A teachable moment from the 2018 elections

In the wake of this month’s midterm elections, our nation’s tribal politicking has not slowed down.

With Democrats winning control of the House and creating a divided government check on Republican power at the federal level, you might think progressives would be encouraged that their spirited voter turnout led to real electoral change.

Alas, not all saw it this way. Instead some decried the unfairness of the “Senate popular vote.” In short, the gripe is that Democratic Senate candidates won more votes nationwide than Republican candidates, yet Republicans picked up additional Senate seats.

Cynical, bellicose statements like “our country is not a democracy” and characterization of Republican voters as “aging racists” do not do much to advance our civic dialogue. To be clear, this type of divisive rhetoric exists on both sides of political debate today. No matter who makes statements like these, they are always unhealthy and unproductive.

But when it comes to the specific issue raised here – the concept of a Senate popular vote – it’s worth diving into the history of debate on the bicameral legislative system that has always been a hallmark of the United States government. It’s no secret that our civic education was waned in recent decades. Perhaps with a primer on the bicameral system, we can begin to find common ground.

It all starts with the most All-American of concepts – the separation of powers.

While it is at times truly clumsy and overly time-consuming, the bicameral U.S. Congress works today exactly the way a majority of the framers of the Constitution envisioned in 1787. Clearly expressed in the Constitution is their belief that power should be shared among all units of government. Dividing Congress into two chambers, with the positive vote of both required to approve legislation, is a natural extension of the framers’ concept of employing the concept of separation of powers to prevent tyranny.

The provision of a bicameral Congress did [not] come without debate. Indeed, the question almost derailed the entire Constitutional Convention. Delegates from the small states demanded that all states be equally represented in Congress. The large state argued that since they had more voters, representation should be based on population. After months of great debate, deletes arrived at the “Great Compromise” under which the small states got equal representation (2 Senators from each state) and the large states got proportional representation based on population in the House.

Arguments against equal representation for all states in the Senate have existed since the founding of the United States. Like many political arguments, this one is based on self-interest. Larger states believed their population advantage should mean representative dominance over smaller states. Conversely, smaller states believed that in order to join the Union, they should have a guarantee of equal representation.

How did we solve this existential problem? Something in short supply in today’s politics – compromise.

The House of Representatives ensured that larger states would always enjoy an advantage in one chamber of Congress. The House would be continually responsive to the needs of the people – every two years, every citizen has an equal voice, and the chance to totally remake the lower chamber to address the needs of the day.

On the other hand, the Senate provided smaller states the equal footing they needed in order to agree to join the Union and solidify American unity. The Senate was designed as a more deliberative body, one that would consider the needs of an entire state, and the nation as a whole over the long term. Elections for individual Senators would take place every six years, and one third of Senators would face voters every two years, ensuring the passions of the national electorate on one single day in November could not swing the nation into chaos.

The idea of a Senate also argues for individualism and the sensibilities of local communities – two concepts that have defined the history of the United States. Despite today’s demographic trends, the United States is not strictly an urban nation. As more and more citizens gravitate to the urban communities that anchor states with large populations and dominate elite institutions and the media, smaller, more rural communities can feel shut out of the national dialogue. Equal representation in the Senate for each state means that more rural states with fewer citizens have a powerful voice that ensures their continued influence on the American experiment. Without these protections for smaller states, America is not America. It’s not a diverse nation that allows its citizens to live and let live – whether in a skyscraper, a row home, a suburb with white picket fences, or on a farm. Instead, it’s a nation dominated by those who have all chosen a single way of life.

In order to heal the wounds created by excessive partisanship, we must focus on educating ourselves on the history our nation, and understanding that the very nature of our union insists that we provide protection for smaller states and the political minority – whoever that may be at a given moment in time. May the U.S. Senate always strive to live up to its calling to model level-headed legislative debate for the rest of the free world.

Known as “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” the Senate has been a forum for free debate and the protection of political minorities. “In war and in peace,” explained Senator Robert C. Byrd, “it has been the sure refuge and protector of the rights of the states and of a political minority.” Historically, the institution’s unique role as guardian of minority rights has rendered political party ratios extremely important. The Senate was created so that, “the sober second thought of the people might find expression,” wrote Senator George F. Hoar, to “resist the hasty, intemperate, passionate desire of the people.”


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