But in reality, the Senate isn’t quite the unsolvable problem that Democratic critics think it is. The chamber’s current Republican tilt is political, not structural — and it could be overcome without any changes to the Constitution. The Democrats just have to start winning elections.
Critics of the unequal nature of the Senate invariably point to Wyoming and California. In the chamber, the least-populous state has the same power as the most populous, one with 70 times as many residents. But it’s also true that Vermont has the same power as Texas, which has 45 times the population; Delaware has the same clout as Florida, which has more than 20 times more people. Indeed, when it comes to partisanship, size doesn’t matter that much. As I noted in Politico in 2018, the 10 smallest states have 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans in the Senate. The 10 most populous states have the same (counting both of Georgia’s Republicans).
Still, the broader picture is tricky. As Ron Brownstein summarized it in the Atlantic just before the election: “The 47 Democratic senators represent almost 169 million people, while the 53 Republican senators represent about 158 million. . . . The current Democratic senators won about 14 million more votes (69 million) than the Republican incumbents (55 million).” (A victory by either Democrat in the Georgia runoffs would only exacerbate that split.) The coming changes in population, with more populous states growing faster than smaller ones, will further strengthen minority rule in the Senate.
What’s to be done about this? In a structural sense, nothing. This was the bargain that smaller states demanded as the price of union. The framers from the big states, like Virginia’s James Madison, fought the idea furiously, but in the end, the Rhode Islands and Delawares had their way. Surely, though, the framers could not have imagined how large the disparities among the states would grow. Back in 1789, Virginia had roughly 12 times the population of Rhode Island. Wouldn’t they have had something to say about today’s yawning gap between California and Wyoming?
In fact, they did. In Article V, they set down the process to amend the Constitution, but with a specific limit on what could be changed: “No state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” It would be constitutionally possible (if politically challenging) to establish a state religion, abolish the Supreme Court, nationalize social media or create titles of nobility. Two Senate seats per state is the only unamendable feature of the Constitution, because no state would ever acquiesce to a reduction in power.
But if the Senate’s small-state bias is locked in, that doesn’t mean the upper chamber is destined to remain a GOP bastion. This year, Republicans minimized their potential losses in the Senate by winning every seat in states that went for President Trump, probably retaining control. But you don’t have to look very far back in the past to find Democrats regularly winning Senate seats in states that vote deeply crimson at the presidential level. North Dakota had two Democrats in the Senate from 1987 through 2011, and one until 2019. Both of Montana’s senators were Democrats from 2007 to 2015, and one was reelected just two years ago. Until the 2014 midterms, Democrats held seats from Alaska, Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Iowa and South Dakota.
It’s understandable that Democrats’ failure to win even one of those seats since then might convince the party that this is a permanent political condition and that the power of increasingly Republican, rural, less-educated White voters is an impenetrable obstacle.
That’s not what history suggests. Look at what happened with state legislatures. A decade ago, most were in Democratic hands, with district lines drawn for that party’s greatest political advantage. But thanks to their overwhelming win in the battle for state legislatures in 2010 — 20 chambers switched from Democratic to GOP majorities that year — Republicans were able to maximize their political power, setting district lines to their benefit. (The failure of Democrats to flip any legislature this year means that GOP advantage, at least in drawing congressional and state legislative boundary lines, will extend through the coming decade — but that’s a separate problem from the Senate’s setup.)
There’s an analogy here for Democrats despairing about the Senate. None of their hopes for altering its imbalance — granting statehood to Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, killing the filibuster, ending conservative domination of the federal bench — can happen unless Democrats first take the upper chamber, which essentially means winning the battle on a Republican-tilted playing field.
But that’s a political problem, not a structural one. And it’s solvable: Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.) have been elected and reelected; are they the only Democrats who can win in increasingly red states? Is it impossible to imagine, for example, that a candidate who acknowledged the failure of both parties to stem the economic decline of the working class might strike a responsive chord? Might a candidate find a way to insulate herself against the more provocative arguments of more progressive Democrats, like “defund the police,” while emphasizing the economic-fairness arguments that bridge the gap between the party’s wings? If Democrats could hold 60 Senate seats 11 years ago, is a return to the majority really beyond reach?
There is a mountain of evidence that the political alignment of states is not carved in stone. California was once part of a “red wall” that gave Republicans a near-lock on the electoral college. From 1968 through 1988, it — along with Illinois and New Jersey — voted Republican in every presidential election. Now all three states are deep blue. West Virginia voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Michael Dukakis eight years later. Now it is cherry red. In January, Arizona will have two Democratic senators for the first time since 1952. In 1992, Bill Clinton picked the “electoral lock” that had given Republicans three straight presidential landslides and won states from Georgia to Montana. And Joe Biden just won Georgia and Arizona, the first time a Democrat has done that since Clinton.
In a perverse sense, the Democrats are fortunate: They cannot build a time machine to bring them back to 1789, so that they can stiffen James Madison’s spine against the small states’ demands. They cannot erase Article V from the Constitution. They probably cannot persuade Mike Bloomberg and other billionaires to pay for the resettlement of a few hundred thousand Californians and New Yorkers to the Dakotas. They have no choice, then, but to find the messages and the organizing tools that can break through that new red wall that stands between their national majority and the power to govern.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated that Vermont was among the small states that demanded equal representation in the Senate. In fact, Vermont was admitted to the Union in 1791, after the Constitution was already ratified, and it did not send delegates to the constitutional convention.