Tidbits for Political Junkies with Short Attention Spans & Hearty Appetites


Friday, April 23, 2004

Are we really a Democracy?

In the May issue of Harper’s, Richard Rosenfeld argues the case for abolishing the Senate in the essay “What Democracy?” While even Rosenfeld thinks this is unlikely (and probably unwise as well, if it were to happen before correcting the equally un-democratic gerrymandering that affects House representation), it is nevertheless useful to consider just how un-democratic our so-called democratic institutions really are.

Sorry, the content is not available on line, so you’ll have to get a copy if you want the whole essay – but I’ll clip a few paragraphs containing some essential facts:

Senators from the twenty-six smallest states, representing a mere 18 percent of the nation’s population, hold a majority in the United States Senate, and, therefore, regardless of what the President, the House of Representatives, or even the overwhelming majority of the American people wants, nothing becomes law if those senators object.


The “small and unequal” representation of the U.S. Senate infects the judicial and executive branches as well as the legislative branch….for example, the Senate confirmed [Clarence] Thomas’s appointment (by a margin of four votes, 52-48), despite the fact that the senators who voted against him represented 7 million more people than the senators who voted for him….

Because the number of each state’s presidential electors is the sum of its two U.S. Senators plus the number of its representatives in the House, the unfairness of an equal number of Senators also corrupts the entire presidential election process, which in the election year award 271 electors to George W. Bush and only 266 to Al Gore, despite the fact that Gore was the popular favorite by a margin of more than 500,000 votes. Had the number of each state’s electoral votes simply been the number of its representatives in the House (and therefore, been proportioned to the size of its population), Gore would have enjoyed an electoral vote victory of 225 to 211, consistent with the preference of the American people. In 2000, the smallest states constituting a majority in the Senate cast their electoral votes two-to-one for Bush, while the largest states boasting a majority of the people cast their votes two-to-one for Gore.

The corruption of our political process does not stop with the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government in their normal functioning, however; it undermines the “sovereignty of the people” as well. Although “we, the people of the United States” have retained the right to amend the Constitution with a two-thirds vote of the Congress and a three-quarters vote of the states, today this means that small-state senators representing only 8 percent of the people or the thirteen smallest states representing only 5 percent of the people can scuttle any amendment. Conversely (and perversely), if today’s thirty-eight smallest states –with 40 percent of the people—want to change the Constitution (say, to prohibit gay marriage), they have the required three-quarters to amend, regardless of what a democratic majority of the people might prefer.

Something to bear in mind, at least, the next time you hear the word “mandate.”


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