Return to CVD homepage
Search the CVD website Make a tax-deductible contribution to CVD We welcome your feedback
Return to CVD homepage
What's new?
Online library
Order materials
Get involved!
Links related to electoral reform
About CVD

Progressive Populis


 
Why Progressives Lose: Affirmative Action for Conservatives
By Steven Hill
June 2003

One of the most obvious reasons for the recent successes of the Republican Party and conservatives is being overlooked by most political analysts. The unfortunate fact is, all three branches of the federal government have a built-in STRUCTURAL bias favoring Republicans and the conservative point of view. It's like having a foot race where Republicans start 20 yards ahead of Democrats. Despite the unfairness of it, that advantage is hardwired into the U.S. Constitution.

The current extreme conservatism of the U.S. government can be directly attributed to the antiquated 18th-century institutions of the United States Senate and Electoral College. Both of these institutions are structured to give low-population and predominantly rural states more representation per capita than higher population states. Because these states tend to be the most conservative in the country, in effect these states are granted a huge "representation subsidy," a kind of affirmative action, that favors the Republican Party as well as conservative elements within the Democratic Party.

An interesting book, "Sizing up the Senate" by Francis Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer, shows that this representation subsidy in the Senate has the effect of disproportionately favoring these low-population states when it comes to representation, policy, federal appropriations, even leadership positions in the Senate. For example, that representation quota has over-represented the Republican Party in the Senate in every election since 1958, primarily due to Republican success in low-population, conservative states in the West and South. Currently, Democrats and Jim Jeffords represent a total of 2.4 million adult Americans (if one counts the total adult population of a state once for each senator representing that state), and Republicans represent a total of 1.9 million adults -- yet the Republicans have the majority.

Similarly with the Electoral College. The affirmative action quota for low-population states favors the election of Republican and conservative presidential candidates. For instance, in 2000 George W. Bush won most states with three, four, or five electoral votes, and that small-state padding explained the difference between the Electoral College vote (won by Bush with a lean 271-267 margin) and the national popular vote (won by Gore with a half million more votes).

In 1789, the ratio between the most populous state (Virginia) and the least populous (Delaware) was 11 to 1. Now California has 68 times as many people as Wyoming, and the gap is growing. The Framers simply did not foresee such dramatic population imbalances over 200 years later. Consequently, the apportionment formulas they have saddled us with, which gives each state one Electoral College vote per each U.S. Senator and gives each state two Senators regardless of population, has given the people of Wyoming 68 times the per capita representation of Californians in the Senate and nearly four times the per capita representation in the Electoral College.

The low-population western and mountain states of Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, North and South Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arizona form a vast area of fiery red Bush country stretching from the Canadian to the Mexican borders, over one million square miles, the size of all of Western Europe including Scandinavia. If we add in Alaska, the region is practically the size of a continent. This region is its own sparsely settled sub-nation of sorts of over 26 million people with the same population as the states of New York and Massachusetts -- yet over five times the representation of New York and Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate, and nine more votes in the Electoral College.

Moreover, because of the Senate's constitutional role in approving U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal court nominees, this conservative bias is built into our courtrooms as well. This "representation subsidy" for low population, conservative states goes a long way toward explaining the current dominance of a conservative movement based in the low population and rural western mountain states, the southwest, and the Confederate south. The fact is, a bias toward conservative, low-population states has been constitutionally mortared into all three branches of government. Yet the impacts of this malapportionment hardly are examined by political scientists or pundits, whether mainstream or progressive.

Over the years, low-population states representing a small fragment of the nation have flexed their representation quota to slow down or thwart desegregation, campaign finance reform, health care reform, affirmative action, New Deal programs, gun control, even basketball programs for inner city youth. Urban policy and assistance for inner cities have been bottled up by Senators representing conservative low-population rural states. Bill Clinton's domestic stimulus program, which was targeted at urban areas in megastates like California, was killed by conservative senators from underpopulated states such as Oklahoma. Labor law reform, like a bill that would have prohibited permanent replacement of strikers, passed the House but could not muster the 60 votes necessary to break a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Huge federal agricultural subsidies, a boondoggle to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, are handed out to many of these low-population farming states.

Senators from low-population states have exercised disproportionate influence over foreign policy. Judicial appointments like Clarence Thomas have been opposed by Senators representing a clear majority of the American people -- but found themselves in the minority in the Senate.

Given the built-in institutional bias favoring conservatives, it is not surprising that research has demonstrated in recent years that the United States Congress is completely out of touch with the American people. Political scientists Larry Jacobs, Robert Schapiro, and others have shown that the Congress is on the same page as the American people a mere 40 percent of the time, in terms of enacting legislative policy that mirrors the desires of Americans. Fifteen years ago, that figure was 65 percent.

Peering into the crystal ball at demographic trends, by 2050 as few as five percent of the population may have majority power in the Senate. According to the Census Bureau, by 2025 our four largest states, California, Texas, New York and Florida will be non-white majority containing a combined 25 percent of the nation's population -- yet these four states will have the same representation in the Senate as sparsely-settled Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and North Dakota, with similar malapportionment extant in the Electoral College.

In other words, with our nation evolving toward a multiracial amalgam without historical precedent, the U.S. Senate, presidency, and Supreme Court will continue to look like white rural America, resulting from what one writer has called "a weighted vote for small-town whites in pickup trucks with gun racks." Shifting demographics are colliding with anti-democratic defects implanted into our antiquated, 18th-century constitutional framework. This is a demographic built to blow.

It is deeply ironic that, for all the radical conservative philosophy oozing from the ideologues of the Republican Party, low-population, conservative, and predominantly white states have benefited from the most flagrant form of representational affirmative action. These conservatives tagged Lani Guinier as a "quota queen" for some of her legal ideas regarding representation, yet the representation scheme for the U.S. Senate and Electoral College was founded on quotas -- specifically, a representation quota, a subsidy, affirmative action, whatever you want to call it -- for low-population states that have disproportionately favored conservative and white-dominated states for decades.

Most legislatures, not only in the U.S. but around the world, base representation on population. This is a principle that many popular revolutions and struggles have fought for and wrested from kings, dictators and tyrants. It's a sound principle, and one that our own American democracy has proudly exported to the rest of the world. Yet our own primary political institutions fail that test.

Amending the U.S. Constitution to change this malapportionment will be extremely difficult since it will require support from conservative Senators and state legislatures that benefit from the status quo. Nevertheless, it's time to at least begin the national conversation about these antiquated 18th century institutions that not only distort representation but also twist national policy, and figure out a viable strategy for badly needed reform.

In the meantime, conservative, rural, mostly white, low-population states and their representatives will continue brandishing disproportionate legislative, presidential and judicial power. Adding Why Progressives Lose: Affirmative Action for Conservatives By Steven Hill One of the most obvious reasons for the recent successes of the Republican Party and conservatives is being overlooked by most political analysts. The unfortunate fact is, all three branches of the federal government have a built-in STRUCTURAL bias favoring Republicans and the conservative point of view. It's like having a foot race where Republicans start 20 yards ahead of Democrats. Despite the unfairness of it, that advantage is hardwired into the U.S. Constitution.

The current extreme conservatism of the U.S. government can be directly attributed to the antiquated 18th-century institutions of the United States Senate and Electoral College. Both of these institutions are structured to give low-population and predominantly rural states more representation per capita than higher population states. Because these states tend to be the most conservative in the country, in effect these states are granted a huge "representation subsidy," a kind of affirmative action, that favors the Republican Party as well as conservative elements within the Democratic Party.

An interesting book, "Sizing up the Senate" by Francis Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer, shows that this representation subsidy in the Senate has the effect of disproportionately favoring these low-population states when it comes to representation, policy, federal appropriations, even leadership positions in the Senate. For example, that representation quota has over-represented the Republican Party in the Senate in every election since 1958, primarily due to Republican success in low-population, conservative states in the West and South. Currently, Democrats and Jim Jeffords represent a total of 2.4 million adult Americans (if one counts the total adult population of a state once for each senator representing that state), and Republicans represent a total of 1.9 million adults -- yet the Republicans have the majority.

Similarly with the Electoral College. The affirmative action quota for low-population states favors the election of Republican and conservative presidential candidates. For instance, in 2000 George W. Bush won most states with three, four, or five electoral votes, and that small-state padding explained the difference between the Electoral College vote (won by Bush with a lean 271-267 margin) and the national popular vote (won by Gore with a half million more votes).

In 1789, the ratio between the most populous state (Virginia) and the least populous (Delaware) was 11 to 1. Now California has 68 times as many people as Wyoming, and the gap is growing. The Framers simply did not foresee such dramatic population imbalances over 200 years later. Consequently, the apportionment formulas they have saddled us with, which gives each state one Electoral College vote per each U.S. Senator and gives each state two Senators regardless of population, has given the people of Wyoming 68 times the per capita representation of Californians in the Senate and nearly four times the per capita representation in the Electoral College.

The low-population western and mountain states of Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, North and South Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arizona form a vast area of fiery red Bush country stretching from the Canadian to the Mexican borders, over one million square miles, the size of all of Western Europe including Scandinavia. If we add in Alaska, the region is practically the size of a continent. This region is its own sparsely settled sub-nation of sorts of over 26 million people with the same population as the states of New York and Massachusetts -- yet over five times the representation of New York and Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate, and nine more votes in the Electoral College.

Moreover, because of the Senate's constitutional role in approving U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal court nominees, this conservative bias is built into our courtrooms as well. This "representation subsidy" for low population, conservative states goes a long way toward explaining the current dominance of a conservative movement based in the low population and rural western mountain states, the southwest, and the Confederate south. The fact is, a bias toward conservative, low-population states has been constitutionally mortared into all three branches of government. Yet the impacts of this malapportionment hardly are examined by political scientists or pundits, whether mainstream or progressive.

Over the years, low-population states representing a small fragment of the nation have flexed their representation quota to slow down or thwart desegregation, campaign finance reform, health care reform, affirmative action, New Deal programs, gun control, even basketball programs for inner city youth. Urban policy and assistance for inner cities have been bottled up by Senators representing conservative low-population rural states. Bill Clinton's domestic stimulus program, which was targeted at urban areas in megastates like California, was killed by conservative senators from underpopulated states such as Oklahoma. Labor law reform, like a bill that would have prohibited permanent replacement of strikers, passed the House but could not muster the 60 votes necessary to break a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Huge federal agricultural subsidies, a boondoggle to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, are handed out to many of these low-population farming states. Senators from low-population states have exercised disproportionate influence over foreign policy. Judicial appointments like Clarence Thomas have been opposed by Senators representing a clear majority of the American people -- but found themselves in the minority in the Senate.

Given the built-in institutional bias favoring conservatives, it is not surprising that research has demonstrated in recent years that the United States Congress is completely out of touch with the American people. Political scientists Larry Jacobs, Robert Schapiro, and others have shown that the Congress is on the same page as the American people a mere 40 percent of the time, in terms of enacting legislative policy that mirrors the desires of Americans. Fifteen years ago, that figure was 65 percent.

Peering into the crystal ball at demographic trends, by 2050 as few as five percent of the population may have majority power in the Senate. According to the Census Bureau, by 2025 our four largest states, California, Texas, New York and Florida will be non-white majority containing a combined 25 percent of the nation's population -- yet these four states will have the same representation in the Senate as sparsely-settled Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and North Dakota, with similar malapportionment extant in the Electoral College.

In other words, with our nation evolving toward a multiracial amalgam without historical precedent, the U.S. Senate, presidency, and Supreme Court will continue to look like white rural America, resulting from what one writer has called "a weighted vote for small-town whites in pickup trucks with gun racks." Shifting demographics are colliding with anti-democratic defects implanted into our antiquated, 18th-century constitutional framework. This is a demographic built to blow.

It is deeply ironic that, for all the radical conservative philosophy oozing from the ideologues of the Republican Party, low-population, conservative, and predominantly white states have benefited from the most flagrant form of representational affirmative action. These conservatives tagged Lani Guinier as a "quota queen" for some of her legal ideas regarding representation, yet the representation scheme for the U.S. Senate and Electoral College was founded on quotas -- specifically, a representation quota, a subsidy, affirmative action, whatever you want to call it -- for low-population states that have disproportionately favored conservative and white-dominated states for decades.

Most legislatures, not only in the U.S. but around the world, base representation on population. This is a principle that many popular revolutions and struggles have fought for and wrested from kings, dictators and tyrants. It's a sound principle, and one that our own American democracy has proudly exported to the rest of the world. Yet our own primary political institutions fail that test.

Amending the U.S. Constitution to change this malapportionment will be extremely difficult since it will require support from conservative Senators and state legislatures that benefit from the status quo. Nevertheless, it's time to at least begin the national conversation about these antiquated 18th century institutions that not only distort representation but also twist national policy, and figure out a viable strategy for badly needed reform.

In the meantime, conservative, rural, mostly white, low-population states and their representatives will continue brandishing disproportionate legislative, presidential and judicial power. Adding up the cumulative impact of this over the next twenty years is a nightmare scenario in the making. But ultimately it's that very "demographic-democratic" crisis that will provide the incentives for constitutional change.

Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org), and author of "Fixing Elections: the Failure of America's Winner-Take-All Politics" (Routledge Press, www.FixingElections.com).


Return to top of page


______________________________________________________________________
Copyright © 2003     The Center for Voting and Democracy
6930 Carroll Ave, Suite 610, Takoma Park, MD 20912
(301) 270-4616        info@fairvote.org