Although the general election is behind us, the future makeup of Congress is still uncertain. The Democrats will hold the House of Representatives, though with a smaller margin than before, and President-elect Joe Biden will occupy the White House. But the Senate is still up in the air. With current results suggesting that Democrats will be winning 48 seats and Republicans will be winning 50, with two runoff elections in Georgia to be held in January, no one knows which party will hold it until the next congressional term. But even if Democrats do take the Senate, with little support for abolishing the filibuster, there will be absolutely no significant change. No more health care, no climate plan, no expansion of civil rights, no Green New Deal. Sure, abolishing the filibuster could be effective in the short term and electing more Democrats could result in expansions in health care coverage and economic stability. But if real change is to come in the future, the Senate must be abolished.
Firstly, in order to expand the democratic process, we should abolish the Senate. It may seem counterintuitive to abolish an institution in order to expand democracy, but consider how disproportionately power is distributed in the Senate. Every state, regardless of population, receives two senators. California, with 40 million people, and Wyoming with 500,000, each receive two senators. Generally, more urban states tend to favor Democrats and more rural states tend to favor Republicans.
This means that smaller states and their Republican senators are able to hold the Senate despite representing a minority of the actual population. For example, now-Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed by the Senate in 2018 with 50 senators who together represented only 44 percent of the US population. For a country that likes to flaunt its supposed commitment to democracy, the United States has a strange way of showing it. Furthermore, when smaller states are overrepresented, that means larger states are underrepresented. Since demographics are not uniform across the United States, people of color are underrepresented in the Senate, as they tend to live in more urban states. Meanwhile, rural white conservatives hold significantly more power than their proportion of the population should suggest.
Small states have not always been as partisan as they are now, but a growing polarization in the country is a recipe for disaster. Rural states are becoming increasingly Republican and coastal states are becoming increasingly Democratic. While perhaps Republicans holding control over the Senate with only 44 percent of the population won’t cause instability, maybe controlling it with 40 percent or less will. But if current trends continue, those underrepresented will likely not be oppressed quietly. If 30 percent of the population is dictating conservative policies on the majority, that is a recipe for a lack of belief in the system, a lack of perceived options for recourse and ultimately revolutionary strife.
It is true that the abolition of the Senate or its replacement with a proportional institution would require a constitutional amendment, and given either the Senators or state legislatures of these small states would have to ratify it, it doesn’t appear likely. But we are not without options. Instead of functioning as a coequal to the House of Representatives, the Senate, through public pressure, could be pushed into an advising mentality, one which should only deny what the House of Representatives passes in extreme circumstances. And this method is not without merit within the United States. During the Great Depression, following the passage of various New Deal provisions and numerous Supreme Court verdicts striking many of them down, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to pack the Supreme Court. This, accompanied by public pressure, led to the court shifting its tone and becoming more hesitant to rule various programs as unconstitutional to maintain its legitimacy. This method could instead be used against the illegitimate, undemocratic and outdated Senate of today short of an amendment while still reaching similar goals of expanding the democratic will.
Some may argue that since the House of Representatives distributes seats proportionally, then the Senate disproportionately giving power to smaller states is warranted. But this idea is misleading. The proportionality of the House can oftentimes fail the majority of voting Americans. Instead, it merely reflects that, in theory, if one state has double the population, it should have double the representatives. Despite being based on proportionality, the House still gives way for disproportional representation, as it can often give the minority of voters the advantage, such as the 2012 race when Republicans took the House of Representatives despite not receiving the popular vote. The last time that had happened was in 1996 when, once again, Republicans won the House of Representatives without popular support.
It’s no doubt the abolition of the Senate, formal or informal, would cause a massive change in Washington, D.C. But it is necessary to eliminate the egregious and disproportionate power that rural states use to exercise their will on the majority. And in the future, the majority may not be so willing to accept their oppression. Institutions, traditions and norms all change over time. If we have a good reason to change our institutions, it should be done. And if democracy isn’t a good enough reason to give California more sway than Wyoming, then nothing is.
Seth Gully is a junior triple-majoring in philosophy, politics and law, economics and French.