Each state gets an equal vote
Critics of the United States Senate argue the institution is undemocratic. Small population states get just as many senators as large population states, making votes in Wyoming much more powerful than in California. Opinionators frustrated with Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and the failed impeachment of President Trump have called out the Senate in Bloomberg, the Atlantic, of course the Washington Post and the New York Times, and even GQ.
Rants against the Senate typically focus narrowly on how senators are elected but ignore the American implementations of sovereignty and federalism. The founders never intended the Senate to be the people’s house, it was the American equivalent to the House of Lords or Imperial Diet for the sovereigns of the vassal states.
In America, sovereignty is invested and controlled by the people. That’s why the sovereigns’ representatives were first chosen by state legislatures rather than by hereditary title. Direct election of Senators intended to reduce corruption and cronyism, not to diminish the power of the states as sovereign entities. Their job after the 17th Amendment was still to act as representatives of their entire state.
Claiming the Senate lacks democracy resembles claiming that cars are not inflatable. It’s true as far as it goes, but cars were never meant to be inflatable. There are some aspects like tires and airbags that inflate, but solid tires and seatbelts will still get the vehicle from point A to point B.
The Senate is perfectly democratic in that each sovereign gets an equal vote.
The Democracy Argument
A typical argument, like this one from Vox, begins with the disparity in representation in the Senate in revolutionary times when the largest population state was Virginia, with 748K, and the smallest was Delaware, with 59K, for a 12.6:1 ratio. Today, California has the advantage over Wyoming 68:1.
But so what? This disparity has been understood throughout the country’s history. In 1900, the ratio between New York and Nevada was a whopping 171.7:1. Today’s ratios will likely decline further. Smaller states like Idaho are growing, while California and New York have mostly leveled off. Wyoming is much more likely to hit a million inhabitants that California is double to 75 million.
The next argument devolves to race. Critics point out that the large diverse states lose. There are currently two large majority-minority states, Texas and California, and two small ones, New Mexico and Hawaii. The Senate looks very white. But like population numbers, the racial makeup of states only stays the same until it changes. Nevada, Georgia, and Maryland are on the cusp of becoming majority-minority, and by 2060 the total may grow up to 22 states.
Sovereigns embody the absolute power of the state. Monarchies are the easiest to illustrate. In a monarchy, sovereignty rests in a person. We think of classical kings and emperors, but Kim Jong-un in North Korea fits the bill as well.
Sovereigns own everything. The deed to your house typically states “fee simple,” an ownership category which grants land in perpetuity. The house, however, isn’t really yours. The sovereign granted the lands in fee simple to the original owner and can un-grant the lands. Because the sovereign is the sovereign and has all the power.
The United States pioneered a new twist on sovereignty, vesting it in the people. Other countries dabbled with a republican government, like England under Cromwell or the Republic of the Netherlands, but not particularly successfully. Democracy wasn’t really new either, traditionally tracing back through the Roman republic to ancient Athens in Greece. But the way the American experiment put it all together represented something truly new.
The people delegate powers to the government, for example by electing a legislature to pass laws and an executive to implement laws. This reversed most historical practice. Previously, the monarch personally embodied sovereignty and delegated powers to legislatures or the people through treaties like the Magna Carta or through slowly evolving custom.
Federalism in America and abroad
The United States wasn’t the first federal system. The Holy Roman Empire, for example, combined hundreds of independent feudal states. Positions in the Imperial Diet were assigned mostly by the size of land holdings, and a small number of electors chose the emperor.
“This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”
The German states were sovereign, yet combined into a larger construct with power-sharing between the levels.
Like the German principalities, the thirteen original colonies were sovereign unto themselves. They were not just colonies, they were nascent countries, cooperative but jealous of their independence.
The colonies retained most of their sovereignty through the Articles of Confederation, but the central government was so weak as to be ineffective. They gave up a larger measure of their sovereignty under the Constitution but demanded certain guarantees. Among the guarantees was “equal suffrage in the Senate.”
Schools teach Senate representation as the Connecticut Compromise, small states refusing to support the new constitution if they were going to be marginalized in the legislature. True, but the reason they didn’t care to be marginalized was that they saw themselves as tiny nations. Federalist #62 notes:
In this spirit it may be remarked, that the equal vote allowed to each State is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual States, and an instrument for preserving that residuary sovereignty.
The US Constitution remains a remarkable compact. Not only did the proto-countries give up portions of their absolute autonomy to create a super-sovereign, they agreed-upon rules to birth new sovereign states. One fully sovereign and independent country, Texas, found the guarantees enough to join up in 1845.
What about the rest of the world? The United Nations General Assembly only allows one vote per country. Perhaps China and India should each get 20% of the votes to align with the world population? We would also then eliminate the UN Security Council as well.
Maybe the European Union has figured out a better way? Voters elect the European Parliament with proportional representation, but in the other legislative body, the European Council, each country gets one vote. Why does Malta get the same vote as much larger Germany? How did they come up with such a crazy system?
The benefit of states’ sovereignty
Two factors underlay the ‘undemocratic’ argument. A few just don’t believe in the whole idea of nation-states, much less recognizing the historic partial sovereignty of sub-national entities. For the most part, though, there is just dissatisfaction at losing.
Since 1980 Republicans have controlled the Senate for 12 terms, compared to 9 for the Democrats. Perhaps Democrats just want to make the Senate great again; from 1933 to 1980, Democrats controlled the Senate for 22 of 24 terms.
If one or two more large states became reliably red, and Democrats turned a few Great Plains blue, this angst would go away. Maybe the Republicans would take up the mantra and the Democrats would become fans of state sovereignty.
The federal system of shared sovereignty has led to great abuses in the past. States’ rights have been a rallying cry for slavery, secession, Jim Crow laws, and segregation. In the end, the example of federal troops forcing integration at Little Rock, Arkansas schools was necessary to even begin school desegregation.
That said, the ability of sovereign states to resist federal overreach is a valuable guard-rail for democracy. Precedents have established that states cannot be forced to enforce federal statutes. The federal government cannot simply take over, for example, the Portland police department. States legalize cannabis and dare the central government to enforce federal prohibition.
States serve as a check on federal power. Having one chamber structured by population and the other by equal sovereigns gums up the works and generally ensures watered-down legislation. That’s a feature, not a bug. It’s far better to have decisions and changes made slowly and incrementally than have a temporary 51% majority cram down massive and unpopular changes on a rabidly resisting 49%. It’s much better for the country to have everyone a little unhappy with the necessary compromises.
Were states to have senators apportioned by population, then the sovereignty of some states would be reduced and others enhanced. No longer would the senate be a chamber of equals. If small state populations are not accorded equal sovereign rights, then they are diminished not just in sheer voting power, but in character. Their people’s sovereignty is made lesser.
When the people of a state feel infringement on sovereignty, secession often results. U.S. Civil War settled the ability to succeed in the U.S., but extremists in California persist. Similar forces drove Brexit, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and kept the question open in Quebec for decades. Perhaps someday the United States will be so homogeneous that there’s no longer a need for state sovereignty, and the Senate can decline in influence like the House of Lords in the United Kingdom.
America has already descended into a near Hunger Games paradigm where wealthy urbanites, in particular the coastal elites, deride the rubes in flyover country who grow their food, pump their oil, and refine their gas. Diminishing their last vestiges of sovereignty will do nothing to improve the union.
Brian E. Wish works as a quality engineer in the aerospace industry. He has spent 29 years active and reserve in the US Air Force, where he holds the rank of Colonel. He has a bachelor’s from the US Air Force Academy, a master’s from Bowie State, and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from UT Arlington. The opinions expressed here are his own. Learn more at brianewish.com.