The 22 smallest states have 38 million people and are represented in Washington by 44 senators. California also has 38 million people, and it has two senators.
That is one of the stark facts in a recent New York Times story exploring the advantage to small states that is built into the U.S. Constitution.
As an example, the writer pointed to Rutland County in Vermont, which has received $2,500 per person in federal money since the onset of the financial crisis in 2009. Next door, Washington County in New York has received only $600 per person. The stimulus money that washed over the nation during the economic meltdown washed with far more abundance over some places than it did over others.
The over-representation of rural states has been a reality since the nation’s inception. The creation of the U.S. Senate, which gives each state two senators, was crucial to the compromise that won approval for the Constitution. The result is that small states have a voice amplified in Washington far beyond the number of people actually represented.
Vermonters — like the people of Wyoming, the Dakotas or Alaska — are not likely to bemoan the power granted to them by the Constitution. Indeed, on Wednesday, the state’s three-man congressional delegation was trumpeting the news that the state would receive an additional $18 million in federal grants to help communities rebuild from Tropical Storm Irene.
Politically, the small-state advantage generally benefits the Republican Party, which is stronger in rural states. The electoral map on election night told the story: a great expanse of Republican red spread over the middle of the country, with Democratic blue showing the strength of the party on the East and West coasts and the upper Midwest, where actual voters congregate in larger numbers.
One of the most mischievous effects of the small-state advantage is in the Electoral College, where a state’s total number of electoral votes equals its number of House members, reflecting population, plus two, reflecting the number of senators. It can happen, as it did in 2000, that a candidate wins more electoral votes while losing the popular vote.
The rules of the Senate magnify the power of the small states. For decades, Democratic senators from the South exercised enormous power because rules of seniority gave them committee chairmanships that allowed them to block civil rights legislation. The use of the filibuster has enhanced the power of senators in the minority to obstruct.
Given the anti-democratic character of our democratic system, it is important to see politics in the United States not simply as the exercise of democracy, but as a continual struggle to achieve democracy. At the outset the Constitution enshrined slavery and the privileges of the slave states. The Civil War was not only about the abolition of slavery. It was also about the creation of democracy.
We continue to struggle to achieve democracy against political forces that enjoy exaggerated influence because of the advantages created by a system that enhances the power of the minority. Achieving democracy requires a continuing fight against voter suppression campaigns, for immigration reform and against the corrupting influence of money in politics. The numbers suggest that a majority of Americans lean toward greater democracy, but the system is rigged to give the minority the power to thwart the majority.
The anti-democratic character of the U.S. Senate is a historical legacy that we will have to live with, much as the British have to live, more or less, with the monarchy. To their credit, however, the British have curbed the power of the monarchy actually to affect events.
Vermonters, Dakotans, Wyomingites and Alaskans can be expected to try to keep the money flowing their way. After all, we don’t want rural America to become a neglected backwater. But it is in everyone’s interest, including those in small states, to continue the struggle for greater democracy by shining a light on the abuses of the filibuster, the inanity of the Electoral College and the corrupting power of money. The greedy and the venal need only a toehold to maintain their privileges. But democracy must have its say.MORE IN Commentary
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