Want Democracy in the United States? Abolish the Senate!

Senate Chamber c1873/ Wikipedia

By Sean Monahan

Ending the filibuster isn’t enough, we should demand the end of the Senate itself.

Socialists correctly insist that the only way to truly “get money out of politics” is to get money out of society – nothing short of the abolition of class and the overthrow of capitalism will allow for true political democracy in the republic. However, it is clear that overturning the Supreme Court decision Citizens United, which allows basically unlimited campaign spending by the super-rich, would take a hugely important step towards reducing the capitalist class’ ability to hijack our elections in the meantime.

Last week, 54 US Senators, representing 55% of the American population attempted to pass a constitutional amendment that would do just that. This noble effort, however, was thwarted by 42 Senators, representing just 37% of the country’s people (with four others abstaining, representing the last 8%). Recent polls show that an overwhelming majority of US citizens favor this constitutional amendment (73% in favor to 24% against), yet on this issue the will of the people once again has failed to translate into legislation. This was just the most recent of many democratic proposals to be killed in the Senate by the filibuster.

This perpetual frustration has led many writers and activists to demand the “nuclear option” – the abolition of the filibuster in the Senate. They’re right, but they also miss the bigger picture. An even greater obstacle to realizing the democratic ideal of majority rule on Capital Hill is the very existence of the United States Senate itself.

The House of Representatives is made up of districts that are proportioned roughly equally in terms of population. The method of districting used to determine these districts leaves much to be desired, and most on the democratic Left would favor a radical overhaul of the method of election in the House, swapping single-member districts for a proportional representation system that would allot seats to political parties according to their percentage of the national vote (many see this as a necessary step to break up the two-party monopoly over American politics and open the way for an independent mass party of the working class). But even as imperfect as the House of Representatives is, it at least comes close to embodying the principle of “one person, one vote”. The Senate, the more powerful “upper” house of Congress, is a different story altogether.

The Senate was inspired by the British House of Lords, the aristocratic counterpart to the House of Commons, and was championed by the less democratic among the “Founding Fathers” as a check against the will of the people, embodied in the House of Representatives. Originally the Senate was elected by state governments, since the commoners couldn’t be trusted with the direct election of the upper house. In fact, the Senate was quite self-consciously conceived of as a necessary protection against the revolutionary socialistic possibilities opened up by government by the People. James Madison had this to say at a debate about the Constitution in 1787:

“In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability.”

These reasons were also precisely why the radical democrats, like Thomas Paine, didn’t want a Senate. Paine consistently advocated a unicameral (one house) legislature elected directly by the people for just one-year terms. To the radicals, any institution of government designed “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” was a remnant of aristocratic tyranny that needed to be overthrown in order to bring about a truly democratic republic.

The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, was one of the greatest democratic reforms of the Progressive Era; it revised the Constitution to allow for the direct election of US Senators by their states’ citizenry. Nonetheless, the Senate retained its whopping 6-year terms, its “upper house” privileges over the House of Representatives, and its atrociously undemocratic apportionment of “one state, two votes”.

Even if the filibuster were abolished tomorrow, the Senate would still continue to make a mockery of the democratic principle of majority rule. Because every state receives two seats in the Senate regardless of population, each citizen of Wyoming effectively enjoys representation 66 times greater than that of a Californian. If 51 Senators representing the 26 least-populous states in the Union were to agree on a bill, they would be able to pass it against the will of the other 49 Senators representing 83% of the American population! Even with the filibuster in place, 60 Senators representing 24% of the country’s population could legislate against the will of the rest. In what crazy world does that reality line up with the ideal of government by the people?

The cause of socialism is one and the same as the cause of democracy. The Senate was conceived of as an institutional check against “the People’s House” – a safeguard to protect the rich against the will of the democratic majority that could use their suffrage to take their property away. Why, in the country that was the birthplace of the modern democratic republic, should we agree to accept any form of representation other than “one person, one vote”?

As socialists, we should advocate every reform that reduces the institutional powers of the President, the Supreme Court and every aristocratic body, including Senate, and fight like hell for every reform that strengthens the power of popular sovereignty.

Why not call for a legislature like the one proposed by Tom Paine? Why not have just one House, with representatives elected directly by the people, under the principle of an equal vote for each person? Why not have that House re-elected not once every six years, or every four or two, but every single year, with the option of instant recall by popular referendum during the months in between? Paine insisted that representative democracy is only democratic if representation is as universal and equal as is citizenship, and if representatives are obliged and empowered to enact the will of the people into law. The “nuclear option” of scrapping the filibuster is not enough. Why not abolish the Senate?

Some may counter this proposal with the observation that if we abolished the Senate tomorrow, we’d effectively be handing the country’s legislative authority over to a House controlled by rabidly reactionary Tea Party Republicans. I have two responses: first, the Senate will not be abolished tomorrow, and in order to abolish it, we’d first have to build an overwhelming majority in favor of abolishing it – and that would likely involve electorally defeating a lot of Tea Party Republicans; and second, the Left needs to get out of the awful habit of looking towards undemocratic institutional checks and balances, like the Supreme Court, the presidential veto, or the Senate itself, as a way to avoid the imperative of building a leftist majority among the people.

The road to socialism is political democracy. Our vehicle can be nothing other than a democratic mass movement. And that road takes us through the House of Representatives, or, ideally, a more democratic descendent of it. In the long run, the Senate is nothing but a roadblock between “we the people” and our freedom. Let’s abolish it.

Sean Monahan is a member of Providence Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee. He is a PhD student at Brown University he studies Political Theory.


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