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The Senate: The Founders’ Hedge Against the People

Updated on July 26, 2020

Note: We have a representative democracy, a republic. However, that is not what makes our nation less than fully democratic. For a large part, it is the Constitution and the Senate that are to blame.

The Myth of a Democracy

Children all over the United States are taught to believe that the U.S. Senate emerged out of a great compromise that the nation needed in order to protect people of the less populated states from the tyranny of the more populous states. However, the Senate was actually created in order to protect the status quo and elite from the lower caste.

In fact, most of the founding fathers didn’t want full democracy. Not only did they limit voting to landed white men, they set up the Constitution to defend the elite while giving the appearance of democracy. For example, they gave us the institution of the Senate to balance the potential radical power of the more democratic House of Representatives.

We are taught to revere the Constitution in the U.S. as the best, and perhaps only, way to run a nation, “Yet in reality, the Constitution is so far from perfect that it threatens our ability to resolve the daunting problems facing our society. It has created a political order that suffers from a "democratic deficit," a term often applied to the European Union but, alas, ever more accurate with regard to our own society.”

Even though a majority of Americans want to get rid of the electoral college and have low regard for Congress, lower than cockroaches, Congress is making no effort to change the Constitution let alone serve the people. The document hasn't had a rewrite in the almost 225 years since it was written.

Federalist icon James Madison outlined how the Senate would be a check on the more democratic House of Representatives in his Federalist Papers #62 and #63. Much of what Madison suggested was that the Senate was to be a defense against the irrationality of rash actions taken by the House. The Senate must be “a salutary check on the government.” What Madison is afraid of in his Federalist Paper #62 is that too much change will happen too fast if there aren't two legislative bodies, a House and a Senate. He wanted to protect people from their own hasty errors of judgement. (ibid)

He patronizes the people, for he believes they can’t be trusted to make decisions that affect their own welfare. He assumes the people’s House of Representatives must be kept under control lest they get too “impassioned” in their legislation. The Senate would be the mechanism of that control.

Senators were not even elected by the people until 1913 when the 17th Amendment was passed. Article one of the Constitution stated that, “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote.” Thus, elites in the legislatures of each state would select the Senators.

It was in Madison’s Federalist Paper #10 where he shows why a real democracy was his biggest fear. It illustrates why today’s plutocrats would be just fine with many of the founding fathers. In fact, “Those that defend the status quo feel they have the moral direction from the founders, however misguided.”

James Madison starts "Federalist 10" with his disdain for factions, dissident groups. He does not view them as necessary or warranted within a democracy. He wants people to be “perfectly equalized and assimilated.” Madison wanted to assure that the people never challenged the state for power. Thus, “In today’s parlance, factions would be the NRA, the Sierra Club, the AMA, the AARP, etc." He calls the actions of these groups "mischiefs."

Like the plutocrats of today, Madison makes no mention of poor land distribution, poor labor conditions, or poverty as the causes of factions. No, Madison states that “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” (italics mine) Taking away people’s liberty is seen as one option for Madison when the factions are disgruntled, engage in mischief and can’t be made to accept “the same opinions…passions…interests” of the majority. For Madison, liberty meant creating conformity of opinion.

He foreshadowed the type of government we have today, “James Madison assumes only the elite would be elected by the peons. He assumes they would be more patriotic, intelligent, and more interested in the public good—read what is best for the rich. Most importantly is the phraseology used by James Madison, divide and conquer.” (ibid) It is clear that James Madison was an elitist and that the Senate was created to keep factions of poor people in their place and to protect against House radicalism.

Millionaires make laws for the non-millionaires.
Millionaires make laws for the non-millionaires.
This map shows the 2014 Senate races in blue and red, with the states sized according to their population and colored based on their current occupant.
This map shows the 2014 Senate races in blue and red, with the states sized according to their population and colored based on their current occupant. | Source

The Senate is Undemocratic

Each state gets two representatives in the Senate, regardless of their population. Representation in the House of Representatives depends on the population of each state. That means that a minority of the population can have Senators that pass laws over the will of the majority population.

For example, “…if you add together the two Republican Senators from Wyoming with the one from Alaska, one from South Dakota, one from New Hampshire, two from Maine, two from Idaho, two from Nebraska, one from Nevada, two from Utah, two from Kansas, two from Mississippi, one from Iowa, two from Oklahoma, two from Kentucky, one from Louisiana, two from South Carolina, and two from Alabama, the 28 of them collectively represent (on a system in which you attribute half the population of a given state to a senator) 11.98 percent of the American population. Meanwhile, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein together represent 11.95 percent of the American population.” Thus, California has less power in the Senate, per resident, than any other state in the union.

Senators are elected for six years and members of the House only two years. Why should Senators from states like Alaska, representing around 731,000 people, have a longer term than Representatives from larger states that represent about 700,000 people? Again, this gives more power to Senators who are less representative of the people.

Conservative, less populated states get a disproportionate amount of power in the Senate, elect conservatives of either party, and ignore the will of the majority. While not perfect, the House is more representative and responsive to the people.

It means legislation such as consumer protections can more easily be blocked, In fact, “Senate Democrats have just proposed a new energy bill: the Consumer-First Energy Act.” Of course, the conservative Senators blocked a vote on the bill which you can do with only 41 of 100 Senators because of the filibuster rules.

This map shows each state re-sized in proportion to the relative influence of the individual voters who live there.
This map shows each state re-sized in proportion to the relative influence of the individual voters who live there. | Source

In 2014, the Senate is “up for grabs”. More so than ever before, the elections have become more about who has the most money and polling than the candidates’ policy positions. News coverage is all about the horse race and not the policy. Who gets more money is more important than who has a plan to help the unemployed, the poor, the schools, the people.

In the end, the only minority the Senate will defend is the wealthy elite. When members of the black caucus in the House of Representatives (there were no African Americans in the Senate in 2000) sued to stop the selection of George W. Bush to the White House, “…they were all ruled out of order by outgoing Vice President Al Gore because no Democratic Senator would co-sponsor.” Al Gore did not support their motion to call the vote illegitimate in Florida in the 2000 elections even though 175,000 blacks, most likely Al Gore voters, were disenfranchised. No white Democratic Senator came forward to defend black people and their right to vote, not even the man who would be President, Al Gore. Once again, the Senate was on the side of elite rule when they refused to consider disenfranchised blacks in Florida.

Because the Senate is elected from entire states, white majorities in all states except New Mexico will continue to dominate the Senate. The House is more representatives of the population, although district manipulation through gerrymandering has made it less representative than it would be otherwise.

Racial Composition of the current 113th Congress

U.S. House/U.S. Senate

White 354/94

Black 40/2

Hispanic 28/3

Asian 8/1

American Indian 1/0

Pacific Islander 1/0

Another example of the Senate’s undemocratic ways is health care reform. The health care industry feared single-payer health care, so Senators in the Finance committee stopped reform with a few well placed votes. Ezra Klein writes, “...take the “Coalition of the Willing” that Max Baucus, the senior senator from Montana, has formed to handle health reform. The first meeting was attended by Baucus, Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman, North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, Utah’s Orrin Hatch, Maine’s Olympia Snow, and Wyoming’s Mike Enzi. As Harold Pollack, a professor of public health at the University of Chicago e-mails, ‘these 7 states have a combined population of 11.18 million, markedly less than greater LA. They include zero major metropolitan areas.’” This was an example of how Senators that represent about 3% of the country’s population can stop any legislation from passing.

Leading up to the vote on health care in 2008, Glacier PAC collected $3 million from health and insurance sectors for Senator Baucus of the Finance Committee. That was about 20% of his contributions; only 10% came from Montana that election. And that 3 million dollars in donations for Baucus from the health industry goes a long way in a sparsely populated state like Montana where advertising costs are low and there are few voters to target with calls and mailings.

Jerry Flanagan of a the group Consumer Watchdog explains that these campaign donations were “a huge down payment” for the health care policies that would later be passed. (ibid) Thus, the health care bill that passed through Congress wasn't single payer or Medicare for all. Those proposals would have seriously damaged the profits of insurance companies, HMO's and hospital conglomerates like Kaiser. The bill that did pass, Affordable Care Act, guaranteed a continuation of huge profits for these companies.

The unrepresentative Senate also blocked the will of the majority on immigration reform. “Recent bills to overhaul the immigration system and increase disclosure of campaign spending have won the support of senators representing a majority of the population but have not yet passed.” Bills to deal with carbon emissions have also been stopped by minority representation in the Senate. Ultimately, the Senate helps big business at the expense of the majority of the people.

Clearly, with the Constitution and the Senate, the founding fathers were protecting their own class as do the Senators of today. They “were elitists mostly from either the landed gentry or from the merchant class and they incited a revolution in order to protect their livelihoods because the policies of the British Government were restricting their income.” And the Senate of 2014 are also elitists protecting their own lucre at our expense. So much for democracy of the people.


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