Think Democrats have it tough now, trying to keep a precarious US Senate majority in tune on a trillion-dollar-plus budget reconciliation package without a single vote to spare? Just wait. These days of 50 Democratic senators may soon look like glory days.
Democrats are staring down an ugly reality in the US Senate: the historical malapportionment of the upper chamber, which awards two members to every state, even though Wyoming’s population is not only 68 times smaller than California’s but smaller than 115 counties nationwide, already places the party at a disadvantage. This edge has only become more prominent due to polarization and population patterns, and will collide next with a challenging map in 2022 and an even harder one in 2024.
It’s a problem so intractable that it makes even partisan gerrymandering seem like child’s play. Demographic change won’t help, either. Democrats are simply packed into fewer states. According to a 2020 Data for Progress study, that hands Republicans a three-percentage-point advantage.
The nation has grown more multiracial and less white, according to 2020 census data, a trend which should, on balance, favor Democrats. But while the “emerging Democratic majority” is happening on paper, it has been structurally blocked from achieving political power. The white, non-college-educated voters that make up the largest part of the Republican coalition are shrinking in numbers nationwide, but they’re better distributed; those rural and less-educated voters still hold a dominant position in enough small states to claim a decisive grip over the Senate.
Maybe 130,000 New York hipsters can be persuaded to move from Jackson Heights, Queens, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It might be the best investment any liberal billionaire could make, since this is a political problem for Democrats but also a crisis for democracy without any easy solutions. The political analyst and pollster David Shor suggests that even if Democrats deliver “a startling performance” in 2022, defeat Republicans by four percentage points and surmount the losses that a governing party historically faces in the midterms, “they have about a 50-50 chance of holding the majority”. Win a more slender majority, says Shor – say 51% – and “they’ll likely lose a seat – and the Senate”.
This isn’t a new development, of course: the structure of the Senate has been inegalitarian since our founding, and the nation’s political geography has provided the Republican party with a baked-in edge for decades. But contemporary partisan trends have exacerbated it. The Republican party held the US Senate between 1994 and 2006, and again from 2014 through 2020. However, according to research by Stephen Wolf of Daily Kos, Republican senators actually represented a majority of Americans during just one electoral cycle over those decades, in 1996-97. (Right now, the 50 Democratic senators represent 41 million more Americans than the 50 Republicans.)
Wolf added up every vote cast for Democratic and Republican Senate candidates over this period, and calculated the total over every six-year period in order to determine which party had more support over the period of any given Senate term. Only during a small window over those three decades – covering Senate elections from 1994 through 1998 – did Republicans ever capture that three-cycle aggregate vote representing every ballot cast for all 100 senators.
The trendline for Democrats does not look to be improving. The 2020 census showed that more than half of the 330 million Americans live in just nine states. That means upwards of 50% of us have 18 US senators, while the smaller half has the other 82. (By 2040, according to a University of Virginia forecast, half of the nation could live in only eight states, with just 16 senators.)
Let’s break that down even further. Two-thirds of all Americans – some 219,073,534 of us, to be exact – live in the largest 15 states, according to census data. They’re represented by 30 senators – 22 Democrats and eight Republicans.
The other third? They have 70 senators. These smaller states aren’t only whiter than the nation at large, they tilt decisively to the Republican party, represented by 42 Republicans and 28 Democrats. That’s more than enough to filibuster any legislation that cannot be passed through the reconciliation process – including voting rights – effectively granting veto power over even popular proposals to a tiny minority of voters from the smallest and whitest states. (As the Maine senator Angus King noted on the Senate floor last week, 41 senators representing just 24% of Americans can block legislation with the filibuster.)
The Democrats’ future looks even bleaker when you graft that geographic reality on to a deeply polarized nation with more red-leaning states than blue, and voters increasingly less likely to split their ballots between a presidential candidate of one party and a US Senate hopeful from another. The Senate has become as sorted as the rest of the nation.
Should the Senate represent states, or the American people? Should one-third of the nation retain the power to block legislation favored by large majorities? What does it mean to hold the consent of the governed when Democratic candidates for the US Senate – but also the US House and the White House – must win by large majorities to have a chance at holding more seats or electors, but Republicans can capture both chambers with fewer votes?
In a moment in which we are focused on racial equity, how can we hand bonus representation to smaller, whiter states, ensuring that the Senate leans toward the interest of white voters on any issue where whites and communities of color diverge? And what does it hold for the legitimacy of the supreme court when five of nine conservatives have been selected by presidents that lost the popular vote, then confirmed by senators that represent a minority of Americans?
There is no equality in a system so wildly malapportioned. A Congress designed 240 years ago to guard against a tyranny of the majority now ensures that a white majority in a changing nation maintains veto power simply by virtue of the smaller states where they live. Perhaps that has been the point of the Senate from the beginning.
More than 25 years ago, in 1995, the former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed that “sometime in the next century, the United States is going to have to address the question of apportionment in the Senate.” We’ve arrived at that moment. Now what?
One solution would require Republicans conceding their advantage in the interest of representational fairness and broadening their appeal to voters in a multiracial nation. The other requires Democrats to broaden their appeal and win elections in states turning decisively the other direction, then using that power to add states or make otherwise bold reform.
At this moment, as Republicans cement an enduring minority rule through gerrymandering, geography and the courts, and Democrats appear unable or unwilling to muster any meaningful response, both options feel equally unlikely.