Now that a president elected without a popular majority and the narrowest number of red-state senators, representing a minority of the population, have fixed a 5-4 Supreme Court majority by seating a justice of whom the majority of Americans don’t approve, there is a lot of talk about the degree to which the Senate — and, by extension, the Supreme Court — doesn’t represent the will of the people.
Let’s start by remembering the Senate was not originally intended to be elected directly by the people. Even after the 17th Amendment, the idea remained that the House would give more weight to the big states, the Senate to the little states. That’s the system we have to this day.
To the extent there is a problem, it derives from the hyperpolarization — politically, geographically and electorally. Now the House favors the big states and the Senate favors red, i.e. GOP, states. For some who don’t have a deep sense of states as a functional part of our democracy, it seems especially odd to favor one kind of state over another — puzzling to many voters.
Progressives have a few choices if they don’t like how things are playing out.
The first is to go win red states and hang on to them. Democrats have a few pickup chances this year, most clearly in Arizona. In that regard, 2018 may be helpful insofar as Democrats can pick up governorships. Some of those will be future senators; in addition, a governor’s political operation can be of great help to his party’s Senate nominee.
Appealing to red states also means registering and turning out nonwhite voters who live in those states. One test comes in November, when Democratic gubernatorial candidate and African American Stacey Abrams is on the ballot in Georgia. An African American winning a statewide race could be a sign that Democrats have finally gotten their voters engaged in what for years was a deep-red state.
Others concerned about the Senate’s red-state tilt have suggested more progressives move to red states. One’s first reaction may be, “C’mon. I like living in my blue state.” The problem is made more difficult because some rural states (which tend red) don’t offer a sunny economic picture (with a few notable exceptions) these days. This, however, overlooks voters in more rural and exurban parts of blue states, some of which are suffering economically, and who might in fact want to move to a presently red state if the opportunities were there.
What might address both of these issues for Democrats — winning over red states and getting less conservative people to move to red states — would be a substantial proposal for economic improvement in rural America. The cruel irony for red-state residents is that Trump has done little to nothing for them and, in many cases, has hurt their livelihood with his tariff war.
Another way of addressing the minority-rule problem is to revive the filibuster, which both sides have eviscerated, for judicial and executive branch nominees. This re-empowers whichever party is in the minority (which, right now, happens to be the Democrats, who represent more people!). Two-anti-majoritarian devices (two votes per state and a 60-vote threshold) could counterintuitively produce a somewhat more representative outcome.
There is also the Puerto Rico option — making it the 51st state, which Democrats hope would give them two more Democratic seats.
The first caution is to be careful what you wish for. There is no guarantee Democrats will get either or both seats. And it’s not clear whether Puerto Ricans would support statehood (recent referenda results have been unclear). Republicans in Congress might well try to filibuster for statehood (if you want a stronger filibuster, it’ll work against you in some cases). Nevertheless, it’s one option.
Finally, there is the D.C. statehood option. That generally is thought to require a constitutional amendment (although it is possible to split off most of D.C. to make a new state, leaving a small portion of the District without representation). Again, though, a GOP filibuster would be a barrier to this.
Let’s take a step back. Despite all the advantages built in for small/rural/red states, the GOP only has 51 seats. In 2020, 21 seats currently held by Republicans will be up for election, compared to just 11 held by Democrats. It’s very possible — if Democrats hold down any losses in 2018, where the map is very unfavorable — they could take the Senate in 2020, when they have many more pickup chances. In other words, to the extent there is a “problem,” it is well within Democrats’ ability to control it.
Perhaps the problem is not the Senate but the transformation of both parties into extreme ideological games. Practically gone are Southern Democrats and New England Republicans, for example. If one party wants a more representative Senate, the best solution, I think, rests in broadening the party appeal. The U.S. is incredibly diverse; our political parties should both reflect some of that.