Saturday, December 19, 2009
Abolish the Senate
Back in the 1950s, it used to be said that the Senate was the South's revenge for Gettysburg. A handful of Southern Senators regularly stymied any and all civil rights legislation (and a lot of other legislation).
On the one hand, the Senate was never meant to be a representative or democratic body. It was intended to represent the states, and until the 17th Amendment, Senators were elected by state legislatures. The authors of the Constitution intended the Senate to be a brake on the democratic impulses of the House of Representatives.
On the other hand, as the population of the country expands, and in the midst of a second Gilded Age where money counts for too much in legislation, what is supposed to be the representative democratic body, the House, is becoming less and less so. Election laws were written to discourage new voters, to prevent insurgency candidacies, to frustrate third parties, to protect incumbents, in other words, to protect the status quo from the vagaries of democracy. There have been all sorts of ideas for making the House more truly representative and democratic from proportional representation to expanding the size of the House dramatically. All of those sensible proposals have been marginalized and dismissed as radical by the high priests of the Conventional Wisdom.
So, if the House of Representatives is not really very representative, then what's the point of the Senate?
The 2 houses together present a cross section of America as it was 50 years ago. They are both disproportionately white and male compared to the rest of the population. They are both more high income than most gated neighborhoods. The Senate is the world's most exclusive millionaires' club. Frank Capra's Mr Smith (commendably white and male, but regrettably middle class) couldn't possibly get elected to either house now without having a lot of money, or being able to raise a lot of money. Small wonder that the corporate constituency ends up being the most influential in all matters of legislation, and even foreign policy. "Access" counts for much more than representation.
The most important social legislation since Social Security is now in the hands of a few people elected from small population states (Nebraska, Maine, and Connecticut) who all have strong ties to the very insurance industry they are supposed to regulate. Small wonder that so many of us across the political spectrum feel reduced to the role of helpless spectators to our own history; that despite our votes, our money, and our labor, the whole thing boils down to stroking the egos of a handful of overpaid prima donnas who can use arcane and archaic parliamentary procedures to block and kill legislation.
As far as I'm concerned, the Senate is the American House of Lords representing the interests of the plutocracy while the House represents large shareholders. Our system is a lot closer to the shareholder democracy of the old Prussian Kingdom than it is to anything else. In Prussia, the votes for parliament were distributed by wealth and property, like votes at a shareholders meeting. Less than a third of the population of Prussia effectively chose the representation for all of it. How different is our system really with its low voter participation and legalized corruption?
This dirty hippy says it's time to re-consider the Senate. Nebraska seems to be doing quite well without an upper house.
If the Dems lose big in November 2010, it won't be because of disappointed hippies like me. It will be because all those new, casual, and occasional voters attracted by the promise of the Obama campaign in 2008 will stay home. I don't expect to see all those kids I saw at the polling station in 2008 return in 2010.
Posted by Counterlight at Saturday, December 19, 2009