At Vox.com this weekend, Dylan Matthews took note of the huge disparity in November election totals for the US Senate. Despite winning control of that body with a majority, Republican candidates received nearly 21 million fewer votes than Democrats. Noting that the fundamental problem is the Senate’s structure, which rewards the influence of small states, Matthews suggests that “The Senate is a profoundly anti-democratic body and should be abolished.” He is hardly the first to make that suggestion; the Senate and its rules have long been a contentious topic on the left, which is impatient with the most conservative structures of American government.
But are liberals perhaps too quick to throw away something that might in fact be very useful to them?
The Senate gives every state two seats. This was originally a nod to the very real problem of senators dying in office during the early years of the Republic: travel to and from the capital was much harder on a human body than it is today, while medical care was often worse than the diseases that doctors tried to cure. Back then, senators represented the will of state legislatures, not voters, and the provision of two seats meant that every state would have at least one man on the scene if the other died. But thanks to modern medicine and air travel — as well as direct election of senators — these are moot concerns now. Rather than get rid of the Senate altogether, maybe the solution is to take one seat from every state and make some public use of them for the benefit of the taxpayer.
For example, we could sell them.
Suppose that fifty United States Senate seats were made available for purchase in open bidding by corporations, billionaires, and the well-heeled dilettantes of our time — the Mitt Romneys, Donald Trumps, and Sheldon Adelsons of America. Let’s even set the minimum bid at $20 million, which is roughly what it will cost to buy a Senate seat the old-fashioned way in 2020. What might America achieve with the proceeds from such a sale, repeated every two years for six year terms in the same Constitutional order that we have now? How much money could be raised this way — $300 million at a time? $400 million?
More to the point, would it be enough to pay for clean elections in the rest of Congress, for the presidency, and potentially in the states?
By now, Americans understand their elections no longer belong to “Americans,” but to the richest little slice of America — companies, and the billionaires who own them, that treat government as a means to protect themselves from risk and order markets to their own benefit. We all know it’s all about the money. Efforts to replace the current system of privatized government with publicly-funded elections have failed at every turn since the 1980s, as if by default, while a series of conservative legal challenges before a Supreme Court stacked with right wing ideologues has made the ‘free market’ elections system incalculably worse. Our democracy is being strangled by the success of a ‘billionaire freedom agenda.’
Without a radical change in course, the situation will only get worse — but how does one bridle the current system in a way that’s good for the people? If democracy is already for sale, how do the American people get a piece of the action?