With the midterm elections quickly approaching, I feel there is no better time to examine the legitimacy of our current system of government. More specifically, I think we should start to ask if the Senate is fulfilling the role of an important legislative body, or if it is really an archaic roadblock in the way of progress.
We must go back in time to the creation of the Constitution itself if we are to understand how the government has been set up this way. You may remember from your middle school history classes how the so-called “Connecticut Compromise” – termed this because its originators both hailed from the state – set up a bicameral legislature with one house assigning seats according to a state’s population – the House of Representatives – and the other assigning two seats to each state, regardless of population – the Senate.
In theory, this system of government would give representation to small states and curb the outsized influence from more populated states. However, what seems to be happening now is the opposite: States with smaller populations now have much more sway in the Senate than their voting population would indicate.
Over the past century, the rural-urban political divide has been exacerbated, with rural voters much more likely to support the Republican party today, and urban voters – the Democrats. In the 2020 Presidential election, Joe Biden garnered nearly 70% of the urban vote while he failed to hit 30% among rural voters. This large disparity has real implications in our current setup. If states with scant populations are largely supporting one party over another, they are able to hold greater control over the Senate without having to get as many total votes. This is backed up by the vote totals, too. As of now, Democrats and Republicans hold a 50-50 split in the Senate. The average person may assume that this suggests a near tie in who Americans are supporting at the ballot box. This is not the case, however, as Democratic senators represent over 40 million more Americans than their Republican counterparts.
Due to the way our presidential elections are set up, the impact extends beyond just the Senate. Over the course of American election history, there have only been five instances in which the winner of the popular vote for president has lost the election. Three of the first five happened in the 19th century, but the last two have both happened in this century – Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. This is deeply concerning without even considering the issue of gerrymandering, which allows state legislators to tilt the maps of congressional districts so as to get their party more seats, thus getting more electors towards the presidency.
Aside from the inequalities of the Senate and the way that this influences who is elected to the presidency, the Senate is also riddled with arcane rules such as the filibuster. The way that this governmental body is structured stifles debate and successfully plants a roadblock in the way of progress. The aforementioned filibuster, along with what I would say is a mindset resistant to any change on the part of many of the elder senators, functions to make a 60-vote majority mandatory to pass any legislation. With how polarized the country is nowadays, it is hard to see how any substantial piece of legislation could be passed with this threshold in place, especially with the effects of the rural-urban divide delved into previously.
For all these reasons, I think it is past time that we as a country consider whether or not it is necessary to have this second legislative body, or if it is time to do away with it altogether.