Origins of Instability in the Fractional Democracy
1861: The Beginning of the Republican Expansion
When the United States of America finally collapses and becomes a distant memory in the history of democratic experiments, it will happen very quietly. No bloody civil war. No shots fired. It will simply shut down. And when the vital services it provided are no longer functional, such as air transportation, the states will have decisions to make. Shall we fill the void left by a non-functional federal government? No secession is required here. The federal government just vanished.
California will be one of the first states forced to make the decision, since it is more vested in air travel than any other state. If the federal government isn’t providing services, why is it withholding taxes? The people of California, while collectively paying the most in federal taxes, are the least represented in the federal government. After all, California has as much say in the Supreme Court as Wyoming, which has less than 600,000 people. Based on population, California should have twelve senators. They have two. Wyoming should have none. They have two. The vaunted United States Constitution, often portrayed as mankind's most accomplished attempt at democracy, is really one of history’s great bait-and-switch schemes.
After all, the 26 least populated states, which control the outcomes of the Senate, and approve candidates for the judicial branch, currently make up less than 18% of the United States population. And it’s even worse than this. It just takes simple majorities in those states to elect senators, so about 9% of the population can control the Senate and Supreme Court.
Nothing highlights the contra democratic nature of the Senate and Supreme Court more than the 2018 midterm election. In this election, Democratic senatorial candidates garnered 53 million votes to just 35 million votes for the Republicans. In the process, the Democrats lost two seats in the Senate, highlighting the extraordinary disconnect between popular vote and equal representation in the upper house of Congress.
And it’s not like this was a surprise to the framers of the Constitution. Minority control of the Senate was certainly possible at the time of ratification. In 1790, the seven least populous states (that could control the Senate) had 21% of the population (this number is not adjusted for the Three-Fifths Compromise). And the subsequent addition of the western states would only exacerbate the fundamental contra democratic structure of the federal government.
The original thirteen states knew they were in for trouble when they formulated the New States Clause in the Constitution. At that time, the Northwest Territory was huge, and becoming rapidly populated. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase extended the land mass to more than half of the current continental United States. It was too much, too soon for the struggling country, and the political power of the original thirteen states was quickly in jeopardy. The New States Clause attempted to deal with the very eminent political threat coming from not only the huge western territories, but the subdivision of existing states. The New States Clause reads:
“New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”
This clause would make it difficult for the populous states to improve their relative representation in the Senate by subdividing. Without the New States Clause, California could theoretically divide into 69 Wyoming-sized states and garner 138 Senate seats.
But where the New States Clause severely undermined equal senatorial representation was in the population size criteria. So where is the population criteria? This is not found in the New States Clause. It was originally found in the Northwest Ordinance of 1789. This ordinance partitioned the Northwest Territory into three to five states, and mandated a minimum population of 60,000 in each before granting statehood.
This 60,000 population criteria was about the size of Delaware, the smallest state at the time the Northwest Ordinance was passed. This criteria was reflective of the population required to establish one seat in the House of Representatives. Typically, the addition of new states added more senators than house members.
Adding new states were always viewed skeptically by the established states. There was a natural dilution of power when adding a new state. And the preservation of slavery was a make or break issue for the southern states. Prior to 1846, if a free state was added, it was usually compensated by the addition of a slave state. While the free states always had more members in the House, the slave states could maintain parity in the Senate, which was their refuge from anti-slavery legislation. But this would change in 1846, when no more slave states were allowed in the union. The balance in the Senate was tipping against slavery, and setting the stage for secession.
Shortly after the War began, the Republicans drove statehood for some very good political purposes. Such as survival. Lincoln was only elected with 40% of the popular vote, taking advantage of a Democratic Party badly split into an anti-slavery north and a pro-slavery south. The Republicans voted for statehood for Nevada, which didn’t have the minimum population to justify a house seat. They also brought in Kansas, West Virginia (which violated the New States Clause), and tried to entice Colorado to join, even though their own voters rejected their proposed state constitution, another mandate of the New States Clause. In other words, get states in to neutralize the Democratic advantage, and get them now. Constitution? What Constitution?
And these new states were big, dwarfing the original thirteen states in land area. They were also sparsely populated. They would be havens for conservatism, until the small towns turned into big cities. After the end of the War, the Democrats were breathing down the necks of the Republicans, as the Confederate states were Democratic, and coming back into the union. This left the Republicans only one place to go. West.
While this westward expansion was not very helpful in the House, the Republicans used it to control the Senate. North Dakota and South Dakota are prime examples of Republican “senator packing”. In 1888, the Democratic president, Grover Cleveland proposed that Dakota, New Mexico, Montana, and Washington be added together, giving the Dems an even split, as Montana and New Mexico were projected to go Democratic. But the Republicans won the House, Senate, and Presidency in 1888, and the Dems were forced to take on not one, but two Dakotas, along with losing New Mexico. 1888 was a disaster for the Dems, and predictably, all four senators elected in North and South Dakota were Republican. They are still Republican. The new states were heavily biased towards Republican senators.
Another sore spot for modern day Democrats, Wyoming, always had under population issues, with only 55,000 people in 1888, and did not qualify for statehood. However, given some questionable accounting by Joseph Carey, who would later become the governor of Wyoming, the territory claimed a population of 125,000. In 1890, the still dominant Republicans pushed through statehood for Wyoming, and sure enough, the first two senators elected were Republican. Idaho, a modern day stronghold for conservatism, only had a population of 88,000 in 1890, but still enough for the Republicans to grant statehood, giving them two more Republican senators.
Utah came into the union in 1896 with two more Republican senators. It wasn’t until 1907 that the Dems would manage to push Oklahoma into statehood, and stop the Republican juggernaut. Two Democratic senators were elected in Oklahoma in 1907, which was an unusual occurrence. In 1912, when rivals Arizona and New Mexico entered the union, it was an even split. Arizona elected two Democrats, and New Mexico elected two Republicans.
SST, RRMT, and UDT
After the political gold rush was over, the Republican statehood strategy was a huge success. In 1912, after the senators from the new states were seated, the Republicans held 50 seats to 40 for the Democrats. And this is while the Democrats had a large majority in the House, 230 to 162, similar to the situation today. But the fortunes would change quickly for the Republicans, as in the next election, they would lose the Senate to the Democrats and get take deeper losses in the House.
But the stage was still set for a brighter Republican future. Currently, the Republicans control 53 seats in the Senate, versus 47 seats for the Dems. These 53 seats represent 47.9% of the US population (not including Puerto Rico and DC). This is the result of one of the great correlations of all populations: population density and political affiliation. Dense urban populations are always more liberal than their surrounding rural populations.
Three theories provide explanations to this phenomenon. One is the Self-Selection Theory, or SST. Basically, conservative and religious people are more averse to population density, and choose to live in rural and suburban environments. This works to facilitate reproduction for the religious conservatives, who are always more reproductive than the secular liberal city dwellers.
Another theory is Racial-Religious Motivation Theory, or RRMT, which proposes that people averse to racially or religiously different environments avoid racially and religiously mixed urban areas. There is less genetic variation in rural environments than in cities.
And another is Urban Desensitization Theory, or UDT, where residing in urban environments actually makes one more liberal over time. The constant exposure to high population density acts on the brain like a sort of drug, making one more tolerant of sexual, racial, and religious heterogeneity.
But whatever the reason, not understanding the interaction of political-religious affiliation and population density was a big miss by the framers of the Constitution. After all, how do you not know that people that live in rural environments are politically and religiously different from city dwellers? Regardless, the politics of the day overruled the creation of one-person one-vote government. The small states simply would not agree to the new constitution without equal representation in the Senate, and threatened to establish relationships with European powers.
So close, but yet so far. The United States was almost a democracy. Almost. Given the territorial expansion of the United States, the Constitution was structurally destined to give inappropriate power to religious conservatives. And the final result is that the majority of people are now subject to the will of the minority.
So this is how the American story will end. Not with a bang. But with a shutdown. And political polarization is at its feet. And that polarization is exacerbated by the structure of Congress: a democratically elected House and a Senate that is overweighted in states with low population densities. Political conflict hasn't been this severe since the Civil War, and federal government shutdowns, which never occurred until 1980, are increasing in frequency and severity. If these trends persist, the states will eventually need to consider stepping in to protect their airports, borders, and social insurance recipients, and be faced with the possibility that they should appropriate federal tax withholding to fund it all.