Anyone who studies American Constitutional history knows that the United States Senate was never meant to be a “democratic” institution. In its original design, the senators were not elected by the people. The so-called upper house was meant to be a “check” on the more popular House of Representatives.
For example, think about the impeachment process. The “people” bring impeachment charges against the president, but the Senate serves as the jury. The Senate, to use the words of Henry Hyde during the Bill Clinton impeachment trial, are the gods on “Mount Olympus.” In the minds of the founders, the Senate was to be made up of wiser, more educated men who would keep “the people” in check. The so-called gods of Mount Olympus did not see fit to remove Andrew Johnson or Bill Clinton from office, despite what the “people” wanted.
Granted, the 17th Amendment made the Senate a more democratic place by establishing the direct election of senators, but according to Brooklyn College political scientist Corey Robin, the upper house is still the place “where democracy goes to die.”
His post is informed heavily by the work of Stanford historian Jack Rakove and this New York Times piece by Adam Liptak.
Every once in a while I teach constitutional law, and when I do, I pose to my students the following question: What if the Senate apportioned votes not on the basis of states but on the basis of race? That is, rather than each state getting two votes in the Senate, what if each racial or ethnic group listed in the US Census got two votes instead?
Regardless of race, almost all of the students freak out at the suggestion. It’s undemocratic, they cry! When I point out that the Senate is already undemocratic—the vote of any Wyomian is worth vastly more than the vote of each New Yorker—they say, yeah, but that’s different: small states need protection from large states. And what about historically subjugated or oppressed minorities, I ask? Or what about the fact that one of the major intellectual moves, if not completely successful coups, of Madison and some of the Framers was to disaggregate or disassemble the interests of a state into the interests of its individual citizens. As Ben Franklin said at the Constitutional Convention, “The Interest of a State is made up of the interests of its individual members. If they are not injured, the State is not injured.” The students are seldom moved.
Then I point out that the very opposition they’re drawing—between representation on the basis of race versus representation on the basis of states—is itself confounded by the history of the ratification debate over the Constitution and the development of slavery and white supremacy in this country.
Something to think about. Read the rest here.
HT: Amy Bass