Crippling the Opposition

Any honest discussion of democratic procedure in the United States Senate ought to begin with a simple examination of how the chamber’s voting members got there in the first place. If it were an honest examination, there wouldn’t be much left to talk about.

Republican leaders complain that the minority Democrats’ use of the filibuster rule to block President Bush’s judicial nominees — 10 nominees out of 218 have been blocked so far — thwarts the will of the majority. That, they claim, is an offense against democracy. The very idea of using the Senate to measure democracy is a silly one, and the Republicans know it.

There are, as every schoolchild learns, 100 members in the Senate — two for each of the 50 states. California, with 36 million residents, has two votes in the upper house. So does New York, with 19 million. Ditto Wyoming, with 506,000 residents, and Alaska, with 655,000.

Put differently, California’s two senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, represent about 18 million Americans each, more than the combined populations of South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Utah, Idaho and Alaska, while the two senators from Dick Cheney’s home state of Wyoming, Republicans Michael Enzi and Craig Thomas, represent about 253,000 Americans apiece, slightly less than the population of Anaheim. As for the chamber’s Republican majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, he represents about 2.8 million Americans, a shade more than the population of Brooklyn.

When senators vote, therefore, it goes without saying that they’re not expressing the democratic will of the American people. For better or worse, democracy and majority rule were never the point of the upper house.

In creating the Senate, the founders’ original intent — that shibboleth of right-wing activists — was not to impose the will of the majority but to constrain it. The framers of the Constitution frankly feared the power of an unchecked majority. They carefully crafted a governing system that they hoped would keep majoritarianism in check and protect the prerogatives of minorities. By dividing power among competing branches, they hoped to force deliberation and compromise. The Senate is one of the supreme expressions of that conservative, anti-majoritarian impulse.

Those facts are worth bearing in mind in the days ahead as the Senate wrestles over the right of Democrats to filibuster President Bush’s judicial nominees. Republicans in Washington and around the country have been thundering indignantly for months about democracy and the will of the majority being thwarted by Senate Democrats’ intransigence, but they don’t really mean it. If they were that squeamish about majority rule, they wouldn’t have insisted that George Bush enter the White House in 2000 after he lost the popular vote.

In fact, the current Republican drive to gut the filibuster has nothing to do with democracy. It’s meant — like the repeated bending of House voting and ethics rules, like the outrageous midterm congressional reapportionment rammed through the Texas legislature, like the ideologically driven judicial nominations themselves — to consolidate Republican power at every level of government so that the party’s right wing can continue steamrolling its radical agenda without hindrance.

The single-mindedness of the Republican project ought to be deeply worrying, not just to Democrats but to anyone who claims to care for the rights and privileges of minorities under our constitutional system. No democracy can endure without debate and dissent. Crippling the opposition does not strengthen democracy. It threatens it.

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Crippling the Opposition

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