Thursday, July 29, 2004

Minorities and anti-democratic features of the United States Constitution

Following up my prior post, today I ran across a random unrelated blog post, whose link I have lost, that defended the electoral college and the bicameral legislature as evidence of the founders' wisdom, a bulwark against majoritarianism, etc. --- all the standard b.s. that's always hauled out in defense of these institutions. Well, in my opinion, the United States could use more bulwarks against minoritarianism. Take, for example, the United States Senate.

First of all, many of the Founders were quite skeptical of the bicameral legislature. Schoolchildren have been propagandized to call it the "Great Compromise" between the large and small states, but in fact it was, as Hendrik Hertzberg writes, an odious "surrender to blackmail" by the smaller states. Luminaries like Madison and Hamilton --- possibly the two most brilliant Founders --- thought the Senate was absurd. Hertzberg quotes Hamilton's forceful argument at the Constitutional Convention:

"As states are a collection of individual men," he harangued his fellow-delegates, "which ought we to respect most, the rights of the people composing them, or of the artificial beings resulting from the composition? Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the former to the latter. It has been said that if the smaller states renounce their equality, they renounce at the same time their liberty. The truth is it is a contest for power, not for liberty. Will the men composing the small states be less free than those composing the larger?"

Second, defenders of disproportionate representation might say that giving a modest boost to the rights of states does little harm and much good. Let's see how the Senate looks in practice. Did you know that the 26 less populated states have roughly 20% of the population? That's right: on the floor of the Senate, 20% of Americans can dictate law to the other 80% of Americans. The effect of this imbalance is worsened by the fact that House members are elected for two-year terms, and therefore operate in a state of continual insecurity, always hustling for money and recognition; Senators, by contrast, can afford to build a long-term legislative agenda, and have proportionately more influence. Critics of majoritarianism lose sight of a basic fact: in a government constituted by the will of the people, the only alternative to rule of the majority is rule of a minority, in this case a staggeringly small minority of 20%. Lexical nitpicking over whether we call such a government a "democracy" or a "republic" cannot change this. When you give 20% of the American population power over the other 80%, you are creating a structural geographical elite whose votes count more than the non-elite voters.

Third, even in theory, it is a terribly dubious proposition that geographical minorities need a disproportionately huge vote to protect their interests. We have many laws and institutions to protect members of minorities --- for example, the Bill of Rights, or the requirement of large supermajorities for structural change to the Constitution, or the separation of powers among government branches. What makes members of geographical minorities so special that, unlike members of any other minorities, they deserve overrepresentation in the voting process?

I propose we create a third house of Congress, in which Latino voters get to elect 60 seats, and all non-Latino voters get to elect 20 seats. After all, how do we know that the majority of non-Latino voters won't take away the rights of Latino voters? The Latino minority deserves structural protection via overrepresentation.

Try as they might, defenders of the Senate have no argument in defense of the Senate that is not also a defense of my Latino Legislature. But the Latino Legislature strikes us as absurd. Why does the Senate not strike most Americans as equally absurd? I submit that American citizens have been thoroughly and unrelentingly propagandized by their social studies classes. Such grossly disproportionate representation is an abomination. It is contrary to the principles of egalitarianism and representative government.


  1. Very nicely written, good research and great example.

  2. I agree that the US is hardly a beacon of democracy. But lets not forget that the federal government under the constitution wasn't meant to do very much. It is only because the US has forgotten its constitution that what you are pointing out is now incredibly important. The easiest way to mitigate the injustice of the faults of the system is to return to constitutionally limited government.