this year by campaigning as the authors of America’s economic future. But that political blueprint may be available in 2024 and beyond. If Biden-backed laws are poised to unleash a revolution in the American energy sector and raise colossal semiconductor plants across the country, then Democrats should treat those achievements not merely as proud entries in a compendium of liberal policies but as the core of their party’s political identity. To their lasting dismay, Democrats have not managed to match the New Deal era with a twenty-first-century social welfare agenda. But they might yet appropriate a different strain of Roosevelt- and Truman-era politics, which were defined after all not just by economic support programs but also the country’s transformation into a behemoth of aerospace and military manufacturing and government-backed technological innovation.
Campaigning on their own version of economic nationalism— a bona fide made-in-America agenda that also confronts the climate crisis and counters Chinese imperialism— Democrats might more convincingly go on the attack against a Republican Party that, for all its populist posturing, is not committed to robust industrial policy or the concept of broadly shared prosperity.
Another, potentially complementary approach might be called a strategy of ideological elaboration— not lurching away from liberal politics but embracing elevating issues that confound traditional polarization. The Democrats’ emphatic defense of abortion rights achieved this effect in the midterm campaign, after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.
…In the United States, a relevant set of issues might include support for decriminalizing marijuana, reining in big tech companies, confronting the OPEC oil cartel and the Saudi regime, and enshrining legal guarantees of access to contraception, fertility treatments, and abortifacient drugs. Many Democrats already support these ideas, all of which address a varied set of constituencies, including parts of Trump’s base. But they emphasize these issues only sporadically on the campaign trail. Policies like these are instruments waiting for a skilled hand to take them up with greater vigor.
Of course, Democrats may prefer to continue muddling through, seeking out distinctively appealing candidates like John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, and hoping that the Republican Party will keep nominating cranks, rogues, and extremists, eventually careening so far to the right that their political coalition cracks up. The problem is that this method is only workable in proportion to the Republican Party’s ineptitude, a factor over which Democrats have little control. They cannot count on being able to run against Dr. Oz forever.
There is one more path available to Democrats that any honest analysis has to consider. It is less a strategy for electoral success than a shift toward another kind of political conflict. Facing a constitutional order that truly is rigged against them, some Democrats might eventually take a lesson from Trump and crusade against the legitimacy of the system itself.
No iron rule in American politics says an electoral majority greatly disadvantaged by the country’s political institutions has to operate with effusive respect for them. A Democratic presidential candidate who wins the popular vote and loses the Electoral College— like Hillary Clinton and Al Gore— is not bound by law to concede promptly. A popular president constrained by the Senate’s rural majority does not have to keep private his view that the institution is obsolete.
In the age of Trump, Democrats have developed a great sense of pride in their role protecting America’s frayed democratic norms. But there may come a moment when the euphoria of a better-than-expected midterm election is only a memory and the sense of righteous virtue that comes from defending democracy begins to wear thin. When that day arrives, many of the voters who make up the party’s base and a majority of the country— people in cities and dense suburbs, women and people of color, educated whites and young people— might find that it is no longer tolerable to be ruled by a dwindling and overempowered minority. There is only so much satisfaction to be drawn from being the sole party with an unblemished record of dutifully surrendering power.

Meanwhile… how about helping us recruit a progressive populist to run in Missouri— Lucas Kunce, the kind of Democrat who can win in a red state, not by selling out progressive values but by relating them to the kind of distressed people Burns talked about in his essay. You can read more about what we’re trying to do here. This is one of the ads we’re running on Facebook and Instagram in Missouri now:

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