Democrats should quit whining about the Senate and start trying to win it back
In a political season rife with internet-fueled indignation, the prize for the most absurd cry of injustice should go to every ostensibly informed person who has denounced the Senate for being undemocratic because Republicans will gain seats in the upper chamber of Congress despite Democrats winning roughly 12.5 million more votes.
The claim is absurd because Senate elections take place within entire states (not within arbitrarily drawn districts within states, as is common with the House of Representatives), and at that level they are perfectly democratic. The candidate who wins a majority (or plurality) of the votes wins the contest.
But it's even more absurd if we widen our analysis to the aggregate of all the Senate races that took place on Tuesday. There were 35 of them. Democrats have received 57 percent of the total vote and won (so far) 21 of the seats (or 60 percent). Republicans, meanwhile, have received 41 percent of the vote and won nine seats (or 27 percent). Now, the number of seats won by the GOP will rise to 12 (or 34 percent) if Republicans prevail in the three Senate races — in Arizona, Florida, and Mississippi — that have yet to be decided. But Independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine caucus with the Democrats, bringing their effective total to 23 seats (or 66 percent).
What exactly about this is undemocratic? If anyone has cause to complain, it would appear to be Republicans, who will (in the most optimistic scenario) end up with a seat total about seven percentage points lower than their aggregate vote total, while Democrats will likely walk away with an effective seat total nine percentage points higher than their vote total.
The point isn't to say that Republicans should take the place of Democrats in calling for the abolition of the Senate in the name of democracy. It's to say that Democrats need to get a grip.
The U.S. Constitution and longstanding jurisprudential traditions are filled with counter-majoritarian (or at least potentially counter-majoritarian) institutions: the Electoral College; lifetime appointments of judges and Supreme Court justices who wield enormous power to overturn democratically enacted laws; the drawing of districts for the House of Representatives by partisan state legislatures and commissions; and, yes, the equal apportionment of senators across states with populations of vastly different size.
What's really irking Democrats is that, despite winning more of the votes and more of the seats than Republicans, the overall outcome of the midterm election in the Senate will probably be a net loss of seats — with at least three states (Missouri, Indiana, and North Dakota) flipping to the GOP and maybe just one (Nevada) flipping to the Democrats.
That hurts. But does it point to a systematic or structural bias against the Democratic Party at the level of the electoral system? The kind of bias that many people (including myself) feared we'd see in House elections, with Republican gerrymandering and the urban clustering of liberals leading Democrats to win the aggregate House vote by several percentage points while failing to win a majority of the seats?
The answer is no.
It wasn't that long ago that, in Barack Obama's first two years, the Democratic Party nearly had a supermajority in the Senate. The fact that the electoral terrain is somewhat more formidable for the left today is not a function of the Senate as an institution. It's a function of changes in the electorate and the message of the Democratic Party.
As more and more analysts are beginning to recognize, the most significant of these changes is an increasing alignment of urban and inner-ring suburban voters with the Democrats and a parallel alignment of rural voters with the GOP. As an institution, the Senate gives disproportionate power to sparsely populated states, many of which have low-density populations — which are growing ever more likely to vote Republican. So the GOP currently has an edge in the Senate.
Even if it were remotely conceivable to abolish or fundamentally alter the upper house of Congress — it isn't — proposing to do so on the basis of a short-term shift in one party's electoral fortunes would be incredibly short-sighted, and even downright peevish.
A far better response would be for Democrats to devise a message that can win over somewhat more rural voters. I can totally understand why highly partisan, urban progressives would prefer (in the words of The New York Times' Ross Douthat) "to win purple and red Senate seats … with charisma and mobilization rather than with ideological compromise." But that approach doesn't seem to be working very well. (Just ask Beto O'Rourke.) Better would be some form of rural outreach to broaden the party's electoral appeal.
Would it be difficult? Maybe so. But we should be grateful that the Senate incentivizes such an effort. It would be bad for one of the country's two parties to be able to dominate the political system while drawing on next to no support from rural regions. Anything that encourages Democrats to make a broader pitch for support, to speak to the problems, concerns, and anxieties of rural America, in addition to those of the cities and suburbs, should be welcome.
If Democrats want to win control of the Senate, they will need to do exactly that. And that should be considered a good thing, not just another occasion to rail petulantly against a political system that doesn't give one party exactly what it wants.