With the 2018 midterm elections fewer than three weeks away, experts find the Democrats have a higher chance of winning back the House of Representatives than the Senate. Senate and House candidates are running in the same country with the same problems and political climate — why is there a six in seven chance Democrats can win back the House but only two in nine for the Senate? One reason is that there aren’t nearly as many Republican Senate seats up for election as there are Democratic seats. This certainly accounts for some of the disparity in chances, but there is also a much more fundamental component working against the Democrats — one that should be even more of an impetus for soul-searching than the 2016 election. The Senate systematically favors the voices of Americans in less-populated states over those in densely-populated urban centers.

This is because of the Great Compromise. If you cannot seem to recall the details of that agreement from AP U.S. History, I’ll give a quick overview: In drafting the Constitution, delegates from different states had varied ideas about how best to form the most perfect union. A large controversy — one that nearly prevented the Constitution from ever being ratified — was deciding whether to choose the New Jersey Plan or the Virginia plan. The New Jersey Plan proposed that each state would be granted equal representation in the federal legislative body, despite differences in population. The Virginia Plan proposed that representation be based on population, so more populated states would be given more votes than less populated ones. Rather than choose one plan, the framers decided to have a bicameral legislature — one house (House of Representatives) would be given representation proportional to population and the other (the Senate) would have two representatives from each state, regardless of population size.

But the two legislative bodies aren’t necessarily equal in power or purview — for example, the Senate has the power to ratify treaties and confirm presidential appointees. So, the house with equal representation amongst states is more powerful than the one that would favor more populated states. This sounds fair, but if we focus on the voices of individuals rather than states, the house that disproportionately represents individuals from less populated states holds much more power than that which represents individual voices more evenly. The population distribution of the country has drastically changed since the 18th century — only one in five Americans lives in a rural area today. This has huge implications for the representativeness of the Senate. States containing only 17 percent of the U.S. population could have a majority in the Senate on their own. In a modern context, the Senate was responsible for confirming the most recent Supreme Court nominee, Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The majority that confirmed him, 51 senators, represented only 44 percent of the United States population.

Because the Senate is such a powerful political institution and it is constructed in a manner that favors the population within less populated states, it is imperative that both major parties have a strong presence in these states. Democrats tend to excel in more urban, densely-populated areas though, while Republicans are favored in rural areas, and this divide is only becoming more salient. Many experts theorize that this divide is born out of the contemporary “culture wars” — an ongoing battle between “traditional” American values and the multiculturalism and progressivism of the left. I am not equipped with the research to affirm or disavow that idea. It certainly holds some amount of explanatory power, though a single story rarely provides a holistic picture. And as hard as red-state Democrats have tried to stay away from centering culturally-relevant issues, they inevitably arise and find their way into the conversation.

For example, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, is fighting an uphill battle in her re-election campaign, and her support of Brett Kavanaugh proved to be harmful to her poll numbers. There is a strong chance she would have lost enthusiasm among her base had she voted the other way, though. This instance feels like a microcosm of Democrats larger identity crisis: Their base is simply too densely packed to win in our system, but straying from the base’s priorities might cause that base to become disillusioned with the party and the democratic process in general.   

Thus, the Democrats are in a bind, and they will be until they find a message powerful enough to break through the urban-rural divide. The electoral system is replete with un-democratic institutions like the Senate, the electoral college, gerrymandering and systemic voter suppression. The latter two have made their way into the mainstream Democratic fight, (and they’re on the ballot in the form of Proposal 2 and 3 for Michigan voters this November! Remember to vote, because we can work toward change in our system!) but the electoral college tends to be viewed in a similar vein as the Senate: It is an institution so deeply ingrained into our system that any attempt at changing it feels like a futile battle. As long as that is the attitude, Democrats must focus on overcoming the divide if they have any hope of gaining federal power.

Margot Libertini can be reached at mlibertini@umich.edu.

 

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