America’s Rotten Boroughs

Modern America has a rotten borough political system similar to the corrupt British order the Founding Fathers revolted against.

To explain, a corrupt plutocracy ruled 18th and 19th century Britain through a system of Rotten Boroughs. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes a Rotten Borough as “a depopulated election district that retains its original representation.”

By the time of the Reform Act of 1832, over 140 parliamentary seats were rotten boroughs. In fact, 50 parliamentary districts had less than 50 voters by 1832.

Rotten boroughs allowed wealthy Britons to buy their way into parliament. For example, Sir Robert Clive, the East India Company general and administrator, parliament investigated for corruption (looting of India), bought a parliamentary seat when he came home in 1769. Clive eventually committed suicide after corruption investigations ruined his reputation.

America’s Rotten Senate

Modern America has its own version of rotten boroughs in the United States Senate.

For example, the state of Wyoming, with a population of 582,233 in a nation of 334.541 million people, has two US Senators. The median wealth of a US Senator in 2018 was $1.76 million, Statista estimates. Hence, the US Senate is again a Millionaire’s Club, as it was in the early 1900s.

Predictably, some of the wealthiest Senators are from some of the smaller rotten borough states. For instance, US Senator Thomas R. Carper (D-Delaware) had a stock trading volume of $12.379 million on 22 April 2022, Senate Stock Watcher estimates.  

Another small state US Senator Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) had a stock trading volume of $81.627 million on 22 April 2022. Worldometers estimates Maine has a population of 1.360 million. US Senator John H. Hoeven III had a stock trading volume of $53.257 million on 22 April 2022. Hoeven represents North Dakota with a population of 774,008.

US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D) had a stock trading volume of $9.528 million on 22 April 2022. Whitehouse represents Rhode Island population 1.063 million. Whitehouse’s colleague John F. Reed (D) had a stock trading volume of $2.018 million on the same day.  

To be fair, the Senate’s biggest stock trader Rick Scott (R-Florida) represents a state with a population of 22.178 million people. Scott had a trading volume of $156.866 million on 22 April 2022, Senate Stock Watcher estimates.

Notably, Joe Manchin (D) widely viewed as the most corrupt US Senator represents West Virginia, population 1.756 million.

How rotten is the US Senate? Vox’s Ian Miller estimates 16% of the nation’s population elected half the US Senate in 2020. By Miller’s estimate, 25 US States contain 84% of the nation’s population, yet they get the same representation as the 25 states with 16% of the population.

This inequality breeds corruption because it is easier for rich people to buy offices in low-population areas. Notably, two wealthy US Senators David A. Perdue Jr. (R) and Kelly Loeffler (R) lost their 2020 elections in Georgia.

Can we reform the Senate?

Britain began cleaning up parliament with the Representation of the People Act, or Great Reform Act, in 1832.

The First Reform Act abolished 56 rotten boroughs, created 67 new boroughs to give high-population areas more representation, and gave the vote to all male Britons who owned land, or paid more than £10 a year in rent.

America needs a similar effort to clean up the US Senate. Potential Senate clean-up reforms include abolishing the Senate, increasing the number of states, abolishing states, and giving high-population states more US senators. My favorite solution is to give each state an additional Senator for every five million people. Under that system, Florida would have six senators.

The problem is that any of those solutions require changing the Constitution. There are two ways to change the Constitution, a Constitutional Convention and Amendments. Unfortunately, both methods require a vote of two-thirds of state legislatures.

Hence, you will need small state support to change the Constitution. I cannot imagine small state legislators voting to limit their states’ power without guns pointing at their heads.

Why the Senate will have to Change

The US Senate will have to change because by 2040 just 30 Senators could represent 70% of Americans.

To explain, David Birdsell estimates 70% of Americans will live in 15 states in 2040, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump reveals. Each of those states will have two US Senators, under the present Constitution. In contrast, 30% of Americans will elect 70 US Senators if Birdsell is correct. Birdsell is the Dean of public and international affairs at Baruch College.

Obviously, such an arrangement is not democratic. Indeed, it will be plutocracy if the present trend of millionaire US Senators holds. Worse, those millionaire Senators from their safe rotten borough states will no incentive to do anything for 70% of Americans.

Lack of representation can lead to misery for ordinary people. For example, the US Supreme Court ruled they can exclude residents of Puerto Rico from the Social Security Income program for the blind and the disabled on 21 April 2022, NPR reports.

The conservative extremists on the Supreme Court were free to take that drastic action because Puerto Rico has no congressional representation. Hence, there’s no danger of the Senate taking action against the Supremes for their extreme behavior.

What happens with a conservative majority US Supreme Court only accountable to a Senate full of plutocrats from low-population states? Worse, a US Supreme Court whose members have a narrow vision of conservatism, in which only the rich and corporations have rights. Will we see rulings that abolish Social Security or Medicare?

That sounds like a prescription for revolution or Civil War to me. Over the last two years, America has experienced the worst civil unrest the nation has seen in over a century. The popular reactions against a Billionaire’s Club Senate and an extremist Supreme court elected by less than a third of the population will be far worse.

America needs to fix its rotten US Senate now before the lack of representation leads to bloodshed.