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Will bicameralism be the death of American democracy?


As I’ve observed in my contributions to the debate about whether Trump is the sign of a Republican coalition that is on the verge of collapse (tl;dr “no”), the increasing disjunction between popular will and partisan control has numerous causes. One major problem is that when they obtain power Republicans are willing to take antidemocratic measures to entrench themselves. But an absolutely critical factor explaining why Republicans haven’t felt the need to moderate their agenda and indeed have pushed it further and further from the median national public opinion is because their coalition is massively overrepresented by the institutions created by the Constitution. And the biggest problem, by far, is the World’s Worst Deliberative Body:

Democrats have a Senate problem, and not just in the sense that Republicans currently hold the majority or that the prospect of that changing in 2020 is relatively slim. The problem is that the odds of ever changing it are slimmer than is generally realized.

Data for Progress, a progressive think tank and advocacy organization, is trying to raise alarm bells about the issue. In a new memo, co-founder Colin McAuliffe writes that “the Senate is an irredeemable institution” that’s biased 3 percentage points in the GOP’s favor and systematically underweights the interests of nonwhite Americans.

Of course, the fact that the Senate gives extra weight to the interests of people who live in low-population states is not news. That’s an undemocratic, inegalitarian principle that was deliberately baked into the Senate from its inception. What’s new is that changes in American life have made its disproportionality more consequential.

A key issue is race. As the US has gotten more diverse, that diversity has spread throughout the country unevenly. It’s not impossible for a state to be both small and diverse (Hawaii) or even small and heavily urbanized (Rhode Island), but lower-population states tend to be whiter, more rural, and less educated than average. The result is a system of “racism by proxy” that overweights the interests and opinions of white voters over those of black, Hispanic, and Asian voters.

The growing polarization of the white vote along the lines of population density and educational attainment has also supercharged the once-modest partisan skew of the Senate, making even the most popular changes to health care or minimum-wage policy an extremely heavy lift.

The result is a growing problem that progressives have few if any real ideas for fixing

And because the Senate effectively controls the partisan composition of the federal judiciary the effects of what is close to a Republican hammerlock has effects beyond making it difficult for a Democratic president and House to pass any kind of legislative agenda. And a dysfunctional government ultimately helps reactionaries in itself. Given that Article V effectively makes the problem unfixable it’s hard not to be grim about the prospects for American democracy.

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