The Senate is a Long-Term Threat to DemocracyRoundup
tags: democracy, US Senate
Thomas Zimmer is a historian and DAAD visiting professor at Georgetown University, where he focuses on the history of democracy and its discontents in the United States.
Enabled by Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, a united front of US Senate Republicans dealt American democracy a massive blow last week by blocking the Freedom to Vote: John R Lewis Act. The US Senate: a place where desperately needed federal voting rights legislation goes to die – a spectacle unworthy of what Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin called “the world’s greatest deliberative body”.
Raskin was referring to the Senate’s reputation not necessarily in an affirmative, but in an aspirational way: he wanted to issue a challenge to the senators to live up to this glorious notion. Nevertheless, the mythical idea of the Senate as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” is widely held among the country’s political elite – the kind of American exceptionalism that still very much warps the perspective on US history and politics.
What we really need to grapple with is the fact that the current situation is not just a disgraceful aberration from the Senate’s supposedly noble past and true character. In some fundamental ways, the Senate is working as intended. It has always been one of the most powerful undemocratic distortions in the political system – and not by accident, but because that’s what it was designed to be.
So far, much of the attention has focused on the filibuster as the most blatantly undemocratic tool of obstruction. It is true that the frequency of filibuster use has increased dramatically in recent years. Still, what Republicans did last week was well in line with the longer-term historical norm. The filibuster has consistently been an instrument of white Christian domination: during the 20th century, it was used predominantly to block civil rights legislation and measures such as anti-lynching bills.
Since the filibuster was not part of the Senate’s original design and only came to be by accident in the early 19th century, it is tempting to portray it as the real culprit – a stain on an otherwise admirable institution. Let’s remember, however, that just like the electoral college, the Senate was always intended to be a layer of insulation between those in power and the people – which is why senators were initially appointed by state legislatures. The senate was supposed to help stave off what many of the founders saw as the “threat” of too much democracy. So, what we see today is not just an institution hijacked by a radicalized Republican party (although it is that too) – but an institution badly in need of structural reform that should go well beyond getting rid of the filibuster.