A Growing Distortion In America's Politics

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As America becomes more urban and rural areas are unsettled, a growing disparity in our nation’s power structure is becoming more evident with each passing year. It is a disparity that has profound meaning for how this country governs itself; an imbalance that lends excessive power to an increasingly small percentage of our citizens.

It is an inequality that gives an outsized voice to a conservative, rural minority that at times can thwart the will of the vast majority of Americans.

What is this mechanism that so distorts the will of Americans? It is a part of our national Constitution adopted in 1787 – the establishment of the U.S. Senate based on statehood rather than population.

 “It has been said that if the smaller states renounce their equality, they renounce at the same time their liberty,” Founder Alexander Hamilton argued at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia trying to sway delegates against giving each state the same number of senators. “The truth is it is a contest for power, not for liberty.”

It was about power. The smaller population agrarian states of the South recognized that they would be under the political thumb of larger population states in the North if membership in both the U.S House and Senate were based on population alone.

At the time, America’s total population was less than 4 million and the differences between the number of people living in small population states and those in states with growing cities along the northern seaboard weren’t that great. But as the decades, and now centuries, passed the inequities in representation began to grow to the point where they have now absurdly warped the weight of a citizen’s voice depending on where he or she lives.

Consider the difference between the value of a citizen’s vote in the largest population state in the country, California, and those living in the smallest population state, Wyoming. California with a population of 39.8 million has two U.S. senators or one per 19.4 million people. Wyoming has 580,000 people or 290,000 people per senator.

Why is this important? Just ask Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm.

“Around here, sea-level rise has seemed inarguable since knee-deep waters started washing over South Florida streets on cloudless days. The brackish water flowing across Las Olas Boulevard pretty well ended the debate,” he writes in a recent column. “But they don’t see that way over there, on the other side of the cultural abyss.

“On the angry side of our great urban-rural divide, climate change and its attendant maladies are dismissed as exaggerations of progressive ideologues. Rural folk, Trump voters most of them, are convinced that godless urbanites (in league with a cabal of international scientists) are out to con them,” he states.

“Our country cousins may be outnumbered but their wants matter more because of the peculiar numerology of American democracy. They’re afforded disproportionate clout.”

According to a Reuter’s poll, 72 percent of Americans want “aggressive action to slow global warming,” Grimm points out. But those 72 percent can mostly be found in urban areas.

Ninety-seven percent of Americans support universal background checks for buying a gun, according to a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll. But, again, a significant portion of that 97 percent can be found in metropolitan areas of populous states.

“We don’t count for much down here in Florida. Not in this particular democracy. Not like the someone from the sparse reaches of rural America,” Grimm wrote in 2014 after conservative senators from rural states blocked gun control measures in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting where a madman massacred 20 little children and six adults.

“When it comes to settling the great national issues of the day, the opinion of a cowpoke from Wyoming or a roughneck from North Dakota carries considerably more weight than some no-account from Florida,” he said.

With a population of over 1.9 million, Broward County, Florida, is three times the size of Wyoming. Its sheriff gets far more votes than a Wyoming senator, Grimm points out.

And, the distortion is only going to get worse. By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will be represented by just 30 U.S. Senators while 30 percent of the country’s people living in small population mostly rural states will have 70 senators looking after their interests, Grimm quotes David Birdsell, a political science professor and dean at Baruch College.

The importance in the disparity is in the power of a senator who can filibuster any piece of legislation causing 60 members of the body to vote in agreement to end the stalling tactic and move forward. As we have seen in recent years, overriding a filibuster is nearly impossible. Rural state senators, with this power, have been able to stop, or water down to the point of meaninglessness, any legislation their citizens oppose.

Racially and ethnically, America is becoming more diverse, its diversity most felt in the big cities. Our cities also have a more significant percentage of young people. A majority of Americans living in urban areas identify themselves as Democrats. They have tended to support legislation that addresses gay rights, the right to an abortion, immigration reform, steps to combat climate change, gun control, and sentencing reform. The aging population in rural areas is becoming more conservative and often opposes most of these measures.

As they claim victories on social, environmental and business issues, rural state citizens say their wins show how representative they are of America. But that isn’t true – it is a sign of the distortion in how we choose U.S. senators.

After making all those points, we are, to a degree, conflicted. We agree with our fellow rural Constitutional convention delegates from 1787 that if the Senate were based purely on population, the interests of agrarian areas of America would be trampled.

At some point in the future, however, a reckoning is going to be demanded by those who feel disenfranchised.

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