By James Lincoln Collier
It hardly needs to be said that the United States government is today so riven by conflict that it can no longer function. Liberals are at war with conservatives, Republicans are at war with Democrats, the president is at war with everybody. In most parliamentary democracies the voters choose a legislature and the legislators choose an executive—president, premier, prime minister. This ensures that the government will usually be united and can get down to business, although of course there are always moments when rebellious legislators decide to chart their own course.
In the United States, government is frequently divided. Currently, the Republican president is faced by a Democratic House of Representatives and is supported cautiously by a Republican Senate, making it difficult, if not impossible, to get any business done.
Especially problematic is the Senate. The original intention of most of the Founding Fathers was to create a legislature which would be the dominant branch of government—they had had enough of kings. They established under the Articles of Confederation a single legislature with equal powers for all states.
But right from the beginning, cracks in the edifice began to appear. For one, there was then powerful Spain, which was attempting to colonize large sections of America. Most of the states on the east coast wanted to avoid war with Spain, but states that controlled western lands wanted them protected from the Spanish, which might mean war.
A major issue was how the new legislature was to be set up. Large states like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania wanted the legislature to be based on population—the more people you had, the more representatives you would have in Congress. The small states, like Rhode Island, saw that in this system they would be swallowed up by the big states, and wanted to have equal powers in Congress. The solution was to have two houses of Congress: one chosen according to population, our House of Representatives; and one giving the states equal say, our Senate with two senators from each state. (There were other reasons for devising this scheme.)
The system may—or may not—have made sense in the 1780s. It does not make any sense today. Consider the possibilities. As it happens, virtually all of the least populous states lie in a strip of land between the Mississippi River and the western edge of the Rocky Mountains. These some twenty states are home to about a tenth of the American population. However, they elect forty percent of the members of the Senate.
There is an added problem. For better or worse, the majority of Americans live in big cities and the suburbs surrounding them. This tendency is increasing because the new wave of immigrants are not filling up the empty spaces in Nebraska and South Dakota, but are pouring into metropolitan areas.
The result is that we have a Senate that is egregiously unrepresentative of the American population. If, on any important issue, the small states band together and pick up a few allies, which they could easily do, Congresspersons representing a tenth of the American population can thwart the wishes of the vast majority.
If this minority of voters were in any way representative of the population as a whole, the system might be acceptable. But this minority is not. It is drawn almost entirely from a population that is largely rural, ethnically far less diverse than the majority in the metropolises, dependent for their livings from herding and farming, and politically more conservative than the people as a whole. None of this is news to political scientists, historians and informed citizens who have contemplated the matter. The most obvious solution is to abolish the Senate. A second would be to divide the nation into, let us say, forty new electoral districts, each to have one senator. A more radical solution would be to do away with states altogether and cut up the nation in some more practical way. There are other possibilities.
Clearly, the people who now hold power are not going to make these changes. It is up to the voters to take matters into their own hands through new laws, a Constitutional Convention or other means. The question is, will they?