Analysis | Defending the democratic nature of Senate decision-making is an uphill fight – The Washington Post
A simple thought experiment is useful. Imagine a group of 100 people asked to pick a movie to watch. Forty-nine want to watch “Dune.” Fifty-one want to watch “Paw Patrol: The Movie.” Democracy being what it is, “Paw Patrol” carries the day.
Now imagine that each of those 100 voters represents a different educational institution. Fifty-one of them represent kids at day-care centers in the greater Missoula, Mont., area. Forty-nine of them represent students at state universities.
Does the decision still seem as though it captures the collective will of those being represented? It was a democratic vote, yes, but it certainly doesn’t seem as though it probably reflected the overall desire of the organizations’ collective memberships.
The prompt for this experiment was a tweet from the conservative writer Rich Lowry. Responding to Mother Jones’s Ari Berman’s description of the influence of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) over legislation as “undemocratic,” Lowry replied that it is “a weird feature of our time that 51 members of a 100-seat legislative body blocking a proposal is considered undemocratic.”
There are two ways in which that statement is iffy. The first is that Lowry casts this as a “weird feature of our time,” when the Senate’s allocation of two representatives to every state regardless of population was at the heart of one of the most famous compromises in American history. When the Constitution was being written, the link between state populations and state power was a central point of debate! James Madison supported proportional representation, something that would have benefited his home state of Virginia and something that better reflected the will of those being represented. But small states, led by Roger Sherman of Connecticut, insisted that one chamber should grant equal representation to every state. The Connecticut Compromise carried the day.
The other way it’s iffy is that it suggests that there’s nothing novel about the moment. While there has always been an advantage granted to smaller states from the way the Senate allocates seats, that advantage has grown.
In 1790, a bit over three-quarters of the country’s population lived in the most populous half of the states. Now, 84 percent do. In 1790, less than half of the population lived in the quarter of states with the most population. Now, 62 percent do. Perhaps most to the point: nearly 90 percent of the country’s population currently lives in the most populous 58 percent of states (that is, the 29 most-populous states) — meaning that about 11.3 percent of the population lives in states with enough Senate votes to maintain a filibuster.
It has always been the case that most of the population lives in less than half of states. But the divergence between 50 percent of the country and 50 percent of the votes has grown wider.
Of course, this isn’t always how it works out. Connecticut is a small state, but a blue one. Texas is a big state, but a red one. Even with that caveat, though, the actual distribution of seats relative to two-party votes is unbalanced. Using data from DailyKos, we see that since 1996 there have been only three years in which Democrats have earned a higher percentage of seats in the Senate than they did a share of the aggregated popular vote across Senate races. In eight years, Republicans both got a lower share of the popular vote than they did Senate seats and held control of the Senate despite winning fewer votes nationally than Democrats.
Look, every representative democracy is imperfect in reflecting the will of voters. If you had one member of the House for every three people, there would be occasions when one of the three felt stiffed. Or, you know, if you had states where some electoral college members represented 767,000 people and others represented 192,000, things might get weird. The issue isn’t that the Senate is undemocratic, exactly. It’s more that it is not a great poster child for how democracy can work.
One can imagine that telling a bunch of college students sitting down to watch a children’s movie about dog first-responders to be happy because this is just how democracy works would not land particularly well.