More about the tottering structure of the American political regime

We accept the oddities of our political regime like the stars in the sky.  Natural, god-given, unchanging features of our society.  This is not so.  Worse, this complacency blinds us to the need for reform.  Until a crisis, of course.   Here is a rare article reflecting on an oddity of our Federal structure. It’s worth reading in full.  The ending is probably deliberate irony. 

  • The Gangs of D.C.“, Alec MacGillis, op-ed in the Washington Post, 8 August 2009 — “In the Senate, Small States Wield Outsize Power. Is This What the Founders Had in Mind?”


By Christopher, posted on Matthew Yglesias blog.  Exaggerated, but goes to the heart of the matter.

The Senate will be the downfall of this country. When historians look back and wonder why the USA couldn’t keep up in the 21st century, they’ll say “because half the population was represented by 16 Senators, and 3% by another 16.”


Wonder why President Obama is having a hard time enacting his agenda after sweeping to victory and with large congressional majorities on his side? Look to the Senate, the chamber designed to thwart popular will.  There is much grousing on the left about the filibuster, the threat of which has taken such hold that routine bills now need 60 votes. Getting less attention is the undemocratic character of the Senate itself.

Why, for example, have even Democratic senators been resistant on health-care reform? It might be because so many of the key players represent so few of the voters who carried Obama to victory — and so few of the nation’s uninsured. The Senate Finance Committee’s “Gang of Six” that is drafting health-care legislation that may shape the final deal — without a public insurance option — represents 6 states that are among the least populous in the country: Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Maine, New Mexico and Iowa.

Between them, those 6 states hold 8.4 million people — less than New Jersey — and represent 3% of the U.S. population. North Dakota and Wyoming each have fewer than 80,000 uninsured people, in a country where about 47 million lack insurance. In the House, those 6 states have 13 seats out of 435, 3% of the whole. In the Senate, those 6 members are crafting what may well be the blueprint for reform.

… The delegates finally settled on the Connecticut Compromise, or the Great Compromise. Seats in the lower chamber would be apportioned by population (with some residents counting more than others, of course) while seats in the upper chamber would be awarded two per state.  The idea was to safeguard states’ rights at a time when the former colonies were still trying to get used to this new country of theirs. But the big/small divide was nothing like what we have today. Virginia, the biggest of the original 13 states, had 538,000 people in 1780, or 12 times as many people as the smallest state, Delaware.

Today, California is 70 times as large as the smallest state, Wyoming, whose population of 533,000 is smaller than that of the average congressional district, and, yes, smaller than that of Washington D.C., which has zero votes in Congress to Wyoming’s three. The 10 largest states are home to more than half the people in the country, yet have only a fifth of the votes in the Senate. The 21 smallest states together hold fewer people than California’s 36.7 million — which means there are 42 senators who together represent fewer constituents than Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. And under Senate rules, of course, those 42 senators — representing barely more than a tenth of the country’s population — can mount a filibuster.

… And then there’s the Senate’s age-old distortion of distributive politics, in which goodies are doled out on anything but a per-capita basis. California, Illinois, New York and New Jersey are among the 10 states that get the least back per tax dollar sent to Washington; Alaska, the Dakotas and West Virginia are among those that get the most.

… John Melcher, a Democrat who represented Montana in the Senate from 1977 to 1989, also takes a sanguine view. … it had not escaped him that his power in the august body was disproportionate to the size of his state. Not that he saw anything wrong with that.

“Small-population states and large land areas have quite a bit of influence … It’s proved to be okay, and hasn’t hurt the country. We’ve had astute leaders in low-populated states, they haven’t abused their power. … But of course I’m saying that from an admittedly biased point of view. I’m a Westerner. And I think it’s fine.”

Alec MacGillis is a reporter on the national staff of The Washington Post.

For more information about this topic

To see all posts about our new wars:

Here are previous posts in the FM series about the Constitution.

  1. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
  2. The Constitution: wonderful, if we can keep it, 15 February 2008
  3. Congress shows us how our new government works, 14 April 2008
  4. See the last glimmers of the Constitution’s life…, 27 June 2008
  5. Remembering what we have lost… thoughts while looking at the embers of the Constitution, 29 June 2008
  6. A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
  7. Another step away from our Constitutional system, with applause, 19 September 2008
  8. What comes after the Consitution? Can we see the outlines of the “Mark 3″ version?, 10 November 2008
  9. Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?, 27 March 2009
  10. “Lights, Camera, Democracy” by Lewis Lapham, 24 May 2009
  11. “The Constitution that I interpret and apply is not living, but dead.” – Supreme Court Justice Scalia, 9 June 2009

39 thoughts on “More about the tottering structure of the American political regime”

  1. The founders specifically understood what they were doing when they created the bicameral congress with a House and Senate. Small state influence through the mechanism of the Senate was in part part of the bargain to form our country. The longer term of office of Senators was intended to provide a check on legislation produced by the House that follows popular short-term fads. As was intended by the founders.

  2. Also, if citizens of highly populated states have a problem with their representation, why not move to places like Wyoming where they could exert more influence proportionally.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Because the economic base of those small states is very small. Only a very few people could do so, and only in a limited range of industries.

  3. The FF had just crawled out from under tyranny. They sought to advise a system to preclude tyranny. The wrong-headedness of many, and Alec MacGillis is merely a case in point, that deem a feature a bug is astounding. They should sojourn a while in a Middle Eastern country chosen at random for a year or two as a remedy for their cranial rectalitis.
    Fabius Maximus replies: As stated above, there is no evidence that what you say is true as pertains to the over-representation of small states in the Senate. It was a compromise necessary to gain support for creating the Union.

    Making a fetish of every detail in the Constitution will not help the Republic survive and prosper. It’s not a diviine object given by the Gods.

  4. “And then there’s the Senate’s age-old distortion of distributive politics, in which goodies are doled out on anything but a per-capita basis. California, Illinois, New York and New Jersey are among the 10 states that get the least back per tax dollar sent to Washington; Alaska, the Dakotas and West Virginia are among those that get the most.”

    So, we must give more power to NYC bankers, who pay NYC’s taxes, and more power to California’s military industrialists, who pay their taxes. We must take power from West Virginians who mine our coal, and from the Dakotas, who grow our bread, because, you know, it’s all about fairness, and focusing on activities that are truly important, and contribute to our economy.
    Fabius Maximus replies: What’s your problem with the “one man, one vote” scheme of representation? You’d prefer to weight voting by some imagined scale of value? Perhaps you’d give those you consider less important a 3/5 weight vs that of full citizens. At least that would have a precedent in US consitutional history.

  5. Smitty: Wildly disproportionate representation and access to resources for different classes of person is a ‘feature’ most commonly found in tyrannies or the antebellum US Constitution.

    A great example of the problem disproportionate Senate representation causes is the obesity epidemic suffered by the US (and indeed most of the western world). The simplest thing that could be done to help alleviate this is a change in agricultural subsidies away from corn so that the worst food for people to eat isn’t also the cheapest for them to purchase.

    This will never happen, because of the over representation of agricultural states in the Senate. In other words, America will face billions if not trillions of dollars in health care costs in order to protect the subsidies of a handful of agricultural states.

  6. Re: comment #4

    So when New York’s banking industry has succeeded in owning everything, and employing everyone, and thus deriving vast income nationwide, and thus paying most of the nation’s taxes, Iglesias can say, “New York pays most of the nations taxes, yet has only a sliver of political power. Poor, helpless New York. A hapless victim of the stupidity of our Founders.”
    The article makes an appeal to fairness; that it is not fair that NY pays more taxes than it receives from the Federal goodie bag. My point is; there are other ways to “receive” your share from the Federal goodie bag other than transfer payments. For example, you can own more than your share of bought and paid for congress critters, and use same to game the system. An unfair activity that has greatly enriched New York over say, the Dakotas.

  7. @Grimgrin: “America will face billions if not trillions of dollars in health care costs in order to protect the subsidies of a handful of agricultural states.”

    Volokh has an interesting analysis of 2010 Census effects. Those census effects are likely to underscore the importance of the bi-cameral legislature. That bi-cameral legislature was a huge requirement to get any of the small states to agree to the Constitution, according to Amar.
    In the specific case of agricultural policy, I wonder if your example doesn’t say more negative things about Washington DC distorting markets than it does about the value of a bi-cameral legislature.

  8. Interesting topic. The Germans are having some of the same problems/challenges. See Philip Manow, Max-Planck-institut für Gesellschaftsforschung — Abstract:

    Germany’s brand of federalism was once considered one of the most outstanding features of the country’s system of government. Now, however, it is thought to be the cause of many of Germany’s political and economic problems.In recent studies researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies have found that critics are largely justified in saying that German federalism is so full of policy gridlock that it has become inefficient. there is a chance, tough, that the system can reform itself from within.

    One could argue that in a time of crisis that you do need the ability for a majority to formulate and implement the needed policies quickly. That a minority disagrees… Well, that’s tough, Why don’t you just win the next election.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The US has a history of successful policy adaptation during emergencies — without suspending the rules. Wars are, of course, the exception.

    More importantly, I don’t see any emergency requiring speed! What we need is careful and wise change.

  9. i didn’t realize that getting elected to President meant you got a free pass to enact any and all legislation you want. perhaps the reason president obama is having such a hard time is because the people the senators represent don’t want socialized medicine. i think the founding fathers new exactly what they were doing. god bless them.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Does this comment (“press pass to enact any and all”) have any relevance to this discussion? We’re talking about one man, one vote. Nobody here advocates tyranny.

    “i think the founding fathers new exactly what they were doing.”

    That’s absurd. The historical record is clear that the imbalanced representation of States was not a feature deemed useful by the Founders, but a structural compromise necessary to weld 13 States into a Union. Your logic could just as easily justify slavery, another unavoidable compromise in the original Constitutional structure.

  10. The senate as a whole was intended to be a check on popular will. Senators weren’t even elected by popular vote until the end of the 19th c — they were appointed by the governor of the state (who of course never considered a major contributor for the job!)

    The founders, and who could blame them, wanted to keep government in the hands of the “right people”, the owners of land and wealth.

  11. Comment #1: “The founders specifically understood what they were doing when they created the bicameral congress with a House and Senate. Small state influence through the mechanism of the Senate was in part part of the bargain to form our country.”

    These two statements contradict each other. Either the Founders intended the Senate to be what it is, or they accepted it being what it is as a necessary compromise to get the Constitution passed. But it couldn’t have been both; nobody swallows a bitter pill by choice.
    Fabius Maximus replies: While sloppy writing, it is not contradictory. The Founders created a bicameral legislature for what they considered sound reasons. The over-representation of small states in the Senate is a separate issue, a compromise necessary to create the Union.

  12. @Jason Lefkowitz, #10

    I disagree with you. As with a medical patient, you can swallow a bitter medicine intentionally and with acceptance. The question of whether the cure is worse than the disease is left as an exercise for the individual patient: biochemistry makes the tax code look like Dr. Seuss.

  13. It has become one of my quips that we should turn healthcare over to the Mexican Drug Cartels because they know how to get things done.

    Actually, how might such a system work?

    Residents of a poor Guatemalan town have rallied around a family sought by the United States for drug trafficking but respected at home for handing out food, jobs and medicine to people in need. Guatemala has become a major transit route for drugs smuggled north to Mexico and the United States, and in small towns like La Reforma, wealthy capos are filling the vacuum left by weak governments. The country’s drug trade is run by powerful families that can wield vast control over their smuggling territory.

    Hundreds of protesters recently staged a rally to support the notorious Lorenzana family after the Guatemalan police, army and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided La Reforma last month to arrest members accused of working with Mexico’s feared Gulf Cartel. “The Lorenzana family generates jobs to provide daily bread for the poor. We support you from the bottom of our hearts,” read one demonstrator’s sign.

    “The majority of people in this area work on the family’s melon and tobacco farms and if there wasn’t this work, we couldn’t pay for food or medicine,” said Miguel Saguil, 52, at the rally outside of one of the Lorenzana’s luxurious houses.

    The hot and dusty land around La Reforma in eastern Guatemala is inhospitable and the region has one of the highest hunger rates in the country, with people often struggling to farm enough beans and corn to feed their families. The government provides few welfare services and many fear their livelihoods will disappear if the Lorenzanas are arrested.

    …. Police say the Lorenzanas use their local backing to create a network of informants, making them difficult to catch. “This is the first time that we’ve openly seen a demonstration in favor of suspected drug traffickers,” police spokesman Donald Gonzalez said, adding that several drug-running families across the country had also been able to garner local support in their patches.

    An international food-aid worker in eastern Guatemala said that drug capos can sometimes do more to directly help the poorest people than the government or aid groups.

    Authorities say other drug trafficking families hold similar sway in towns like Morales in Guatemala’s Caribbean department of Izabal, and in the jungle of the Peten, along the border with Mexico. “There’s a connection with money laundering as this is how they pay all their employees and suppliers, and all their work to build schools, pay for people to bury their loved ones. It’s all a way of building political support,” said Lizardo Bolanos, a Guatemalan economist.

    …. But locals are grateful for any help they can get from the Lorenzana family. “I have one son who is sick and they pay for his medicine, and another who is studying to be a priest and they have given him a scholarship,” said Edelmira Hernandez, 40, a mother of eight.

    This scenario resembles the padron system widely found in Latin America. Of many intriguing points in this article is how providing social services and money laundering are commingled.

  14. The purpose of the senate was to represent the states vis-a-vis Washington. All that went out the window with the popular election of senators. I agree that something needs to be done about it, but I don’t think abolishing it is that answer. Neither is giving the federal government (i.e., Washington, D.C.) a seat at their own table!

    One man, one vote can easily lead to tyranny by the majority. Now perhaps the separation of powers can effectively prevent this. What happens when the oligarchy controls two or more branches? Also, how would we prevent fads and fashion trends (such as the hysteria over global warming) from becoming official policy?
    Fabius Maximus replies: I don’t see any relationship or link between overrepresentation of small States in the Senate and the advantages you imagine it provides.

  15. Originally, only white, male, property owners could vote. I’m glad the requirements for being white or male have been repealed. The requirement to be so responsible and ‘invested’ in America so as to be an owner of property would likely have led to greater smaller gov’t, less entitlements, and more fiscal soundness.

    But there’s no going back there. I favor extremely favorable gov’t guaranteed loans for first time home-owners, at least as favorable and in an amount as great as education loans.
    Owner/speculators take better care of property, and thus the local environment, than mere renters.

    The debate that should be more widely discussed is that of “what is fair”, and “what is justice”? There seems to be confusion about equating many unfair features of reality (Redford looks great, I don’t) with injustice, or ‘social injustice’. In fact, an injustice is based on somebody violating some rule of justice. But most calls for gov’t programs to rectify some unfairness wrongly called social injustice do NOT involve any unjust violations of rules, therefore the justice system shouldn’t be used.

    Reserving many parking places near the front of stores for handicapped people is a reasonable social benefit tiny compensation for the unfair reality that those people are handicapped. How to help others is part of the health care debate, and all social welfare debates.

    On tax collection, how is it fair that a high income person, with only 1 vote, must pay thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, where a low income person, also with a vote, pays nothing net, in fact is a net recipient? Wouldn’t 1 person, 1 vote, 1 equal tax amount be more fair?
    Or perhaps an equal tax rate? (flat taxes help Russia, Slovakia, and Estonia; in Slovakia it’s 19% on all income after a very low ~$4000/year deduction)
    Or the Fair Tax, some 24% on any and all consumption, with the rich consuming more.

    In the free market, what is ‘fair’ is based on agreement — each deal is a win-win. Taxes are NOT based on agreement, people are forced to pay (based on FEAR of the IRS/gov’t). There is no ‘fair’ in a system based on fear, and all who claim there is some fair system are … deluding themselves.

    But there may well be more or less unfair tax collecting systems. I support the Henry George land value tax. Also pollution/ sin taxes; and consumption taxes (yes to the Fair Tax; end the IRS) — and most especially user fees for services.

    But as long as we DO have to fill out 1040s … there should be more direct democracy, with taxpayers able to register a vote in favor of: increasing the tax rates by 5% or 10%; keeping them neutral; or reducing them by 5% or 10%. And if tax rates would then fall, as I suppose the votes would more favor reduction, the gov’t would have to reduce spending.

    How to get a democratically elected gov’t to reduce spending is the crux of the fiscal crises we have — and nobody’s answers are known to work.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I am not sure if this is more bizarre or irrelevant to the subject under discussion. Tom seems unaware that we have regular elections.

  16. The very last thing we need is a further extension of this country’s drift toward absolute majority rule. The country’s government was intended to be representative of the populace in a limited way; the central idea of The Founders was the notion of limited government power—said limitations were to be imposed by a fundamental law (the Constitution), division of power amongst the branches of government, and yes, the ability of the people to throw the bums out every so often. The notion that untrammeled democracy represents some kind of good to be desired for its own sake is a recently fashionable piece of utter foolishness. The degree to which it is foolish can easily be demonstrated by spending an evening watching the television programs that are most popular at the moment. Do you truly think that people who consider this entertainment should have direct access to the levers of power?

    No, I would rather have an inefficient and self-serving government than one that is slavishly dependent on the latest poll figures. Of course, we’re almost there anyway. But let’s keep the Senate the way it is, ok?
    Fabius Maximus replies: But why weight representation towards small states? Why not by hair color, race, gender, IQ, wealth, or height? The problem with all these schemes (including States) is that they are illegitimate. And a highly legitimate political regime is vital to navigate the stormy weather ahead of the USA.

    Let’s hope alll these people advocating a weak and ineffective state never get their wish. I suspect they’ll be the first to whine and complain at the resulting chaos and suffering.

  17. “in small towns like La Reforma, wealthy capos are filling the vacuum left by weak governments.”

    This happened in the western Roman Empire in the 400s AD – strong local authority displaced weak imperial authority. The United States of America is not at that stage of development – yet.

  18. Coment #17: “This happened in the western Roman Empire in the 400s AD – strong local authority displaced weak imperial authority. The United States of America is not at that stage of development – yet.”

    My reply to criticisms of my argument is that the proof, if any, will be in the pudding.

    For another illustration of strong local authority supplanting weak imperial authority, see:

    Less than a decade back, trapped in a cycle of war and retribution in the breakaway territory of Chechnya, Russia’s then-President Vladimir Putin is believed to have struck a Faustian deal with the Kadyrovs, a clan of onetime rebels willing to switch sides: They could create a fiefdom as long as the republic stayed quiet.

    Since following his assassinated father into the Chechen presidency in 2007, Kadyrov, 32, has lavished Moscow’s cash on rebuilding his republic’s bomb-flattened capital, Grozny. He has also constructed an elaborate cult of personality and, according to human rights activists, has terrorized the population with abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings and secret prisons.

    On June 22, the Ingush president was seriously wounded in a suicide bombing. Within a few hours, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev publicly ordered Kadyrov to “intensify” his “pursuit of militants.”

    Two days later, Kadyrov appeared in the Ingush capital and announced that “when we hunt for criminals, there can be no borders.” Joint Ingush-Chechen security operations had been approved by Moscow and would intensify, he said.

    The message was plain: With the Kremlin’s blessing, Kadyrov’s controversial methods of pacifying Chechnya were being exported to the surrounding region. To many observers, Ingushetia now stands as a test of the Kremlin’s willingness to let Kadyrov’s power grow to keep pace with his ambitions.

    “They’ve created a Frankenstein they can no longer control,” Pakhomenko said. “Because if you sack Ramzan Kadyrov now, Chechnya will plunge into complete disorder. The Kremlin has become hostage to a situation they created themselves.

  19. “One could argue that in a time of crisis that you do need the ability for a majority to formulate and implement the needed policies quickly. That a minority disagrees… Well, that’s tough, Why don’t you just win the next election.”

    What crisis? And how much of a majority, 51%? 60%? I read a CEO’s book, he said he would not make a decision unless he had at least 85% of the company on board, otherwise, it would fail, it was usually an indication that it was a bad decision to begin with.

    But, alright, we win the next election! Then we are going to charge all you guys with treason, confiscate all your property and money, round you all up in camps, then expel you all from the US. That will be our little “fomulation and implementration”. So how you like me now?

  20. My experience with Wyoming and South Dakota is that one of the citizens of these states is, objectively and apodictically, worth 50 of the citizens of California and New York. If anything, Wyoming and the other small states are under-represented compared to the inbred, slack-jawed, slope-foreheaded cretins of NY & CA.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps this is humor. Perhaps just ignorant chaff in the debate.

  21. FM, you have shown convincingly that we are out of money. Both sovereign debt and private debt are way too large. There is also evidence that our politics is increasingly polarized between our urban centers, and some suburban and rural factions. Now comes this post, which invites consideration of how these two trends will increasingly interact to dominate future events.

    As the awareness of our insolvency grows, there will be increasingly contentious debate over how and where to trim costs. Urban centers will note that the national tab for oil used to run gas guzzling V-eight trucks and SUV’s around the countryside and suburbs is too high, and providing health care with world class hospitals, medivac heli-ports, and distributed home care and ambulance service for thinly populated rural areas is too expensive while free standing single family housing is energy wasting in the extreme. Increasingly, urban elites will ask what kind of Bible thumping, gun toting, value clinging lunatics want to live in God forsaken nowhere anyway, they should all move into the city, or pay a higher price for their stupidity.

    In turn, country folk and some suburban folk will view this as a frontal assault on their way of life. They will use the political tools available to them, including those noted above, to impede any attempt to impose limits on how and where they spend public and private money. They will love Sarah Palin, simply because she is one of them. They will grow to hate the big city bankers, who increasingly will assert control over their assets, and big city politicians, who sleep with the enemy, and don’t “understand” country folk. They will deride the university crowd as being citified elites, which is too bad because this will foreclose debate.

    Of course, both sides are right. Senate seats are simply one spear in a sorry struggle defined increasingly by our geography. My one great hope is the internet. Am I a country yokel, or a city boy? Is Fabius? Here a productive debate can rage, and of course already is.

  22. So the Senate does what it supposed to do and now some don’t like it? Just because it stands in the way of someones grand plan or personel preference is not a good enough reason to get rid of it. Pure Democracy is probably more dangerous than any other form of government other than an outright tyranny. Federalism was supposed to be the solution to this issue. If California wanted socialized medicine so be it, but why make those in Idaho, or anywhere else pay for it if they don’t want to enjoy the fruits of this policy? We talk alot about responsability but some how it always comes out of someone elses pocket.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I am continually amazed at how people on this site greet evidence of the dysfunctional public policy appartus of the USA — rejoicing at how it helps some specific aspect of their partisan political agenda. This is, of course, why the apparatus no longer works well — people tend to see the parts, no long seeing the whole.

    Perhaps you’d greet a diagnosis of stomach cancer with joy. It’s a sure-fire way to lose weight, without the effort of dieting and exercise!

  23. Uh, this is a good thing, it keeps things that should clearly be done at the state level from being done at the federal level, things like health care for example.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Yes, that is an advantage of a dysfunctional political system. But it also prevents necessary public policy changes. That has too be on the whole a very bad thing.

  24. Wow! So I don’t support “your” agenda I get a wish of stomach cancer! That is an interesting reply. Statist’s usually have those kind of responses. Actually I do not see where my view is that incompatable with yours, but instead of Federal government doing things it would be the states. That way we could try different things and perhaps come up with a better solution. Whether that be health care, gay marriage, abortion, etc.
    I see no way that a group of detached bureacrats can determine whats best for 300 million+ people. We do not have angels in the form men, they are just men. You might be taking this disagreement a little to personel.
    Fabius Maximus replies: My analogy was exact. I presented evidence suggesting a system crisis in the operation in our political apparatus. You rejoiced in that it benefits a specific policy preference of yours, ignoring the larger problems caused.

    “I see no way that a group of detached bureacrats can determine whats best for 300 million+ people.”

    What is this, a call for fragmentation of the US — perhaps another Confederacy? At what size do you believe a democratic republic can function?

  25. This is as good a representation of the confusion and fright that has allowed us to drift toward profound crisis since 1963/8. The Senate was created because the States were sovereign. Some were wholly owned slave plantations, scandalous in the extreme whose expected demise was thwarted by the invention of the railroad which gave slavery a new birth of freedom, requiring a Civil War to prevent its spread throughout the nation. The Oil Cartel, still with us, deeply corrupted our politics in a new way, corruption is in our nature as humans period, but the sovereignty of the states was fatally undermined by our great victory in WW2 and the demise of our isolation — the combination of long range bombers and nuclear weapons. LBJ sealed the deal, the Great Society turned States into satraps and the Federal Court system became significantly more important as the Executive trumped the Legislature. Unless we find a way to restore real authority to the States, creating regional governnments may be one, restricting Federal taxing power, the Republic is doomed.

  26. Question asked about comment #20: “What is your real opinion, past all that spin and laquer?”

    The city mouse and the country mouse often come into conflict. In declining civilizations, the central metropoles lead in decadence. Rome, China before major dynasty changes, France, Russia, etc., etc.

    Whatever is wrong with America, excessive representation to the non-decadent parts is not a significant factor. NY & CA contribute much less to the US Military and, with the ongoing credit crisis, clearly much less economic strength. NY, CA, IL, etc. cause problems; their under-representation is a feature, not a bug. Since 2006, Pelosi, Waxman, Rangel, Dodd and others representing the great population centers have gained significant power. Things have not improved.

    People who crowd together decide to cheapen their individuality. They deserve less representation. This site has hitherto praised means by which more measured reason can prevail over mob rule.

    FM reply to comment #20: “Perhaps this is humor. Perhaps just ignorant chaff in the debate.”

    I visit this site all the time and very much appreciate the time taken to put it up. Comfortable preaching to the choir is not done here and that’s very much to the good. There’s no comin’ thru the wry, however.

    One falling roof-tile reference via adianoeta to the importance of being earnest will surely not obscure the wonderful kernels of rye with too much chaff.

  27. Tne founders clearly didnt want majority rule, and tried to prevent it by separation of powers in government. They couldn’t have guessed that all they need to do was create a large news distribution/advertising/propaganda sector which would guarantee that the majority always thought the way the rulers wanted them to.

    They did come to realize that a two-party system could effectively control any risks of the one person/one vote doctrine.

  28. @CleanthesBrule: “The city mouse and the country mouse often come into conflict.”

    A substantial shift is underway due to technology. The importance of the city/country distinction is diminished. The city may possibly lose in the discussion.
    Fabius Maximus replies: US population has been moving from rural to urban for generations. Many rural towns are nearing the point of no return after decades of their youth moving away, to become ghost towns. While these trends might reverse (who knows?), increased energy costs might drive another wave of urbanization.

  29. Comment #25: “I see no way that a group of detached bureaucrats can determine whats best for 300 million+ people.”

    FM reply: “What is this, a call for fragmentation of the US — perhaps another Confederacy? At what size do you believe a democratic republic can function?

    Has anyone seen a democratic republic of 300 million people function correctly? I suppose you have the European Union but in many regards it is more of a confederacy than the United States. What if we could only function as a defense and economic union?
    Fabius Maximus replies: This doesn’t make sense, IMO.

    “Has anyone seen a democratic republic of 300 million people function correctly?”

    You can say that about any form of government, due to population growth. Europe’s entire population hit 300 mil only around 1860 (per Wikipedia).

    “I suppose you have the European Union”

    The EU took its present form only in 1992. There are doubts its economic structure can survive a long recession (as we might see if there is no recovery in the next 6 months or so). For more on this see Can the European Monetary Union survive the next recession? (11 July 2008).

  30. Fabius Maximus replies: But why weight representation towards small states? Why not by hair color, race, gender, IQ, wealth, or height? The problem with all these schemes (including States) is that they are illegitimate.

    There are historical reasons for giving states special consideration—and representation—in Congress, reasons of which you are no doubt aware. Your remarks make clear that you think those reasons no longer have (or should have) weight. I disagree for several reasons. First, I think that the States represent a diversity of opinion and sentiment that is valuable to the body politic. Weighting votes in favor of geographical distribution, embodied in historically distinct political unions does not strike me as inherently unreasonable. Second, I believe that conservatism—in the best meaning of that word, which is to “hold fast to that which is good”—is a positive force in politics, and that any mechanism which promotes that kind of conservatism is desirable. Because the State-based apportionment of votes in the Senate is one of the factors that has made this body the more conservative of the two Houses, I believe it to be a good.
    Why do you say that the state-based weighing of power in the Senate is “illegitimate”? By whose standards? On what grounds?

  31. FM: “US population has been moving from rural to urban for generations. Many rural towns are nearing the point of no return after decades of their youth moving away, to become ghost towns. While these trends might reverse (who knows?), increased energy costs might drive another wave of urbanization.

    Rural to suburban, yes. Rural to urban, not so much. Joel Kotkin at Newgeography has a great blog on these issues, and more.
    Fabius Maximus replies: True, but that’s parsing it a bit finely (aka irrelevantly) for the purpose of this discussion, which considers the distinction between States.

    From another perspective, the major geographic distinction in the US is between rural and urban. More precisely, rural vs. “Metropolitan Statistical Areas” (MSAs). MSA’s consist of central counties and outlying counties, which are relatively similar compared to the rurual-urban social and economic differences.

  32. At the state level, you have this: “The Blue-State Meltdown and the Collapse of the Chicago Model“, Joel Kotkin, The American (journal of the American Enterprise Institute), 22 July 2009 —

    “For example, while state and local budget crises have extended to some red states, the most severe fiscal and economic basket cases largely are concentrated in places such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Oregon, and, perhaps most vividly of all, California. The last three have among the highest unemployment rates in the country; all the aforementioned are deeply in debt and have been forced to impose employee cutbacks and higher taxes almost certain to blunt a strong recovery.

    The East Coast-dominated media, of course, wants to claim that we have reached “the twilight” of Sunbelt growth. This observation seems a bit premature. Instead, traditional red-state strongholds such as the Dakotas, Idaho, Texas, Utah, and North Carolina, dominated the list of fastest-growing regions recently compiled for Forbes by my colleagues at ”

    But the same forces are acting to distinguish and isolate the politics of the Urban centers from the surburbs.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This is political tract poorly disguised as geographic analysis. He speaks of blue states vs red states, but never does a comparison. Rather his picks a few of each and compares them. As if states with commodity-based economies are like the South, or Maine like IL.

    Eventually he gets to his real point:

    Today 2 principles now drive the political economy of the blue states—and so shape the Obama administration today. The first one is the relentless expansion of public sector employment and political power. … And then there is the imposition of increasingly stringent environmental regulation. This has hit hardest the essential sectors of the non-“creative class” economy such as manufacturing, warehousing, and agriculture.

    Much of his evidence for the latter is ignorant nonsense:

    Perhaps the most searing disaster is unfolding in the rich Central Valley. Large areas are about to be returned to desert — due less to a mild drought than to regulations designed to save obscure fish species in the state’s delta.

    The ecological costs of growing very profitable but water-intensive crops (e.g., cotton) in arid regions have become obvious to all but the most obtuse (which apparently includes those at the AEI). Such as the collapse of salmon and delta smelt populations — key species (the smelt is a foundational species in the SF delta ecology) which this dipstick calls “obscure fish”.

  33. this is ridiculous. the founding fathers had a decent idea of what they were doing, but they didn’t even pretend to be infallible, that’s why they drafted mechanisms for constitutional change.

    i am not sure i can rally behind an elimination of the senate, though the power wielded by small staters is troubling. there really is no reason why small states are the kingmakers on so many issues. there are some good reasons to giving small states an equal say, it especially since it forces big state reps to debate legislation rather than ramming it through by virtue of their population. nobody likes a bully, even if they represent a quarter of the population. but too often small states reps just play spoiler roles to win votes back home. that’s not a good way to set national policy. perhaps some day we can implement some kind of referendum system that would allow the popular will to override the senate’s “cooling” tendencies. that seems like a fair way to give the majority a vote on big issues that the senate can’t agree on, but i doubt we’ll see any effective way of doing it in my lifetime.

    and, as someone who lives in DC, let’s set the record straight about all those “Washington” folks that people like to abuse (namely for captain Ramen). when it comes to congress, these are representatives that you have elected from US states to come together in DC. when you talk about bureaucrats, you are actually referring to people who do not set policy, but make sure that is more or less efficiently implemented, and they work throughout the country (many of those working in DC actually live in northern Virginia or Montgomery Country, MD). the president is from Illinois. I cannot see what benefit is gained from keeping the people who actually live in DC out of Congress, because it’s not like state representatives decide on an amount to spend and then give “Washington” free reign to spend it as they like. take a look at a budget bill if you think otherwise. but i do see a problem when a state that has less people (Wyoming) has more power over the DC municipal budget than the residents who live there. i am not sure what part of republicanism or democracy makes this defensible, nor do i appreciate being constantly maligned for your congressional representatives’ incompetence.

  34. #34:

    Underscore, don’t take it personally. I think when people malign bureaucrats, they’re more often talking about the political appointees, such as this piece of work: “Obama’s Political Science Advisor“, Jonathan H. Adler, National Review Online, 7 January 2009 — ”
    John Holdren is unlikely to usher in an age of free and open scientific inquiry.”

    Unless you are actually a political appointee, and then, by all means, be offended. But I then I wonder if you’d be intelligent enough to enjoy this blog.

  35. Senate was meant to represent states and effectively it has an equalizing effect on all states regardless of their size. So to argue for a “One man, One Vote” policy for an institution that was never meant to represent the “people” is logically flawed. Senate has a “two votes per state” policy thus making all states equal regardless of the size of their populace. If the Senate is another “People” institution as opposed to a “States” institution then why even have it? If your proposal is sound, then the House alone should serve that need, no?

  36. hey Arms Merchant,

    it’s not really supposed to be a defense of bureaucrats, appointed or not, other than the fact that they don’t set policy for the most part–they get to interpret laws passed by congress, but for the most part they are functionaries.

    my issue is the idea that the hundreds of thousands of other people living in DC, who work normal jobs outside the government and don’t have any congressional representation somehow don’t deserve the vote because they live in the seat of government. it’s an off topic rant, but as a resident you hear from all these people who send asinine representatives to congress and then complain that “Washington” can’t get anything done. Speaking for residents of the city–not our fault.

  37. Here’s a modest proposal for dealing with the problems with senate representation. Merge smaller states. Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Idaho and Montana can be merged to form a new state which will have roughly the same population as South Carolina, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine can be merged as well. Delaware can be annexed by New Jersey and Rhode Island by Massachusetts. Alaska can be sold to China if the US drives a hard enough bargain, completely canceling the portion of the debt held by them and probably more besides. Hawaii gets demoted back to territory. While not completely solving the issue of disproportionate representation in the Senate, this would go a long way towards ameliorating it.

    Other people can doubtless suggest other and better ways ways of redrawing the map, and more creative solutions for Alaska and Hawaii.
    Fabius Maximus replies: As so often the case with social problems, the difficulty lies not in the lack of solutions — but in our ability to implement any of them. The Consitition is an immutable and almost unmovable barrier to reform of our increasinly rotten boroughs.

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