The united states senate was a bad idea from the start. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, populous states like Virginia supported the idea of a unicameral national legislature, with representation based on the population of each state. That’s the kind of system one would expect in a representative democracy.
But less populous states like Delaware and New Jersey wanted a unicameral legislature in which all states would enjoy equal representation regardless of population, which is a system one might expect of a confederacy or a conglomerate of independent sovereign nations.
Instead of resolving the issue in favor of democratic self-government, the convention went for a compromise plan. There would be two houses: a lower house, or House of Representatives, in which representation would be based on the population of each state; and an upper house, or Senate, in which all states would have equal representation. At the very heart of our Constitution is the idea that where people live matters more than what people want.
Nor was this the only antidemocratic feature of the Senate. As originally laid out in the Constitution, senators were appointed by state legislatures, not elected by the people (although “the people” at that point meant white male landowners, making the entire idea of democratic self-government a sick joke from the very start). It wasn’t until 1913, with the passage of the 17th Amendment, that voters finally got to choose their own senators.
An institution that is so profoundly antithetical to democracy cannot be “reformed,” however, simply by changing the method of picking its antidemocratic leaders. The Senate today is the place where the popular will goes to die. It is the place where 40 people can outvote 60. Its unearned nickname as the world’s “greatest deliberative body” was worth nothing when it came time to put country over party and convict a president for bribing foreign governments to dig up dirt on political rivals or for leading an attempted coup d’état. The Senate’s primary function is to do nothing, then congratulate itself for its restraint.
The Senate should be abolished. Perhaps the institution made sense hundreds of years ago, when regional differences within the incestuous cabal of white elites were critical enough to warrant an entire chamber dedicated to their vision of equality. But whatever justification might have existed in 1787 disappeared when it became an institution devoted to one region’s preservation of slavery in 1820. Once Senate representation became a race to preserve slavery; once states were admitted based on their likelihood to deny or uphold the rights of white men to own other people; once the Missouri Compromise called for the admission of “free” states and “slave” states in equal proportion to uphold the institution of slavery over the popular will, the argument that representation should be based on geography was shown to be nothing more than a tool of white supremacy.
And it still serves that essential role of propping up white power today. That’s just how the Senate works, in part because people of color are not spread evenly throughout the country. More Black people live in the five boroughs of New York City than all the people who live in the Dakotas. That these Dakotas get four votes in the Senate while Black New York City residents get, like, a 10 percent say in their state’s two senators is wrong on its face and offensively so. There’s no “good government” reason for this systemic unfairness.
There is a white-government reason, however. As we move ever closer to a majority-minority country, the Senate acts as a last line of defense for white people, a way for them to hold political advantage over everybody else. So long as white people continue to make their states unwelcoming to newcomers of color, they can be assured of an outsize voice in the nation’s politics.
The astute reader will notice that I haven’t really talked about reforming the filibuster, a rule invented by senators to make their institution even less democratic than the Constitution requires it to be. But even filibuster reform won’t address the rot at the heart of the Senate. By 2040, it is projected that 70 percent of the country will be represented by just 30 senators, while the other 70 senators will give voice to the 30 percent.
And I can make a pretty educated guess that the overwhelming majority of senators will continue to be white, even as the country browns. Nearly 2,000 people have served in the Senate since its creation in 1789. Here’s a complete list of the Black ones: Hiram Revels, Blanche Bruce, Edward Brooke, Carol Moseley Braun, Barack Obama, Roland Burris, Tim Scott, William “Mo” Cowan, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Raphael Warnock. That’s it—just 11 people.
You can’t reform a system that is committed to whiteness. Unless you’re going to force people of color to relocate en masse—and then let them vote once they get there—you can’t overcome the structural geographic advantages the Senate gives to white voters. The Senate needs to be abolished and replaced with a democratic institution of government. “One person, one vote” makes sense; “one state, two votes” never did.