Monday, November 12, 2018

The Senate as a Minority Set-Aside: A Modest Proposal

Every state receives 2% (2/100) of America's Senators. This is true for big states like California (12% of the US population) and small states like Wyoming (.18% of the population). The result is that smaller states have political influence grossly in excess of their number of citizens. Indeed, just nine states comprise half of the American population -- meaning that half of America is represented by 18 Senators, while the other half gets a whopping 82. And thirty-three states -- Missouri and smaller -- have a larger proportion of Senators than they do a proportion of the American population (which is to say, their state's population comprises less than 2% of the American total).

Critics of this arrangement contend that it is anti-democratic. But defenders say that's exactly the point. The Senate is designed to avoid tyranny of the majority; it is part and parcel of a broader commitment to protecting minorities from the predations of the majority.

On this view, we can think of the Senate as a minority set-aside program. A quota of seats is reserved for members of a given political community (those who live in small, less populous states); they are guaranteed representation far in excess of what they'd likely receive in a purely "meritocratic" (democratic) selection process.

Surely, the concern about tyranny of the majority is a valid one. And that got me thinking: why stop there? After all, if we're worried about tyranny of the majority, that concern is at least as robust -- maybe more! -- when talking about racial minorities compared to the minority of people who happen to live in the middle of nowhere, Nebraska. If the point of the Senate is to protect these vulnerable minority groups from being run roughshod by the majority, don't racial minorities deserve at least as much protection as Nebraskans?

So here's my proposal: The 25 least populous states have less than 20% of the American population, but nonetheless hold half of all Senate seats. Call them the "set-aside" states -- they get extra Senate representation to protect the minority from the majority. My proposal is that in the set-aside states, one of two Senate seats should be voted on only by people of color. So in Kentucky (26th most populous state), one of the Senators would be voted on by all residents in Kentucky, and the other only by non-White residents.

Now you might be thinking: that's not fair! Why should only a small subset of the population (Kentucky is approximately 15% non-White) get an entire Senate seat allocated to itself, one which most Kentuckians aren't able to vote for? But that's the same "tyranny of the majority" logic rearing its head again: after all, one could say the same thing regarding why tiny Kentucky -- barely a tenth the size of California -- should get two whole Senate seats all to itself. If the way we protect minorities is by setting aside half of our Senate seats to numerical minorities, then there's no reason why geography should be our sole or even primary metric.

Think of how minority-protective this would be! Currently, there are just nine non-White U.S. Senators even though people of color comprise 23% of America (again, contrast that to 50% of all U.S. Senators hailing from states comprising just 20% of the population). But if the set-aside states -- Oklahoma, Iowa, Utah, Mississippi ... all the way down to tiny Wyoming -- all took their principled devotion to avoiding tyranny of the majority and applied it to race, that number would shoot way up. Assuming each of these states elected a racial minority to one of the two seats, we'd have another 25 non-White U.S. Senators -- a total of 34%! Admittedly, this still wouldn't be as lopsidedly disproportionate as the overrepresentation of rural states -- indeed, it'd be closer to proportionate representation than the status quo -- but in service of avoiding tyranny I think we we can let that slide.

The color of skin you're born with is morally arbitrary, but then, so is living in Montana versus New York. Since I keep hearing that malproportioned electoral representation is absolutely crucial to avoiding tyranny of the majority, and since tyranny of a racial majority has historically been a far greater threat to American liberty than tyranny of the California, Texas, Florida .... Georgia majority, I can't fathom any reason why this proposal wouldn't gain the support of all those principled defenders of the Senate as a bulwark of minority rights.

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