Democracy was the real loser in the 2020 electoral cycle. Critics such as Vox’s Ezra Klein observe that an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party has a stranglehold on political power in the United States.
Democratic Party leaders fear a growing gap between their party’s popularity and its political power, the Associated Press (AP) reports. President-Elect Joe Biden (D-Delaware) won election with the largest popular vote in US history (77.5 million votes) and a five million vote lead over President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida).
Republicans could lock in gerrymandering, which can give them more influence in the US House of Representatives for a decade, The AP speculates. To explain, Republicans still control enough state legislatures to draw House Districts to give their party more representation.
The Senate represents just 16% of Americans
A greater problem is the US Senate. The Republicans who control the US Senate represented 153 million Americans in 2020, Mother Jones estimates. In contrast, Senate Democrats represent 168 million Americans.
To elaborate, America’s 25 least populous states contain one around one sixth or 16% of the nation’s population, FiveThirtyEight estimates. However, those states elect half the US Senate or 50 Senators.
Hence, a political party can get a stranglehold on the US Congress by focusing its electoral efforts on those 25 states. That’s what the Republicans have done. Therefore, the Grand Old Party (GOP) is more racist, more-white, more Christian, more conservative, more pro-gun, and more pro-Trump than America.
Republicans have no incentive to make broad appeals because they can gain vast power with a narrow, culturally conservative, nativist, slightly racist, and slightly libertarian agenda.
Instead, Republican leaders have a powerful incentive to quash any effort to make a broad appeal. The fear is the broad appeal will drive away the rural white voters the GOP needs to dominate the US Senate.
A typical example of this agenda is America’s most powerful man; US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), sorry Donald. McConnell represents a poor, rural, white, conservative state in the Bible Belt; Kentucky. Worldometers estimates Kentucky had a population of 4.468 million in 2019.
How the Senate Distorts America’s budget
The power the U.S. Senate gives small states explains many aspects of US policy, including America’s bloated military budget.
The Balance estimates Congress will budget $933 billion for the US military in 2020. That spending includes $636.4 billion for the Department of Defense, $228.4 billion for base support, and $69 billion for overseas operations (the wars and other missions).
There is little need for that spending because no other nation spends so much money to the military. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation claims the US spends more on national defense than China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil combined.
I think the Senate explains America’s bloated defense spending because defense benefits less-populous states. First, they locate many military facilities in smaller states such as Mississippi (population 2.976 million) and Oklahoma (population 3.957 million).
Second, the military recruits heavily in poor rural white areas. Many critics, including me, consider the military a jobs program for the rural poor. IE the recruiter gets poor and uneducated young men and women, probable trouble makers out of rural areas. More importantly, the military gives those young people a chance at an education or a career.
In addition, the military creates a large pool of conservative and probable Republican working-class voters: veterans. Those veterans are more prone to settle in rural areas because they have a steady income (pensions or government jobs) and free healthcare from the VA. Moreover, veterans have a powerful incentive to vote: preserving their VA benefits.
Military spending shows how the Senate robs one group of Americans to benefit another. For example, New Yorkers griping about their decaying mass transit and Californians complaining of crumbling freeways can point to the senseless military spending.
Can the US Senate Be Fixed?
Many people will wonder if America can fix the Senate. The answer is yes, but it will be difficult.
Unfortunately, reform will be difficult because it takes a vote of two-thirds of state legislatures to amend the US Constitution. I cannot imagine small state legislatures voting to limit their states’ power.
You could rewrite the Constitution by calling a Second Constitutional Convention or Con-Con. Unfortunately, it will take a vote of two-thirds of state legislatures to call a Con-Con. Thus, I think new Constitutional amendments or a second Constitutional Convention are improbable without a major crisis.
Still, it is possible to pressure politicians to amend the Constitution. I think the Socialist Party’s crusade to abolish the Senate in 1911 and 1912 inspired the successful drive for the 17th Amendment. Notably, Congress passed the 17th Amendment on 13 May 1912, just as the presidential race was beginning. Socialist Eugene V. Debs (S-Indiana) ran a potent third-party challenge in 1912.
Today, former US Representative John D. Dingell (D) who represented Michigan for 59 years wants to abolish the Senate. Unfortunately, there seems to be no popular movement behind Dingell. However, that could change if the Senate keeps appointing ideologues and religious fanatics such as Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court.
I think Senate abolition could be a good idea, but only with reform of the House, and abolition of gerrymandering. There is a successful anti-gerrymandering battle in the nation. Fifteen states have set up independent commissions that will redraw Congressional districts, Reclaim the American Dream reports.
However, 35 states still allow state legislatures to draw Congressional district borders. Additionally, state legislators could figure out how to reverse or block anti-gerrymandering methods.
Note: I think a federal solution such as allowing the Federal Election Commission (FEC) or the US Census Bureau to draw Congressional districts will be better. Unfortunately, I do not think the political will for such a solution exists in Washington.
Hence reform is possible but it will be a difficult and slow process.
A Proposal to Fix the US Senate
The problem with the US Senate is a disproportionate representation for small states. I think the best way to fix that is to add Senators for larger population states.
An obvious solution is to add one US Senator for each five million people a state has. Hence, California with its 39.512 million people could get seven additional Senators. California could have nine US Senators. Furthermore, California could have 10 Senators if its population rises to 40 million as observers expect.
Meanwhile, Texas with its 28.996 million people could gain five new Senators or six new Senators if the Lone Star State’s population rises to 30 million. I predict this system could add 93 Senators, which will make the Senate more diverse and more representative of America.
My suggestion is to use is to use the mixed-member proportional system to elect the Senate. First, each state will keep the two elected Senates they already have. Each state will have one popularly elected US Senator and one-party list Senator.
Under the party-list method, people vote for a party and the winning party picks the Senator. For instance, if Republicans win, they pick the new Senator.
Since, many people already mindlessly vote for a party this will not be a great change. Generally, American voters seem to like their party leaders and support the party leaders’ actions. This system works well in Germany, Scotland, and New Zealand.*
The advantage to this system is that parties will support it because they want to pick Senators. Another is that politics could become professional as people with experience working in the system get elected. Ideally, seasoned politicians could pick people with political skills. If voters dislike the politicians’ picks, they can throw the party out at the next election.
I like the party-list method because it eliminates the personality focused campaigns that include attack ads that drive many voters away. Parties will have to concentrate on policies or what they plan to do for voters instead of glorifying their candidates and smearing opponents.
An additional advantage is to strengthen American political parties and potentially open the door for third parties. To explain, there will be no primary elections for the party list contests. That will force those who want to challenge the status quo to make third-party runs.
Second, each state will get an additional Senator for each five million people. We will elect the additional Senators through a party list. Third, if there are additional Senate seats in a state; they will fill those positions through a proportional vote.
In a proportional election, voters elect the two top vote getters. For instance, if the Democrats get 50% of the vote and Libertarians get 45%. The state will send a Democrat and a Libertarian to Washington.
Another reform is to reduce Senate terms to four years and make Senate terms concurrent with the presidential term. Hence we could have a Senate, a majority of Americans elect. One advantage to this system is that the President could have a Senate that supports her.
An interesting advantage to this reform is that unrepresented people; such as California Republicans and Texas Democrats, could get Senate representation. For instance, California; where around 38% of the population votes Republican, could send two or three Republicans to the Senate. Likewise, Texas could send two or three Democrats to the Senate. Currently, California only sends Democrats to the Senate and Texas only spends Republicans.
Hence more Americans get Senate representation. One problem with the Senate we rarely discuss is that our winner-take-all elections deprive large minorities of representation in many states.
For example, 4.867 million Texans voted Democratic in the 2020 US Senate race. Those people get no representation in the Senate. Under my proposal, Texas could send two or three or Democrats to the Senate.
The advantage to such a system is that it could force parties to work together and allowing openings for third parties. For example, if Republicans compromise on Gun Control, the National Rifle Association (NRA) could back Libertarians.
A Proposal to Fix the House
I think US House of Representatives elections needs some variation of the following fixes.
First, expand House Districts to represent one state or one million people, whichever is larger. Second, give each House District two US Representatives. This could expand the House to around 661 members.
Third, give each House District one popularly elected representative and one party-list representative. That way there will be at least one representative in each district not selected for electability. Thus, voters will choose one popularly elected representative and one political party to represent them.
Fourth states with between one and two million people will get an additional party-list representative. Fifth, states will get one additional party-list representative for each 10 million people.
This system could create a partially proportional House of Representatives, which will offer more representation for more people.
A Proposal to Fix Congressional Elections
Beyond the shape of the two Houses of Congress, I think elections for U.S. Senators and Representatives could use some major reforms. I believe those reforms should include:
- Publicly financed campaigns to get the money out of politics. One way to achieve this is to ban all contributions from organizations and cap individual contributions at $5,000. My suggestion is to ban all corporate and PAC (political action committee) contributions. Then use some variation of Andrew Yang’s Democracy Dollars scheme and small individual contributions to finance campaigns.
- Abolish Congressional primary elections. These contests are undemocratic and unrepresentative because only small numbers of people vote. That leads to the election of extremists and crackpots, such as U.S. Representative Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado).
- Adopt party-list voting for as many elections as possible. In a party-list system, people vote for parties rather than candidates. The parties then chose the candidates if they win. The advantage to this system is that the elections are about parties and their policies rather than a personality contest. Moreover, the change will not be as great as you think because many people only vote for a party.
- Make elections proportional where possible. Proportional elections offer more representation to more people.
- Have a federal agency; such as the Federal Election Commission or the U.S. Census Bureau, draw Congressional districts rather than state legislatures to eliminate gerrymandering
- Hold one Congressional election every four years on the same day as the presidential election, so most Americans can vote for Congress.
I think the reforms proposed here could fix Congress. Unfortunately, I think America lacks the will to fix Congress without a massive national crisis.
* See Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in Americaby Lee Drutman for some suggestions for fixing America’s electoral system.