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The Senate and Democratic Representation

March 12, 2013, 4:33 pm

Alternative Senate seal svgThe United States Senate, while directly elected, is organized in such a way as to overrepresent rural areas. The two Senators in Wyoming, for example, represent around 576,000 people, while the two Senators of California represent 38 million. That’s a massive disparity. Jamelle Boule, writing at The Prospect thinks that puts the Senate at the bottom of the global standings:

[Adam] Liptak suggests that the Senate is “the least democratic legislative chamber in any developed nation.” He’s right.

The Liptak quote is from here:

The United States Senate is hardly the only legislature that does not stick strictly to the principle of equal representation. Political scientists use the term “malapportioned” to describe the phenomenon, and it is common around the world. But the Senate is in contention for the least democratic legislative chamber

(updated with correct quote)

What is certain is that the power of the smaller states is large and growing. Political scientists call it a striking exception to the democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” Indeed, they say, the Senate may be the least democratic legislative chamber in any developed nation.

There’s a long argument possible about what “democratic” means in this context, but the critiques focus on the issue of representation and the unfairness of the way it’s allocated. Given that emphasis on representation, I don’t think the Senate compares unfavorably to even a selection of the developed countries’ senior legislative bodies. The House of Lords in Britain has members from the church, “life peers” appointed by the monarch (at the recommendation of the Prime Minister), and “hereditary peers” there by virtue of their birth; the French Senate is elected by local elected officials, not the people; the German Bundesrat‘s members are appointed by the German lander directly (though the Bundesrat‘s position is more complicated than simply being the upper body), and the Belgian Senate is so confusing by that I’m simply going to direct you to the Wikipedia page. All of these have in common the fact that they do not directly elect a fair portion of their population. The US Senate, for all its grave and enduring flaws, does. Underrepresenation is still representation.

This exposes another issue, which is that upper legislative bodies tend, as a rule, to be less democratic than the lower ones. Limiting the will of the people is a feature, not a bug, and has been from the beginning for almost all countries with representative government. Those countries have been moving away from those limits (the Senate shifted to direct elections in 1913 with the 17th Amendment; the House of Commons curtailed the power of the House of Lords in 1911 and 1949), but never getting rid of them altogether. The Senate is NOT particularly democratic. The Senate is not intended to be democratic. Should it be? Should it adopt a proportional representation to fill the chamber and mimic the House of Representatives? That’s the conversation to have, not simply lamenting that it isn’t democratic.

(Random link: Corey Robin has a post on how the Senate’s imbalance has played out with regards to slavery).

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