The Corner

Politics & Policy

Say No to a Parliament of Tribes

The U.S. Capital building (Wikimedia Commons)

My next syndicated column touches on this argument from David Leonhardt in the New York Times, but there’s so much more to say.

Leonhardt argues that the U.S. Senate amounts to “affirmative action for white people.” Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics disproportionately live in big states and big states allegedly have less representation in the Senate than small states. I say allegedly because the truth is that all states have the same representation in the Senate because the Senate is supposed to represent states. That was the whole point of the “Connecticut compromise” that was essential to ratification of the Constitution. I understand that the 17th Amendment made senators directly elected by the states’ voters — a defensible and understandable mistake in my opinion — but in our system, states are supposed to have corporate interests that deserve representation in our republican order.

Imagine if the U.N. General Assembly had proportional representation. China would have more than four votes for every one of America’s, and 121 for every one of Belgium’s, and 1,013 votes for everyone of Trinidad’s. States aren’t countries, of course, but they ain’t nothing either. If you think state’s should have some say in the government as states, you’re going to have to forgo some democratic purity.

It’s fine to think we should do things a different way. As Luke Thompson notes on a recent episode of The Editors, even some of the Founding Fathers thought the Senate was a bad idea. But Leonhardt’s argument is a terrible one for doing away with the Senate’s structure. I understand that identity-politics arguments are supposed to trump everything else these days, but the idea that all Americans of Asian, black, and Hispanic heritage have homogeneous political interests and identities is both ridiculous and grotesque.

Everyone’s decrying tribalism, and yet the idea that we should rejigger the constitutional order to make sure that Asian Americans in California have the same “representation” in the Senate as Hispanics in, say, Texas or Rhode Island is profoundly tribal. Maybe Hispanics in Texas have different political interests than Hispanics in California? Maybe Hispanics — an incredibly diverse category of people — don’t vote based upon an abstract designation? The fact that Ted Cruz is drawing almost even among Hispanic likely voters in Texas suggests that, even within Texas, Hispanics are fully capable of reaching different conclusions about political questions.

Americans live where they live for a host of complex reasons. If having a greater say in the Senate were remotely as important as the majoritarian caucus wants it to be, people would move in order to maximize their voting power. They don’t because that’s not how people think, thank God. More important, bending the system to the idea that the government in Washington should see the country as a bunch of competing racial and ethnic groups with no particular or meaningful attachment to place and community, whose only relationship to government is unmediated through state and local government, is precisely the sort of thinking that Arthur Schlesinger lamented in Disuniting of America.

If it makes you sad that California doesn’t have more clout in the Senate, fine. But playing statistical games based on race and ethnicity is a pernicious way of approaching that problem.

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