There is a reason why many notable conservative thinkers hold the concept of ideology in low regard. Often times, ideologues, so married to their ideas of right and wrong, make grand propositions to showcase their intellectual superiority and flair for dramatics. The ideologue’s job is rarely the search for truth but instead to turn philosophy into a dazzling light show.
At least that’s my take on a recent screed in the Jacobin titled simply “Abolish the Senate.” Given that the piece appears in one of the most radical leftist periodicals in America, I expected hyperbole. But the article, written by journalist Daniel Lazare, surprises in its lack of thoughtfulness and overuse of dog whistles meant to inspire base anger in progressive readers.
So what exactly is wrong with abolishing the Senate, an institution 225 years of age? As a Nockian, I’m inclined to endorse the sentiment. Representative democracy on a large scale is hogwash and deserves a good axing. Unfortunately, history warns against such radicalism, and shows us that revolutionary calls to action are often sown with the seeds of complete societal upheaval. That’s not exactly my cup of tea. Hence I’m not so keen on pushing the proverbial button and abolishing the much-maligned state in one fell swoop, including the Senate. Perhaps one day we’ll get there, though it’s doubtful.
Back to the piece, Lazare is adamant about tossing out what Washington called the saucer that cools the populist longings of the House of Representatives. His reasoning is simple: the current United States Senate is “one of the world’s most undemocratic legislatures.” How so? The men and women who make up the legislative body are disproportionately representative of the country. The millions who live in New York City essentially have the same amount of votes as the half-million hicks that reside in Wyoming. And that just ain’t fair.
Lazare spends a good deal of time celebrating the concept of direct democracy while lamenting the set-up of the Senate that allows for equal representation among the states. He cites the Connecticut Compromise as the great undoing of American democracy because it gave certain powers to the upper chamber; powers deprived of the lower, more popularly-elected chamber. Since the Senate gives equal votes to the state no matter the amount of residents, it effectively cuts off the strength that comes from emotional uprisings in more populated areas. The Senate’s structure was deliberately designed to preserve the institution of the federal government from finicky public opinion. This is terrible, Lazare avers, because “equal state representation is the single most immovable part of the political structure,” and is “therefore the one most off-limits to debate.”
Why is that such a bad thing? Must we constantly debate the size and structure of our governmental institutions, as if that is all that matters to life? What if the national mood is more conservative than Lazare’s liking? Would he still complain about the lack of proportional representation?
In Lazare’s desperate attempt to show why the Senate is a monolithic, unresponsive enemy to the people’s will, it becomes clear his motive isn’t honest dialogue or an honest rethinking of American governance. He spends a fair bit of time scaremongering over the incoming Republican Majority that will push its conservative agenda on the nation (we should be so lucky!). Lazare also frightens readers over the prospect of a Supreme Court entrenched with its “historical conservatism” – a status that won’t change if the new GOP Senate has anything to say about it. I’m not sure what conservatism he is referring to, given the Court’s rubber-stamping of Leviathan’s growth since the New Deal. Lazare’s blatant partisanship is finally revealed when he deploys a favorite of leftists: a race-based appeal. He charges the Senate with “institutionalized racism” because minorities make up about 18% of the population of the 10 smallest states in the Union. That means one-fifth of the body is representative of whites in mostly flyover country.
I fail to see why this is a big deal. I don’t think the fact that whites dominate the congressional upper-chamber because minorities predominantly live in cities is a great conspiracy. It is just how the population patterns evolved over the country’s lifespan. Yes, there are historical injustices that account for how minority communities are lumped together, but the option remains open for any American to change addresses. Equal population distribution based on race, gender, creed, or sexual orientation is a utopian pipe dream that will never exist since not everyone is a cosmopolitan obsessed with multiculturalism. No system is perfect and what’s done is done. Better to recite the Serenity Prayer than worry about things that cannot be controlled.
When it comes down to it, Lazare’s polemic is just a long-form complaint about the uneven distribution of ruling power in the Senate. He repeats the same argument ad nauseum: the undeserved ruling power of rural white conservatives is destroying America. This is not a novel argument. Progressives have used it as a rallying cry at least since Jesse Jackson chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!” To the socialist mind, reactionary bumpkins out in the breadbasket are a pox on the house of all-embracing tolerance. They must be disenfranchised by any means necessary.
Amidst the conservative hatred, Lazare does hone in on something of interest: the uniquely American epistemology. He notes that unlike France, the United States became a full nation after the adoption of the Constitution; not before. The document is an important part of how Americans define themselves and their country. They see “as a document towering over society.” Thus, there is a natural apprehension to massive change in its wording or interpretation. This reluctance to change is why the United States has survived as a unified country for so long – even after a bloody Civil War.
Lazare can fight back all he wants against the imbedded tradition that is the U.S. Constitution. It will likely do him no good. Average Americans revere the document and are happy to live within its confines, with a few changes now and then. There will be no pitchfork mob descending on Washington and demanding proportional representation in the Senate. People have acquiesced and will continue to do so. Besides, direct democracy is better reserved for condo associations, not a sprawling country home to over 300 million people of varying backgrounds and ancestries.
If we’re forced to live under the Constitution in this country, I say keep the Senate the way it is. If there is to be change, let it return to its pre-17th amendment days where states had a fighting chance at reining in Washington. At least in that arrangement, there is more room for subsidiarity, and the freedom that follows it.