Over the weekend, during a drive to and from New York I listened to Steven Johnson’s enjoyable and stimulating new book The Invention of Air. It’s about a British scientist/preacher/philosopher named Joseph Priestly who, among other things, discovered oxygen, invented soda and was good friends with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Any time I revisit the Founders, their writing and their thinking, I’m always struck by the streak of Burkean conservatism that ran through many of them. Their fear of the mob (and, well, democracy) and their desire to keep power broadly distributed, but also out of the hands of the riff raff. In many respects the arc of American political history is more and more democracy, wider circles of enfranchisment, preserving the founder’s belief in checks and balances, while jettisoning their distrust of the ability of people to effectively self-govern.
The massive exception to this is the United States senate, which has only grown more undemocratic and more minoritarian over the years. Since population distributions have grown more unequal (California has 68 times the people of Wyoming), the imbalance of representation has also grown. Filibusters have gone from being a relatively rarely invoked tactical gambit, to a de facto super majority requirement for all legislation. And the evolution of the “hold” means that each individual senator can more or less bring the body to a halt.
All this by way of recommending this excellent piece by Norm Ornstein on the subject. He argues persuasively that the senate is “broken.” I’m increasingly of the opinion that if we want the kind of change we need in this country, the Senate has to change first.