Thursday, January 28, 2010

Would America Be More Governable If...

...our states weren't quite so unrepresentative of the people who lived there?

So suppose you find yourself accepting the possibility that within the United States today a discursive space wherein people can truly meet, argue, listen persuade, change their minds, make plans, and otherwise govern themselves democratically can no longer be reasonably expected to emerge. In other words, that republican government is at an end. One possibility would be to wash your hands of the whole thing. Another possibility would be to look at whether there is something in the structure of our 300 million-plus country which makes even the bare elements of democratic republican--that is, representative government--practice harder and harder all the time.

One obviously place to begin would be with the Senate, which has become progressively less democratic and more difficult to get legislation through as the decades have gone by. (Obama talked about this last night--though not nearly harshly enough--with his references to the Republican party's implicit demand for "supermajorities.") But beyond some procedural reforms regarding the filibuster, isn't there something more that could be done to make the states more likely sites for real democracy, whether locally or on the national level. That might require something dramatic. Not as dramatic as abolishing the Senate; for myself, I like federalism, and I like states having power on the national level. (Fact is, it's the 17th Amendment which I'd like to see abolished.) But what if the states the Senate represented were themselves a little more "democratically" organized? Like, say, this?

It's a thought experiment, designed around the idea of creating fifty states, all with essentially equal population. (Find out more about it here, here, and here.) Of course, states will never be--or at least, probably never should be--redrawn solely on the basis of population for electoral purposes, even democratic ones; there is history, culture, geography and more to consider. Still, such reconsiderations go along with my oft-stated wish that we could have more states--more locations for people to center themselves around, identify themselves with, and develop as a culture, a community, a demos capable of listening to, learning from, and even sometimes agreeing with one another. It's worth imagining, at least.


humble biped said...

I wouldn't accept that the "American Experiment" is at an end, but I appreciate your thoughts on my project. I don't think that the 17th should be repealed, but it does open the idea of other methods for choosing the upper house. In India, the Rajya Sabha is partially composed of members nominated by the executive on the basis of eminence in the practical and liberal arts and sciences. An attempt to create a 'nonpolitical' Senate would be a farce, but it's an intriguing method.
Finally, I don't think that there's any shortage of places (physical and otherwise) for people to develop culture and community. It's just that those groups don't align at all with political boundaries. That's probably a good thing, because a geographic space of any size is occupied by individuals who identify with many groups, some of which might be in opposition if not outright competition. Political bodies that directly reflect a particular cultural group tend to take an untoward approach to those not in that group.

MH said...

That wouldn't work. You'd be mushing the Big 12 into fewer states and the Pac 10 into more states.

Matt said...

I like the idea, but would like it more Boise could somehow get stuck w/ the new Oregon state.

(More seriously, I do tend to think that in some ways it's a shame that the US grew as big as it did, as it does seem to me that very large states are bad in most ways. This is something that makes me conflicted about the increasing state-like nature of the EU.)

Aloysius said...

The Senate was the founders' antidote to populists and demagogues who would defraud people with their honeyed rhetoric. It wasn't meant to be so democratic but rather a superego to the Id of the House of Representatives.

We are hanging on by a hair from the biggest con in the history of the Republic.