The Senate gets a lot of grief these days. Vox wants you to know that the Senate is a much bigger problem than the Electoral College. GQ makes the case for abolishing the Senate. Someone at the New Yorker tries to answer the question “how broken is the Senate?“, but in our opinion spends far more time than is necessary comparing the senators to various zoo animals. We can accept that Senator John Thune bears a certain resemblance to a gazelle, but Senator Jim Bunning really doesn’t look anything like a “maddened grizzly”.
The basic argument against the Senate is that it’s undemocratic. Senators aren’t elected proportionally, and so some senators represent more people than others. If democracy is all about giving a voice to the people, it seems pretty perverse to give more of a voice to some people than to others.
But it turns out that disproportionate representation isn’t just compatible with democracy, it’s one of the most important safeguards of a liberal society.
It’s not just that every person deserves a vote. Liberalism also says that every way of life deserves to exist, as long as it doesn’t infringe on someone else’s way of life (e.g. no cannibals). After all, America isn’t a melting pot, it’s more of a patchwork quilt. I’m not into Lutheranism, extreme body modification, or small yappy dogs, but I think that people who are into these things deserve to be able to live how they want and celebrate these aspects of their lifestyle.
The basic argument against Democracy is the old saying that democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner (no, it wasn’t Benjamin Franklin). With 1/3 of the vote, the sheep always gets eaten. In a country with 49 sheep and 51 wolves, as long as we have strict proportional representation, all the sheep still get eaten. If the vice president is a wolf, even a 50/50 split isn’t safe.
If the sheep all live in Sheepsylvania, however, they have a better chance to stand up for themselves. They may be outnumbered, but they still get two votes in the Senate. If they also have friends in Elkowa, Beavermont, and Llamassouri, that provides even more protection. It may not be enough to save them, but they will still do a lot better than they would with proportional representation. Disproportionate representation allows them to protect themselves even when they are enormously outnumbered.
States don’t correspond perfectly to different ways of life, and this is a fair criticism of the system. Disproportionate representation might work even better if we explicitly tied representation to specific minority groups. But states do have some correspondence to different ways of life.
Most people these days think about disproportionate representation in terms of liberal versus conservative. But really, the differences in disproportionate representation today are urban versus rural. It happens to be that most rural states are also conservative, but population density comes with being a rural area, not from voting Republican. There are plenty of rural voters who are very liberal but still prefer to live in the woods.
It’s not hard to imagine that urban voters — who are already more privileged in terms of wealth and education — might accidentally or even intentionally pass laws that would destroy a rural way of life for millions of people. For just one example, consider how decisions made in major cities can impact rural schooling. It’s important to have a political system that allows minorities to protect themselves.
Your state doesn’t even have to be all that rural to begin with. The Senate benefits the interests of pretty much anyone not living in California (11.9% of the population), Texas (8.7%), Florida (6.5%), or New York (5.8%). If you’re from Virginia, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, etc., and you don’t want California and Texas telling you how to live your life, then the Senate is acting in your favor.
We’d like to take this opportunity to remind you of Bernie Sanders.
The state of Vermont has a very unusual but, we think, excellent way of life. Anarcho-socialist-libertarian-progressivism isn’t a way of life shared by most Americans, but we think it has a lot going for it. If representation were proportionate, we could maybe send Bernie, as an independent, to the house of representatives, where he would be just one voice among 435. But with disproportionate representation, we’ve sent Bernie to the US Senate, where we can punch above our weight. Bernie can work to protect our way of life, and he can help to bring our values (flannel, maple syrup, and Ben & Jerry’s) to the rest of the country. You’re welcome, America.