Like anyone paying attention to politics, I see whitewater rapids ahead for our ship of state and for our democracy, and by democracy I mean the idea of one person, one vote, the notion that in our representative form of government, people should be fairly and equally represented.
The Senate is poised to put Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court, where this 48-year-old conservative justice, approved by the Federalist Society, could sit for four decades. She is expected to rule against abortion rights, the Affordable Care Act, the limitation of dark money in politics, gun control, and the prevention of voter suppression — all policies favored by the majority of Americans. She’s also likely to be no friend of government regulations (protections) regarding the environment and big business.
Even though she’s a great mom, Judge Barrett might never be confirmed if the general public could vote on the matter. But the general public has no say in confirming Supreme Court justices — that’s up to the president and the Senate.
The president, in the last election, received nearly 3 million fewer votes than his opponent. Most people didn’t vote for him.
The Senate will confirm Barrett because Republicans hold a slim majority — of seats, but not of the people represented. The Republican majority that confirmed Justice Gorsuch represented states that comprise only 45 percent of the population. The Republican majority that confirmed Kavanaugh represented only 44 percent. Put another way, the senators representing the majority of Americans lost those battles. It’s likely that when the Senate meets in a few days to confirm Barrett, the senators whom most Americans sent to Washington will lose again.
So there it is: a president whom most Americans voted against and a bloc of senators most Americans didn’t vote for will soon solidify a Supreme Court whose values are abhorrent to most of us.
How is this possible in a democracy? How can majority rule be so thwarted? If “dark money” and voter suppression come to mind, you have a case to be made, but I’m blaming it all on Wyoming. Wyoming’s population in 2019 was 578,759. Wyoming has two Senators, both Republican, both supporting Barrett. Let’s compare that state with California. Its populations is 69 times larger: 39,937,500. California also has two senators, both Democrats unlikely to support Barrett. Put differently, a single voter in Wyoming has as much clout in the Senate as 69 Californians.
Why pick on Wyoming? Arkansas’ two Republican senators represent a population of 731,545. That’s the size of Boston, if you throw in Salem for good measure (694,583 and 43,302). Given that Massachusetts as a whole has nearly 6.9 million people, it takes more than nine Bay Staters to match the political clout of a single Arkansan.
Can this be constitutional? You bet — it’s as constitutional as the right to bear arms or to separate church and state. The framers sought to balance the political power of citizens as such with the political power of states. But maybe over the centuries the arrangement has grown out of balance? After all, the population of the original 13 states was 3,929,214 — just a little more than the population of, say, today’s Puerto Rico (3.2 million) if you threw in Washington, D.C. (705,749). In 1790, the largest state, Virginia, with its population of 747,000, was not even twice as populous as the smallest, Delaware (434,000) — and 39% of Virginia’s population were enslaved.
Once out of balance, our system can easily result in a minority running the show for everyone else. And if that imbalance can lock into place a Supreme Court that won’t undo gerrymandering, that won’t protect minority voting rights, that won’t stem the flow of dark money in politics, then we might need to kiss good-bye to any future vision of one person one vote, of majority rule.
But if our ship of state is hitting the rapids now, we can still reach calmer waters and smooth sailing ahead. Remember Wyoming with its population of 578,759? Well, the Washington, D.C., population is greater: 705,749. Adding a 51st state like D.C. is as constitutionally sound as our free press, and doing so would rebalance the Senate in this regard: one tiny red state with one tiny blue one. And why stop at 51? Puerto Rico’s population of nearly 3.2 million is larger than our two newest states combined: Alaska and Hawaii (731, 545 and 1.4 million). Hola, Puerto Rico! Let’s bring red Arkansas into balance with another tiny state. Let’s dream even bigger: imagine a U.S. map with a North California and a South California.
You can see where this is going.
If today’s Republicans are racing the election clock to lock in a court forever advancing minority interests, a Democratic administration in 2021 can start to use constitutional means to rebalance our democracy and bring us closer to the one person, one vote democratic ideal.
And that notion of rebalancing? Can it be applied to the federal judiciary as well? I for one like the sound of rebalancing the courts better than “packing” them. (Once again, beware the far-right’s genius at using language to frame the conversation.)
What if the Democrats don’t prevail in this cycle? You’ll hear progressives fantasizing all the time that if Trump wins they’ll have to move to Canada or Scandinavia or New Zealand or wherever. To them I want to shout No! Let’s move to Wyoming! Let’s move to Arkansas. Let’s urge California to relocate a million or two voters here and there. It won’t take very many of us to rebalance the nation by relocating and sending to Washington a representative government that actually represents what most people want.
Rod Kessler is a retired professor of English and writer living in Salem.