National Review / Digital
The Sense of the Senate
Proportional representation is not the summum bonum


The New Deal paradigm, which has ordered the liberal mind for more than three-quarters of a century, embraces not just the kinds of policies the government should enact, but the way it should enact them. The political scientist Sidney Pearson wrote in 2004 that the Great Depression and FDR’s response to it, especially in 1933 during his First Hundred Days, was the “seminal domestic political event of the 20th century.” During that crisis, the administration wrote laws and sent them to Congress, “where they were rubber-stamped without debate, and enacted into law. For a brief period,” Pearson concludes, “the American people saw how a parliamentary system would function. For many serious students of the American political system this was the way a democracy ought to work.”

Conservatives organizing a list of things to worry about over the coming years can leave the abolition of the Senate out of the top 500. For one thing, the ratification of a constitutional amendment to that purpose would require the approval of 38 states, at least some of which would be among the less populous ones that have a bigger say over national affairs with the existing Senate than they would if it were replaced by a unicameral legislature based strictly on population. Any proposal to retain the Senate but do away with equal representation of the states is a complete non-starter: Article V of the Constitution, specifying the amendment process, guarantees “that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.”

The prospect that merits a higher slot on the worry list is that attacks on the Senate will undermine support for our Constitution’s structure and operation, convincing Americans who might otherwise earnestly participate in the work of self-government that the nation’s political system is an anachronism and a rigged game, deserving only our sullen contempt. The resiliency of the American experiment has disposed us to believe that democracy is the default option for organizing a nation’s politics, rendering the problems of establishing and maintaining democratic government modest and manageable. As a result, 21st-century Americans need not have read John Dewey to hold the truth to be self-evident that “the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy.” Convince them the Senate is resolutely anti-democratic, and you convince them it’s an institution impossible to support, respect, or even take seriously.

The success of our Constitution, then, has estranged us from its authors’ apprehension that the perpetuation of democracy requires overcoming not only democracy’s enemies and obstacles, but also its temptations and weaknesses. As James Madison argued, “liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power.” Because the Philadelphia convention designed and subsequent generations of Americans implemented an effective “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government,” as Madison wrote in Federalist 10, it is easy to suppose that those diseases, like the bubonic plague, are threats only to ancient or primitive peoples. We can confidently go on curing the ailments of democracy with more democracy, until every hundred days is just like the First Hundred Days. The de facto parliamentary system that results will jettison the constitutional relics subverting our will, and we will enjoy a government that is “strong, prompt, wieldy, and efficient,” as Woodrow Wilson wrote approvingly.

The case for not only putting up with but admiring the Senate rests on the belief that democracy’s worst proclivities are permanent threats, not archaic ones tamed long ago. As the political scientist Harvey Mansfield wrote in 1988, “Good democrats . . . think that good government as a standard is above democracy; it is what democracy aims at, for example, the ends stated in the preamble to the Constitution. They must not think that government is automatically good merely by being democratic, as this belief can make them both fanatic in their zeal for democracy and complacent as to its behavior.”

February 21, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 3

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