By Jon Cogburn
The state of California currently has about 38.8 million people living in it. This is about the same population as the least populous 21 states. Yet California only receives two seats in the United States Senate, while these other states collectively receive 42 seats.
The state of Wyoming currently has about 542,000 people living in it. Wyoming has around one seventieth of the population of California, yet their voters also receive two senators.
The Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1788. At this time Virginia (which then included what was going to become West Virginia) was the most populous state, with around 690,000 people residing in it. In the pre-Constitution Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which remained the basis for admitting new states, areas had to have at least a population of 60,000 people before being even candidates for statehood. So the thinking must have been that the undemocratic aspect of Senatorial representation should at most reflect a ten to one population disparity. I very much doubt anyone at the time envisioned states with populations the size of California's and the kind of disparity we have today.
Of course, nothing like such a reform is going to happen. If we really had democratic representation we would also have policies much more closer to those of Northern Europe. Our elites are not going to let this happen. Anyone with enough extraconstitutional power to push the necessary reforms through in the face of such resistance would have too much power to exist in a Democracy in any case. This is what happened in the final century of the Roman Republic.
One of my smartest students asked me the other day why, if Democrats have the majority vote, they keep losing. This student is African American and for reasons that should be obvious and compelling to anyone he is pretty upset about the recent presidential election. We talked about gerrymandering of House Districts, the electoral college, the rules for the Senate, and the manner in which targeted voter suppression puts the thumb on the scale. We talked about the justification for initially combining a strong executive (Roman consuls only served yearly terms, in pairs, and subject to veto by tribunes of the plebes) with an unrepresentative Senate and representative House as coming out of an attempt to avoid the agonies of the late Roman Republic where the intransigent Senate used extra-constitutional powers to block necessary reforms that were then imposed by military strongmen with a plausible claim to represent popular will. Putting in a system where the economic elite (represented by the Senate) and the people (represented by the the strong President and House of Representatives) could reconcile their antagonisms was the intent at least. The reality was just as much a set of ultimately unworkable compromises between slave states and free states and then Apartheid and slightly less Apartheid states. From the late thirties until the early seventies things seemed to be coming together with the system (at least with respect to domestic policy) working the way its most idealistic defenders portrayed it as working. Since then, as with the late Republic, the social contract between the economic elites and everyone else has become increasingly frayed, to the short term benefit of the economic elites.
My student said that it felt like voting in national elections didn't really matter because with voter suppression and gerrymandering our own Senatorial party just keeps moving the goalposts a little further away.
How does this story end? If I were a determinist about these things I would say that it ends with modern day versions of Caesarism, as it has at least for now in Venezuala and Turkey. This is a standard script that we know since Rome. Obstruction by elites who confuse their own further enrichment and the keeping of their prerogatives with the good of the country ends up driving the country into a ditch. Brutal people who claim the mandate of the people against the elites then are able to use the disasters to come in and change things. Trump sang from this songbook, though every indication is that his policy is going to be more of the same. If he keeps singing from this songbook, and doesn't involve us in an apocalyptic war, this will at worse probably make him Sulla to someone else's Caesar. This is very dangerous stuff, not just for Americans, but for everybody else who has to share a planet with Americans.
It will be interesting if historians (assuming there are any in the future) will end up seeing the period from the 1940s until the 1970s along the lines of the mini-Renaissances that cropped up in medieval Europe. The Carolingian Renaissance lasted around a hundred years. Or perhaps the global revanchism we're seeing now (Arab Winter, EU austerity, Brexit, Trump, etc. etc. etc.) will itself be seen as a weird hiccup. Here, my epistemic pessimism about our ability to predict the future makes me significantly less pessimistic about the future itself. Though I am confident that the residents of California are not going to get the fourteen (or if the people were actually sovereign in the United States, somewhere between eighty four and one hundred and forty) senators. But national (or any) politics do not entirely define us and dictate our present and futures, and even with respect to the political it's not too optimistic to think that at the very least people in the future will learn from our mistakes just as our founding fathers tried to learn from those of the Romans'.