Politics & Policy

Why States Still Matter

(Jim Young/Reuters)
The Senate’s legitimacy can only be maintained in the future if voters continue to see value in the unique political entities they call home.

Editor’s Note: The following piece has been amended since its initial publication.

Since the Left is, broadly speaking, on the losing side of the American political game at the moment, it is the faction most enthusiastic about reform of the country’s governing institutions. This is obviously cynical — democracy’s losers always possess the greatest incentive to change the rules — but I’m less bothered by it than some. The Right championed a great many reformist ideas during the Clinton and Obama presidencies, including structural reforms to the Supreme Court, term limits, and even an Article V “convention of states.” It’s no less cynical to abandon yesterday’s urgent reforms the moment you start winning.

When the topic of constitutional reform is broached, it’s best to instead avoid myopic partisan interest altogether and channel the spirit of the Founders, thinking in grand terms about the values an ideal form of government should embody. I happen to think the current U.S. Constitution passes this test in the majority of cases, but that’s not to say the argument is always self-evident.

Take the Senate. As the midterms creep ever closer, concerns are growing louder that the upper chamber poses a structural impediment to the “blue wave” supposedly poised to sweep Democrats into power this November. Consider this tweet from Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report:

To be clear, Wasserman’s statistic isn’t a description of the the Republican majority that currently controls the Senate; his point is that the 26 smallest states, which together elect a majority of Senate seats, make up only 18 percent of the population. Right now those are a mix of red and blue states: In addition to representatives from a bunch of low-population, rural red states, the Senate’s present Republican majority comprises representatives of large states such as Texas, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. But as he also notes, the composition of the Senate could very well change in the near future, so that Democratic senators almost exclusively represent a handful of high-population, heavily urbanized states and Republicans a vast array of low-population, rural ones.

In the face of such facts, one can retort that the Senate was never intended to reflect the American population, and one would be right. Representation-by-population, the Constitution states plainly, is exclusive to the House of Representatives. The Senate promises only “two Senators from each State.”

The question, however, is whether this logic is defensible. Arguments that flatly assert “equal representation of the states” is a worthy balance to representation-by-population raise the question of whether a “state” possesses democratic legitimacy equal in principle to one-man-one-vote. Assuming existential debates about the Senate will increase as its partisan imbalance grows starker, those supporting the Senate status quo will only be persuasive to the extent that they can remind voters why states matter.

And why do they matter? The traditional answer to this question employs a logic absent from the constitution. One often hears that America has a lot of sparsely inhabited, rural states in order to offset the legislative influence of its few densely populated ones. (Idaho and South Dakota exist to “balance” against New York and California, etc.) This may accurately describe our present political reality, but it’s not rooted in any constitutional promise. The contemporary population imbalances of the modern 50 states are little more than the byproduct of settlement patterns beyond the anticipation of those who first approved their borders. At the 1893 World’s Fair, it was predicted Denver would eventually outgrow New York City. Today Denver is one-twelfth New York City’s size. Statehood for Illinois was long delayed by Congress on the grounds that not enough people lived there. Today only four states have a larger population. (Besides which, assumptions are distinct from preconditions. Should Wyoming gain eight million residents tomorrow it will have violated no term of entry to the union.)

It is equally wrong, however, to presume that states owe their existence to any consistent political logic. Some states preserve borders they obtained as British, Spanish, or Mexican possessions. Others were strategically carved from U.S. territories for various calculated reasons: to maintain the balance between free states and slave states in Congress, to preserve the electoral strength of the majority party of the day, and so on. On what basis one collection of geographic coordinates deserves to be a “state” but another doesn’t is a question without a satisfying answer. States are deeply arbitrary things. But the same could be said of many of mankind’s other great institutions: cities, nations, churches, and even families.

The true legitimacy of states comes simply from the degree to which the community they embody is valued. Most Americans do not keep their state’s founding history or population rank in their front of mind. They do, however, unquestionably understand their state as their home, a community they share with friends, relatives, neighbors, and co-workers. Over time, these communities have developed unique laws, customs, interests, and identities born from the particularities of their geography, demographics, industries, and histories.

The starkest threat to Senate legitimacy is that Americans might no longer see much worth in their states as unique entities, scorning the principle of state loyalty that our system expects residents to appreciate as a virtue unto itself. And on this front, there is cause for concern. A 2014 Gallup poll found that in only 19 states did over half of respondents describe their home as “the best or one of the best possible states to live in,” while in seven states, over 10 percent of respondents declared their home “the worst possible state to live in.” A related survey found the average rate of Americans who would “like to move to another state” around one in three. A 2015 poll by Fusion, meanwhile, found a whopping 77 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 to 34 cannot correctly name even one of their state’s sitting senators — a searing indictment of state-level civic engagement among millennials.

Alienation from one’s state can be seen as a symptom of a larger problem of community breakdown, often held up as the defining crisis of our time. Its cure, in turn, must be found in the “localism” revival that conservatives so often prescribe.

Defending the Senate, in short, should be about far more than party.



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