Based upon census bureau projections, 69% of all Americans are projected to live in the 16 largest states. Given the uncertainties of predicting how people will live in an era of self-driving cars and other cultural changes, the precise numbers may be a bit off. But, it is certainly true that a handful of large states will hold the bulk of the population. That’s the way it’s always been and probably always will be.
These states will dominate the House of Representatives. If they have 69% of the population, they will have roughly 69% of the seats in Congress.
The Senate, however, is different. Each state is represented by two Senators regardless of population. California gets two Senators for its 39 million residents. But Wyoming gets two as well, despite having barely 600,000. At a very instinctive level, that seems unfair. Our underlying view of democracy demands that every person should have an equal voice in selecting government officials.
On a larger scale, some pundits express great concern that the 34 smaller states will have an outsized presence in the United States Senate. A recent Washington Post column noted that roughly “30 percent of the population of the country will control 68 percent of the seats in the U.S. Senate.” Critics also note that these smaller states are generally in the center of the country and are demographically different than the larger coastal states.
If America was supposed to be a pure democracy, this would be wildly inappropriate and troubling. However, our nation was founded on a belief in freedom as well as democracy. The architects of our Constitution recognized that one of the greatest threats to individual freedom would be a tyranny of the majority. Allowing 51% of voters to set rules for the other 49% to live by would be a recipe for disaster, not democracy.
Without the Senate, tyrannical majorities in coastal America could completely ignore the concerns of those who live in the middle of the country. They could pass laws that make sense in New York and California but are completely inappropriate in Missouri or Wisconsin. The Senate protects against such an outcome.
It’s important to note that this does not give the smaller states the ability to ignore the wishes of the coastal states. Those larger states have plenty of power in the House. In practical terms, as the Post notes, “The House and the Senate will be weighted to two largely different Americas.” For the federal government to work, the two Americas need to recognize each other’s’ concerns and find ways to address them.
This requirement to address the concerns of others annoys those who want an efficient government to quickly implement their own pet policies. It irritates those who believe 51% of the people should be able to use the government for whatever purposes they want. It frustrates presidents and other politicians who want to implement their agendas without working through a complex system of checks and balances.
But those concerns are the very reason for having a Senate. It is part of a carefully designed structure of government that forces leaders to build a strong consensus before unleashing the power of the federal government. As such, the Senate is essential to protecting our unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.