The United States Senate has a long-history of racism, elitism, corruption, voter suppression, and undemocratic practices.
Conversely, many Americans view the Senate as a bastion of democracy, American values, and civility. For instance, there is the Senate’s reputation as “the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.”
So how did Americans come to view the U.S. Senate as a fundamental institution of democracy and a champion of liberty? The answer is generations of propaganda disguised as history and entertainment.
The US Senate’s Antidemocratic Roots
The US Senate was an antidemocratic institution from the start. In fact, the Founding Fathers created the United States Senate as a bulwark against democracy.
For 124 years (from 1789 to 1913), the people did not elect United States Senators. Instead, state legislatures appointed Senators, a practice that encouraged corruption.
It was not until the states ratified the 13th Amendment in 1913 that Americans could vote for U.S. Senators. The Founders wanted an unelected Senate as a counterweight to the popularly elected house they did not trust ordinary voters to elect competent legislators.
Thus, the original US Constitution specified an unelected Senate. The Founders at the Constitutional Convention designed the U.S. Senate to be undemocratic. Cynics will think the professional politicians at the Philadelphia Convention wrote job security into the Constitution in the form of an unelected Senate.
To explain, voters in the early American republic quickly rejected elitist Founding Fathers such as President John Adams and Alexander Hamilton in favor of populist leaders such as Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson. By creating an unelected Senate elitists such as James Madison, assured themselves jobs and influence.
The Senate’s Long Battle for Slavery
During the first six decades of the 19th Century, the US Senate became the chief instrument for the preservation and expansion of slavery.
For instance, during the Mexican American War, the US Senate killed the Wilmot Proviso. To elaborate the Wilmot Proviso was an amendment to an appropriations bill that banned slavery from the territory US forces conquered from Mexico.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Wilmot Proviso, but the Senate blocked it. The Wilmot Proviso was just one of many examples of the Senate’s efforts to expand slavery.
The notorious Kansas-Nebraska Act; which led to deadly battles over slavery in Bleeding Kansas, was the work of U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas (D-Illinois). Douglas created the Kansas-Nebraska Act and pushed it through the Senate for the purpose of increasing the value of his real estate holdings.
To explain, Douglas hoped the Act could encourage the building of a Transcontinental Railroad through Kansas or Nebraska. Douglas owned real estate in Chicago and Duluth, Minnesota, two cities he hoped could become the Eastern ends of a transcontinental railroad. In addition, Douglas received support and donations from Chicago real estate speculators.
Thus, a U.S. Senator’s shoddy real estate speculation helped trigger the Civil War. Sadly, Douglas was typical of U.S. Senators in the 19th Century.
Douglas was not the only corrupt U.S. Senator on the slave power’s payroll in the 19th Century. Another dubious figure was U.S. Senator Daniel Webster (W-Massachusetts). Webster, a wealthy lawyer who worked for rich clients while serving in the Senate, wrote the infamous Fugitive Slave Law.
How the US Senate Caused the Civil War
The Fugitive Slave Law angered people throughout the north by giving federal marshals the right to arrest slaves anywhere in the nation and ship them back South. Many Northerners hated the Fugitive Slave Law because they viewed it as an attempt to expand slavery to their states.
Consequently, the unelected Senate was one cause of the U.S. Civil War. To elaborate, popular frustration at the Senate’s proslavery stance drove the rise of radical antislavery parties such as the Republicans.
In 1860, the Republicans won control of both Houses of Congress and the White House. That led Southern States; which could no longer use the Senate to champion slavery, to succeed from the Union sparking a Civil War.
The U.S. Senate Cesspool of Corruption
It took blatant corruption and popular anger to force state legislatures to abolish the unelected Senate. By the 1890s, the U.S. Senate had become a cesspool of corruption that almost nobody could tolerate.
The worst example of Gilded Age corruption was Montana mining baron William A. Clark’s purchase of a U.S. Senate seat. In 1899, Clark who made a fortune mining copper in Butte decided to join the Senate.
Clark bought his way into the Senate by bribing members of the Montana State Legislature. Clark’s brides were so blatant that even the super corrupt 1890s Senate refused to seat him. Disgustingly, Clark repeated the bribery in 1901 and served a term as a Senator.
Clark’s bribery attracted nationwide attention and fueled the movement for electing U.S. Senators. The nation’s greatest writer Mark Twain echoed popular sentiments about the Senate with his writing on Clark.
“He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs,” Twain wrote of Clark. “To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time.”
William Macy Tweed, or “Boss Tweed,” was the boss of New York’s Tammany Hall political machine who went to prison for blatant corruption in the 1870s. Twain’s essay shows how Americans viewed the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body and its members in the early 20th Century.
Notably, Clark was not the first millionaire to buy a U.S. Senate seat, only the most blatant. Such questionable characters as silver baron Horace Tabor (R-Colorado) preceded Clark in buying Senate seats.
The spectacle of Senate seats for sale drove a popular movement that led to the 17th Amendment. Frighteningly, there is a movement to repeal the 17th Amendment. Some supporters of a Second Constitutional Convention; or Con-Con, want to return the days when millionaires could buy Senate seats from state legislatures.
Defending Lynching or the Ugly Secret History of the Filibuster
Sadly, in some ways the newly elected U.S. Senate was worse than the Turn of the 20th Century cesspool. In particular, the new Senate became a bastion of racism and white supremacy.
The U.S. Senate’s darkest hour came in the 1920s and 1930s when Southern Senators fought to protect their constituents’ right to lynching. Lynching was the murder of people, usually black men and boys, by organized white mobs. By the 1930s, lynching was so blatant that newsreel cameras sometimes recorded such murders.
U.S. Senators Edward P. Costigan (D-Colorado) and Robert F. Wagner (D-New York) tried to discourage lynching with The Costigan-Wagner Act. The Act made it a crime for law enforcement officials, such as Southern sheriffs, to ignore lynching.
A group of Southern Senators used a legislative strategy called the Filibuster to block the Act. The U.S. House of Representatives passed other anti-lynching acts in 1937 and 1940. The Southern Southerners killed those laws with the filibuster.
The filibuster is an arcane Senate tradition that lets any Senator speak for as long as he or she wants. In addition, a group of Senators can use the filibuster to block any legislation. To explain, Senate rules require 60 votes to override a filibuster. That gives some Senators unlimited power to block legislation.
Disgustingly, the US Senate did not pass an anti-lynching law until 2020. Efforts to pass anti-lynching legislation failed in the 1955 and in 2005. Notably, in 2020 U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) filibustered against the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. Paul, a libertarian thought the Act threatened free speech.
Hollywood Glorifies the Senate
The filibuster entered America’s popular culture in 1939 with Frank Capra’s cynical movie classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In the movie an idealistic junior Senator, played by a baby-faced pre-World War II Jimmy Stewart, uses the filibuster to thwart a sinister political boss’s corrupt schemes.
In the film, a political machine fills an empty Senate seat with Stewart’s naïve character; Jefferson Smith. In Washington, Mr. Smith finds his hero a legendary US Senator, played by the brilliant Claude Rains, is the paid pawn of a political boss.
Smith uses a filibuster to expose the boss’s scheme, a petty plan to overcharge the federal government for a dam site. Smith eventually collapses from exhaustion on the Senate floor, but Raines’ character has a change of heart and exposes the bad guys’ plans.
In real life, Senators were using the filibuster to protect white thugs’ right to commit racist violence against African Americans. Thus, Hollywood defended lynching and the South’s corrupt Jim Crow system of segregation by glorifying Southern Senators’ most potent weapon.
Frighteningly, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, has become a beloved piece of America’s popular culture. I first saw the movie in a high school civics class.
Hence, you can see how deeply ingrained the mythology of the Senate as a noble institution is in our culture. To be fair, Mr. Smith was Capra’s effort to debunk that myth. Unfortunately, Capra, a small government conservative, ended up promoting the mythology he loathed by making his hero a U.S. Senator.
Filibustering for Segregation
During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the filibuster became segregation’s first line of defense. Even the U.S. Senate’s own website admits; “Filibusters were particularly useful to southern senators who sought to block civil rights legislation, including anti-lynching legislation.”
For example, US Senator Strom Thurmond (D-South Carolina) made the longest recorded filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Thurmond, the 1948 Dixiecrat (racist) presidential candidate, spoke against desegregation for 24 hours and 18 minutes.
Teams of Senators spent 57 days filibustering against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The rather weak Civil Rights Act eventually passed. The Act was the first civil rights law passed by the US Congress and signed by the president in 82 years since 1875.
Similarly, Southern Senators blocked the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act with 60 days of filibustering. The Senate had to resort to coture, a two-thirds vote to overturn a filibuster.
In 1975 the Senate changed cloture requirements form two-thirds or three-fifths. Hence it now takes a vote of 60 Senators to end a filibuster.
Under the Nuclear Option, the US Senate can confirm judicial appointments with a simple 51 vote majority. However, most other legislation including budget bills still requires a 60 vote cloture to override a filibuster.
The U.S. Senate as enemy of Progress
Modern progressives see the U.S. Senate as the enemy of progress for good reason. In the 21st Century, the U.S. Senate has blocked or sabotaged every major piece of reform legislation.
For instance, one U.S. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (?-Connecticut) kept the public option out of Obamacare. To explain, the public option would allow US citizens to buy into Medicare and other government health-insurance programs.
Lieberman’s action meant all Obamcare could offer most Americans is private health insurance policies. For instance, Lieberman’s action prevents private employers from offering a public option to their employees.
In 2020, both Senate Democrats and Republicans have blocked coronavirus relief bills for political reasons despite an impending economic collapse. For instance, on 10 September 2020 the U.S. Senate ended debate on a $650 billion coronavirus relief effort bill by a 52 to 47 vote.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has the power to use the Nuclear Option to pass a relief package but refuses to consider it. However, McConnell is preparing to use the nuclear option to confirm Amy Conney Barrett’s US Supreme Court appointment.
The arrogance, insensitivity, and callousness of US Senators is incredible. Marketplace estimates up to 30 million Americans could be unemployed, yet the Senate refuses to act. Additionally, America’s gross domestic product shrank by 32.9% in second quarter 2020 because of coronavirus.
Abolish the Senate
It is easy to see why former US Representative John D. Dingell (D-Michigan) says “Abolish the Senate.” Moreover, US Senate abolitionist Jay Willis claims 50 US Senators represented 44% of America’s population in 2018.
Willis thinks the US Senate is undemocratic because it gives voters from low population states such as Wyoming (population 578,759 in 2019) more legislative representation than residents of high-population states such as California (population 39.51 million in 2019). The Constitution gives every state two Senators regardless of population.
Hence, Willis claims a Wyoming rancher or coal miner enjoys 70 times more representation in the US Senate than a Silicon Valley software engineer or a Los Angeles taco truck owner.
Calls to abolish the US Senate are nothing new. On 27 April 1911, US Representative Victor Berger (S-Wisconsin) introduced a resolution abolishing the U.S. Senate. Berger offered a critique of the Senate that is disturbingly modern in his resolution.
“Whereas the Senate in particular has become an obstructive and useless body, a menace to the liberties of the people, and an obstacle to social growth; a body, many of the Members of which are representatives neither of a State nor of its people, but solely of certain predatory combinations, and a body which, by reason of the corruption often attending the election of its Members, has furnished the gravest public scandals in the history of the nation,” Berger wrote in 1911. Ironically, Berger went onto run for U.S. Senate.
Many Americans today will agree with Berger’s assessment. Notably, just seven weeks after Berger’s resolution died in committee, the U.S. Senate passed the direct-election resolution that became the 17th Amendment. Hence, the threat of extreme measures could be necessary to force the Senate to reform.
The U.S. Senate is for sale again
In addition, corruption has become prevalent in the 21st Century US Senate just as it was in the Gilded Age Cesspool. For example, Oracle (ORC) chief Larry Ellison donated $250,000 to a super PAC (political action committee) that supports US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) on 14 September 2020.
The donation came right after the Chinese company ByteDance Ltd. announced a deal to create TikTok Global. TikTok Global is a publicly held American company that will own the North American version of ByteDance’s fast-growing social media app TikTok.
Oracle will own 12.5% of TikTok Global and become TikTok Global’s official cloud hosting provider. However, the TikTok Global deal can only go forward if the US government allows it.
Hence, Oracle could make a lot of money if Uncle Sam approves the TikTok Global scheme. Ellison could make enormous amounts of money from TikTok Global because Barron’s claims he owned 1.1 billion Oracle shares on 2 July 2020.
Billionaires such as Ellison have enormous amounts of influence over the Senate because of the high cost of Senate elections. Politico claims Democrat Jaime Harrison has raised $57 million for his U.S. Senate race against Graham.
Today’s US Senate is as corrupt and undemocratic as those of past ages. I have to wonder if the current carnival of corruption in the Senate chamber will finally drive Americans to reform or abolish this horrendous institution.