Jonathan Chait

Liberals And Political Reform

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New York Times political analyst Matt Bai has a story today about right-wingers who favor repealing the 17th Amendment, which requires the direct election of Senators. Toward the end of this story he has the requisite "balanced" shot at liberal electoral reformers:

[I]t has become commonplace for the losing side in any political argument to scrutinize not just their party or their candidates, but the system itself.

The same thing happened after the 2004 elections, when a group of frustrated liberal academics began to posit that the real problem in Washington was the structure of the Senate, which prevented the urban masses from imposing their will on sparsely populated rural states. (Funny how that complaint has largely disappeared, now that Democrats control 59 seats.) Having been through a controversial impeachment, a deadlocked election and a divisive war, all within a dozen years, perhaps it is unavoidable that we should now cast suspicions not just on the actors in our democracy, but on the rules that govern it.

There is a whole lot of wrongness packed into one small section. Bai's suggestion that liberal complaints about the malaportioned Senate have "largely disappeared" since the start of 2009 is simply bizarre. Here are Rick Hertzberg, Gail Collins, James Fallows, Dylan Matthews, Matthew Yglesias, and Matthew Yglesias again, just for starters. And not only is Bai's specific charge incorrect, his premise that a Democratic supermajority would weaken liberal's motive to criticize the Senate is poorly conceived. The Senate, with its one state, one vote setup, disproportionately represents rural, conservative states. In 2000, when George W. Bush lost the popular vote, he still won 30 of the 50 states, if you include Florida. Democrats can gain a majority or even a supermajority in the Senate, but it comes at significant ideological cost. Case in point, Democrats from rural states have put the kibosh on climate change. So not only have liberals not given up criticizing the Senate, they have no motive to do so.

Then there is Bai's characterization of opposition to the Senate, namely that it prevents the "urban masses from imposing their will on sparsely populated rural states." Imposing your will, of course, is what we normally call the process in a democracy where the people who get more votes win. The founding fathers did not create the Senate because they believed residents of low-population states deserved more political power than residents of high-population states. They did it because they had to compromise their democratic principles in order to secure the union. The whole history of progressive electoral reform -- from the 14th and 15th Amendments through direct election of Senators, women's suffrage, Baker v. Carr, the Voting Rights Act, and so on -- have pushed toward fulfilling the original vision of democratic majoritarianism that has been compromised by the power of anti-majoritarian forces.

Bai's article fits in with a general habit of regarding electoral reformers as merely sore losers. Of course, the irony is that the 17th Amendment was itself the product of progressive electoral reform. A century ago, appointed senators were part of the "system," and the progressives seeking to push the system in the direction of majoritarian democracy were insufficiently appreciative of the perfection of American democracy. Now that the fruits of that campaign are part of the system, it is sacred, and any challenge to it is an act of "casting suspicion" on democracy. If electoral reformers ever somehow manage to abolish the Senate or to reform it along majoritarian lines, the same process will happen, and anybody who proposes restoring a system where there's one Senator per 272, 000 residents of Wyoming and one Senator per 18 million residents of California would be regarded as a crank.

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