Opinion and Analysis: The Inherent Anti-Democracy of the US Senate

Put plainly, the Senate is an anti-democratic, inegalitarian, antiquated, and racist institution established with the very purpose of maintaining the power and authority of the ruling class. Such a system that consistently benefits whites and conservatives at the expense of immigrants, people of color, and other minority groups does not fit in the widely touted American ideal of democracy and liberty.

The United States Senate originated from the desire to grant equal representation to each sovereign state regardless of population, thereby preserving the power and autonomy of smaller states. The creation of the Senate as one half of a bicameral legislature was proposed by Connecticut’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention on July 16, 1787, and passed by a one-vote margin in a room of rich, white, property-owning men, half of whom owned slaves. 

The formation of the US Senate was a project undertaken by white, wealthy, land-owning citizens in order to seize control of the powers of government from the people.

Proponents of the Senate argued that senators would represent their states’ interests rather than the interests of those states’ constituents; before the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, state legislatures were responsible for appointing their representatives to the Senate. As Edmund Randolph, a delegate from Virginia, said at the Convention, the Senate’s role would be “to restrain, if possible, the fury of democracy.”

The Senate was created so that, “the sober second thought of the people might find expression,” wrote Senator George F. Hoar in 1897, to “resist the hasty, intemperate, passionate desire of the people.”

However, any notion of these noble aspirations is no longer apparent in the chaotic political fray of the modern United States. Fear of the “tyranny of the majority” has established a political system that consistently benefits white, conservative voices at the expense of people of color, immigrants, other minority groups, and activists. Over his time as Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has rendered the 116th Senate a legislative graveyard, stymieing the passage of popular legislation from the House of Representatives.

The GOP’s now former Senate majority is much more white, rural, and conservative than the United States as a whole. In 2018, Democratic Senate candidates won the popular vote by 54 to 46 percent, but Republicans gained two seats. As of January 6th, 2021, Rev. Raphael Warnock and Mr. Jon Ossoff’s victories over Republican incumbents Ms. Kelly Loeffler and Mr. David Perdue in the Georgia runoffs have led to both parties holding the same number of seats. Yet the Democratic half will represent 41,549,808 more people than the Republican half.

Since the implementation of the Senate in 1789, population disparities between states have grown at a previously unimaginable scale. At that time, Virginia, the largest state, had twelve times the population of Delaware, the smallest state. Now, given that the 39.5 million citizens of California and the 578,800 citizens of Wyoming are represented by the same number of senators, a voter from Wyoming has nearly seventy times the senatorial representation of a voter from California.

With the elections of Rev. Raphael Warnock and Mr. John Ossoff in Georgia, Republicans and Democrats have the same number of seats in the Senate, although the Democrats represent a much larger, and much more diverse, fraction of the US population.

The very system that the Senate is built on disproportionately favors the interests of citizens in small states compared to those in large states. And according to data from the 2019 U.S. Census, 36.5% of California’s citizens are white, while the same figure is 83.7% in Wyoming. Given that states with smaller populations are, on average, whiter and more conservative, the senatorial overrepresentation of their citizens is a form of racism by proxy. 

David Shor, a senior analyst at the data consulting firm Civis Analytics, has researched the Senate’s increasing dilution of the electoral impact of minority voters over time. He has found that since 1870, minority voters have never been more underrepresented in the Senate as they are today. Furthermore, projections by the Public Religion Research Institute’s Robert Griffin show that minority underrepresentation will continue to widen further for at least the next four decades as the U.S. grows more diverse. This is because growth in nonwhite populations is concentrated in the largest states such as California, Florida, and Texas, which the Senate’s structure already disadvantages.

In recent years, large states have diversified at a much more rapid pace than small states overall. The sharp demographic shifts in coastal and heavily urbanized areas are not seen in the majority of smaller more rural states which remain much whiter and more native-born than the nation as a whole.

In Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation, political science professors Frances E. Lee and Bruce I. Oppenheimer examine the role of unequal Senate apportionment on legislation and representation. Their research reveals that “whites are the only group that Senate apportionment advantages”; other inequalities are present with respect to sex, age, sexual orientation, and other minority groups.

Put plainly, the Senate is an anti-democratic, inegalitarian, antiquated, and racist institution established with the very purpose of maintaining the power and authority of the ruling class.

Such a system that consistently benefits whites and conservatives at the expense of immigrants, people of color, and other minority groups does not fit in the widely touted American ideal of democracy and liberty.

And now the big question. How do we fix it?

One of the most common ideas for Senate reform is to grant statehood to the District of Columbia, which would create a new state with a majorly nonwhite population and an overwhelming progressive tilt. Currently, D.C. residents fulfill all of the obligations of U.S. citizenship and pay the highest per-capita federal income taxes in the U.S. but are denied representation. With a Democratic-held House of Representatives, Senate, and presidency, as well as the recent violent breach of the Capitol Building, the fight for D.C. statehood has been placed front and center.

Yet it is important to note that granting D.C. statehood would not be a viable cure for the Senate’s racial bias—in fact, it would increase the underrepresentation of the Hispanic population and the overrepresentation of white college graduates.

The current structure of the US Senate has diluted the Hispanic and African American vote to a degree that makes it, objectively, not a voice for the people.

A growing number of activists and progressives are calling to altogether abolish the Senate. In an exhaustive memo titled “The Senate is an Irredeemable Institution,” Data for Progress co-founder Colin McAuliffe systematically lays out the issues surrounding the Senate as an institution. Yet, as he writes at the end of the memo, “Abolishing the Senate would be yet another substantial step toward justice, but there does not appear to be any plausible way to accomplish this at the moment.” 

The longest-serving member of Congress in American history, John Dingell, also called for the abolition of the Senate in his 2018 memoir, The Dean: The Best Seat in the House. He cited his growing outrage at seeing the effects of Senate malapportionment as the basis for this. Just as McAuliffe asserts, Dingell acknowledges the sheer difficulty of establishing widespread systemic change.

Practically speaking, it will be very difficult, given the specific constitutional protection granted these small states to veto any threat to their outsized influence. There is a solution, however, that could gain immediate popular support: Abolish the Senate. At a minimum, combine the two chambers into one, and the problem will be solved. It will take a national movement, starting at the grassroots level, and will require massive organizing, strategic voting, and strong leadership over the course of a generation. 

Note from the writer: Please keep in mind that this article is by no means a comprehensive review of the complex issues surrounding the Senate. For the sake of brevity, I’ve simplified many of the issues covered here. If you find this article interesting, I encourage you to do more research (see John Dingell’s op-ed and the memo by Data for Progress, linked above, as well as this report on disproportionate representation in American politics by The Center for American Progress).