In 2012, the political scientist Ross Baker spent a sabbatical brushing up on his congressional knowledge by spending time in the office of Harry Reid, the then Democratic majority leader in the US Senate. Baker vividly remembers Reid telling him a story about Mitch McConnell, his opposite number in the Republican party.

“Reid told me he couldn’t get McConnell to go to the White House with him,” Baker recalled. “McConnell would say, ‘I don’t want to go to that place.’ Reid specifically told me, ‘Mitch hates to go there.’”

For Baker, the distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University, that exchange about McConnell’s resistance to even visiting Barack Obama in the White House provided a telling insight into how rigid in its partisanship the modern Republican party under his leadership had become. It resonated with McConnell’s comment two years previously, that “the single most important thing we have to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”.

Such a visceral determination to oust a sitting president was not in the spirit of the Senate as it had historically been conceived. The world’s “greatest deliberative body”, as the now fraying cliché goes, was meant to rise above party political point-scoring.

“The Senate was once the place where problems got solved, where senators were able to converse across party lines,” Baker told the Guardian. “It was the place for the grown-ups. They thought of themselves as special. Well, they’re not special any more.”

Just how far from special the US Senate has become has been exposed this week in the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. McConnell lost no time in pressing ahead with a ruthless overturning of a precedent that he himself had invented in 2016.

In that year, the majority leader refused to hold hearings on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the US supreme court on grounds that it was a presidential election year and that the people should decide by choosing the next incumbent of the White House. Yet this year McConnell has had no hesitation in applying the opposite rationale – that Donald Trump, not the people, should decide Ginsburg’s successor – even though the election is less than two months away.

The gambit is all but assured to go ahead after leading Republican senators signaled their willingness to fall in line. It would secure a 6-3 conservative stranglehold on the nation’s top court that could imperil core constitutional rights, including a woman’s right to an abortion under Roe v Wade.

McConnell’s less than subtle volte-face has been widely condemned as rank hypocrisy. But for Sabeel Rahman, president of the advocacy group Demos Action, it is far more serious than that.

“This is a brazen power grab by the far right of the conservative party. They are shameless about using the exact opposite argument of the one they used last time because they want to control the courts for a generation,” Rahman said.

The move rankles all the more deeply among progressives and Democratic supporters given the profoundly uneven representation in the US Senate. Under the chamber’s reductionist formula, each state in the Union is awarded two seats – irrespective of population.

As a result, a single Californian voter has one-fortieth the representative power of a voter from Montana, given that California (population 40m) has the same number of Senate seats as Montana (population 1m). The polite justification for this discrepancy has been that the Founding Fathers wanted to give minority views and smaller states a voice.

But realpolitik came into it too, in the form of a compromise needed to persuade the southern slave-owning states to join the fledgling nation. “What the world wanted from the US – cotton for the spinning mills of Manchester and Leeds – came from the south. So the slave states had to be bribed,” Baker said.

Those inauspicious beginnings are reflected in the composition of the Senate, which over its 231 years has had a woeful record on diversity. In all those years, there have been almost 2,000 senators, of whom a paltry 10 have been African American (the current tally is three – the Democrats Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and the Republican Tim Scott).

Baker had a striking way of looking at the Senate through the lens of gerrymandering, the tactic widely used by Republicans to draw district boundaries for the House of Representatives and state assemblies in such a way as to artificially increase white voters’ electoral power. “The modern Senate is like one great gerrymander because of the vastly inflated representation it gives to white voters,” he said.

With the advent of the industrial revolution and the urbanization that followed, the perversity of the slavery-soiled two-seats-per-state rule has become exacerbated. A few Democratic-controlled highly urbanized states with dense and diverse populations now have the same Senate representation as many increasingly depopulated predominantly white and Republican rural states.

David Birdsell, dean of Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, estimates that by 2040, Senators representing 70% of the American population will hold only 30% of the seats in the Senate. As a result, the original vision for the body has become increasingly distorted.

“Yes, the founders intended to protect minority opinions,” Birdsell said. “But they did not intend to create a dictatorship of the minority that prevents the majority from moving forward with sensible policies that benefit everybody.”

The widening electoral deficit has a direct impact on the composition of the US supreme court – as we are now witnessing. The last justice of the court to be nominated by Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, was confirmed by the Senate in a vote of 50 to 48.

All but one of those 50 senators were Republican, many from smaller states with largely white electorates. Between them, they represented a mere 44% of the American people.

The same pattern is likely to play out in the current storm over Ginsburg’s replacement. A president elected through the electoral college by a minority of the American people (Trump attracted 3m fewer votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016) will nominate a justice who will be confirmed by Republican senators representing a minority of the American people.

The outcome will be a US supreme court whose 6-3 majority of staunch conservative justices will reflect a minority of public opinion on many of the key issues facing the country – from the climate crisis to abortion to racial justice.

“This is a measure of how anti-democratic American democracy is right now,” Rahman said. “The central pillars of our democratic infrastructure are increasingly controlled by the right wing of a minority party that is overriding the urgent needs of most Americans. This is unsustainable – if this continues, we don’t get to call ourselves a democracy.”

Original Link:

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/25/us-senate-supreme-court-democracy-minority

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