Mitch McConnell
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

By constitutional design, only a third of the Senate is up for reelection at any given time. This is supposed to stiffen the body’s ability to rebuff populist passions that will inevitably arise from time to time and manifest in foolish and panicked legislation in the House of Representatives whose whole body is accountable to the voters every two years.

For the same reason, senators were not supposed to be elected directly by the people, but the corruption that seemed to attend every vacancy in the Senate caused progressives to push for reform. In 1913, the 17th Amendment was ratified. It was an advance in accountability but a blow to the Senate’s independence. After all, we already had one representative body, and its design was calibrated to reflect the actual distribution of population in the country. The Senate’s two-seats-per-state rule isn’t representative at all, so it’s hard to discern its purpose if all it does is act as a second directly elected legislature.

The Senate’s filibuster rule has served as one meaningful distinction with the House. By requiring unanimous consent to do anything, and a supermajority (once 67 votes, now 60 votes) to overcome a lack of unanimous consent, the rule gave power to the minority party and assured that some compromise was necessary. This has served our nation as a kind of ballast that lengthens the wavelength of our political oscillation in power. It has made sudden change difficult, with a trade off of unique reliability and stability. We could spend a lot of time considering the tradeoffs involved. Injustices tend to persist for longer periods here than in parliamentary systems, but, once attained, rights tend to persist, and the world uses our currency and follows our leadership for reasons that go beyond raw economic and military power.

This has been our system, and it has always been a thumb in the eye of any conceit that we’re a true direct and representative democracy. We’ve lived with, enjoyed and suffered from its flaws and virtues, but it has now fully broken.

Already weakened, the filibuster will most likely soon suffer another blow as it is taken away from the Democrats in order fill a stolen seat on the Supreme Court. It may persist a while longer for legislation (as opposed to nominations) but the principle that undergirds the filibuster will be eviscerated. If the Senate Democrats obstruct President Trump’s legislative agenda, the filibuster will go the way of the Whigs.

It’s not unprecedented, but it’s a good example of the unrepresentative nature of the Senate that the members who voted against the nomination of Betsy DeVos (all the Democrats and two Republicans) represent 36 million more people than the members who voted to confirm her. In this respect, the new Secretary of Education is much like the new president, who attained his position despite losing the popular vote by nearly three million votes.

Or consider the following statistics. In 2012, the popular vote for the House of Representatives favored the Democrats 59,645,531 to 58,228,253, yet the Republicans won 234 seats and the Democrats only won 201 of them.

When it comes to the Senate, the GOP currently has a slim 52-48 advantage over the Democrats but the Democrats have almost no hope of taking over the chamber in the near future. To demonstrate my point, the Class of 2019 which is up for reelection in November 2018, only includes the following Republicans:

1. John Barrasso of Wyoming
2. Bob Corker of Tennessee
3. Ted Cruz of Texas
4. Deb Fischer of Nebraska
5. Jeff Flake of Arizona
6. Orrin Hatch of Utah
7. Dean Heller of Nevada
8. Roger Wicker of Mississippi

There will also be a special election to fill out Jeff Sessions of Alabama’s full term.

I suppose anything can happen, but the Democrats aren’t currently favored to win any of those seats and only one of them (Nevada) is from a state that Clinton or Obama ever won. The chances of the Democrats holding all of their seats in 2018 and winning at least three of the seats listed above are vanishingly small, and the Class of 2021 hardly looks more promising.

It’s inescapable at this point that the demographics and politics of our country have evolved in a way that the Democrats cannot rely on getting more votes or having more popular support to translate into having more power. And that’s before we even begin discussing things like the power of Fox News, talk radio, fake news, and Vladimir Putin. It’s before we talk about the effectiveness of Republican efforts to suppress our vote.

So, when Brian Beutler writes about the Republicans’ apparent lack of concern that they’ll be held accountable, let’s keep all of this in mind.

Just as now, the [new administration’s] idea in 2001 and 2009 was to get as much done as possible, as quickly as possible—to consciously take on water and then bail out as much as possible later on, ahead of the next election. The difference is that Republicans today are accepting all the risks their predecessors did, but with few guaranteed returns to show for it.

Beutler is talking about something a little different than what I’m focused on, but it shouldn’t surprise people anymore that the Republicans are less risk-averse than the Democrats. Their built-in advantages have been so strong that they haven’t had to worry too much about getting held accountable for their actions. When you consider that their anti-government message actually is bolstered when the government doesn’t function well, the accountability differential grows even larger.

And now we have Jeff Sessions running the Department of Justice. Jeff Sessions is every nail in the coffin of the left’s aspirations to fight on an even playing field.

At this point, our whole political system lacks credibility, and it’s a fools errand to go to progressives and argue that we can win just by doing a better job organizing or just by winning more votes.

It’s already obvious that there will be a backlash against Donald Trump, and even the prospect of what the congressional Republicans intend to do is activating a dormant army of newly concerned citizens. But whatever accountability comes, it’s going to be badly muted in its actual effectiveness. We’ve been neutered.

Insofar as this is partly attributable to the Democratic Party’s demographic problem, the party could self-consciously work to extend the breadth and geographic scope of their support. And that is something I highly recommend they do. Because of a collapse of rural and exurban support, the Democrats have been wiped out in state legislatures and have almost no prospect of making a comeback by relying solely on growing strength in the suburbs. For the same reason, (assisted, but not caused, by gerrymandering) the Democrats will have tremendous difficulty winning back control of the House. Their hopes of winning control of the Senate in either of the next two elections are close to nil no matter how many more million votes they get.

There’s no choice but for the party to change, and not in ways that it wants to change. I don’t want some of the changes that need to be made. But the Republicans’ advantages are currently so great that we cannot get any accountability. And, soon, there’s a real risk of a breakdown in public order when people finally realize that our country is no longer even passingly representative.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at