I amIn 2012, political scientist Ross Baker took a leave of absence in honing his knowledge in Congress by spending time in the office of Harry Reid, the leader of the Democratic majority in the US Senate. Baker vividly remembers Reid telling him a story about Mitch McConnell, his Republican counterpart.
Baker recalls: “Reed told me he couldn’t convince McConnell to go to the White House with him.” McConnell was saying, I don’t want to go there. Reed specifically told me, ‘Mitch hates going there. “
For Baker, a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University, this exchange about McConnell’s resistance to even Barack Obama’s visit to the White House provided insight into how hard the modern Republican Party has become under his leadership in his own party. It resonated with McConnell’s comment two years ago, that “the most important thing we have to achieve is for President Obama to be president for one term.”
Such a profound determination to impeach a president was not in the spirit of the Senate as it had historically been conceived. The goal of the “greatest deliberative body” in the world, as now crumbling clichés say, was to rise above partisan political points.
“The Senate was once the place to solve problems, where senators were able to speak across party lines,” Baker told The Guardian. “It was the place to be for the grown-ups. They considered themselves special. Well, they were no longer special.”
How far away is the U.S. Senate from the distinction revealed this week in the wake of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. McConnell wasted no time moving forward with the brutal reversal of a precedent he himself invented in 2016.
That year, the majority leader refused to hold hearings on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the US Supreme Court on the grounds that it was a presidential election year and that the people should decide who would choose the next president for the White House. This year, however, McConnell did not hesitate to apply the opposite logic – that it is up to Donald Trump, not the people, to decide Ginsburg’s successor – despite the fact that we are less than two months away from the election.
The gambit is sure to go ahead after the prominent Republican senators indicated their willingness to bow to the line. This would ensure conservative control of a 3–6 percentage point over the nation’s Supreme Court that could jeopardize basic constitutional rights, including a woman’s right to have an abortion under Roe v. Wade.
McConnell’s less seasoned face was widely condemned as hypocritical. But for Sabeel al-Rahman, head of the advocacy group Demos Action, the matter is much more dangerous than that.
This is the brazen power grab by the extreme right of the conservative party. “They are not shy about using the opposite argument to the argument they used last time, because they want to control the courts for an entire generation,” Rahman said.
The move is sparking anger among progressives and Democrats, given the extremely unequal representation in the US Senate. Under the chamber’s reductive formula, each state in the Union is granted two seats – regardless of population.
As a result, one California elector has two quarters of the representative power of the elector from Montana, given that California (population 40 million) has the same number of Senate seats as Montana (population one million). The polite justification for this contradiction was that the Founding Fathers wanted to give the views of minority and smaller states a voice.
But realpolitik got into it as well, in the form of a compromise needed to convince the southern slave-owning states to join the nascent state. What the world wanted from the United States – cotton for the spinning mills in Manchester and Leeds – came from the South. So the slave countries had to be bribed.
Those inauspicious beginnings are reflected in the formation of the Senate, which over the course of 231 years has had an unfortunate record of diversity. In all those years, there were approximately 2,000 Senators, including 10 petty African Americans (the current number is three – Democrats Kamala Harris, Corey Booker and Republican Tim Scott).
Baker had an amazing way of looking at the Senate through the lens of electoral distraction, a tactic widely used by Republicans to draw district boundaries for the House and state boards in a way that maximizes the electoral power of white voters. “The modern Senate is like a great poultry maker because of the very inflated representation it gives to white voters,” he said.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the urbanization that followed, the perversion of two-seat rule for each country tainted by slavery exacerbated. Few of the very civilized Democratic-dominated states with high and diverse populations now have the same representation in the Senate as many of the rural, predominantly white states.
David Birdsell, dean of the Marx School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College, estimates that by 2040, senators who represent 70% of the American population will hold only 30% of the Senate seats. As a result, the original vision of the object became increasingly distorted.
“Yes, the founders were intent on protecting minority views,” said Birdsell. “But they did not intend to establish a dictatorship for the minority that would prevent the majority from moving forward with reasonable policies that benefit everyone.”
A widening electoral deficit has a direct bearing on the formation of the US Supreme Court – as we are witnessing now. By a vote of 50 to 48, the Senate confirmed the last judge on the court to be nominated by Trump, Brett Kavanaugh.
All but one of the 50 senators were Republicans, many of them from smaller states with white voters. Among them, they account for only 44% of the American people.
The same pattern is likely to happen in the current storm about Ginsberg’s replacement. A president elected by a minority of the American people (Trump received three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016) would nominate a judge who would be confirmed by Republican senators who represent a minority of the American people.
The result will be a Supreme Court in the United States whose 6-3 majority of loyal conservative judges will reflect a minority of public opinion on many of the major issues facing the country – from the climate crisis to abortion to racial justice.
“This is a measure of how anti-democracy America is now,” said Abd al-Rahman. “The central pillars of our democratic infrastructure are increasingly dominated by the right wing of the minority party that is overcoming the urgent needs of most Americans. This is not sustainable – if this continues, we will not call ourselves a democracy.”