With the sub-optimal down-ballot election results has come the predictable loud complaints from the left about the structure of the American electoral system especially, of course, the Senate. There is no doubt that given the current distribution of partisan preferences the structure of the Senate disadvantages the Democrats. And there is no doubt that if you were designing a fair electoral system from scratch, you probably wouldn’t have the Senate in its current incarnation.
But, in the immortal words of James Earl Carter, Jr., there are many things in life that are not fair–and this is one of them! However, that structure is not likely to change anytime soon so Democrats need to suck it up and figure out how to win with the structure they’ve got. Jeff Greenfield makes the argument well in a recent Washington Post piece.
“The Senate isn’t quite the unsolvable problem that Democratic critics think it is. The chamber’s current Republican tilt is political, not structural — and it could be overcome without any changes to the Constitution. The Democrats just have to start winning elections….
If the Senate’s small-state bias is locked in, that doesn’t mean the upper chamber is destined to remain a GOP bastion. This year, Republicans minimized their potential losses in the Senate by winning every seat in states that went for President Trump, probably retaining control. But you don’t have to look very far back in the past to find Democrats regularly winning Senate seats in states that vote deeply crimson at the presidential level. North Dakota had two Democrats in the Senate from 1987 through 2011, and one until 2019. Both of Montana’s senators were Democrats from 2007 to 2015, and one was reelected just two years ago. Until the 2014 midterms, Democrats held seats from Alaska, Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Iowa and South Dakota….
None of [Democrats’] hopes for altering its imbalance — granting statehood to Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, killing the filibuster, ending conservative domination of the federal bench — can happen unless Democrats first take the upper chamber, which essentially means winning the battle on a Republican-tilted playing field.
But that’s a political problem, not a structural one. And it’s solvable: Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.) have been elected and reelected; are they the only Democrats who can win in increasingly red states? Is it impossible to imagine, for example, that a candidate who acknowledged the failure of both parties to stem the economic decline of the working class might strike a responsive chord? Might a candidate find a way to insulate herself against the more provocative arguments of more progressive Democrats, like “defund the police,” while emphasizing the economic-fairness arguments that bridge the gap between the party’s wings? If Democrats could hold 60 Senate seats 11 years ago, is a return to the majority really beyond reach?”
Difficult but not impossible. So time to stop the whining and figure out ways of winning in places Democrats have been losing. As Greenfield notes:
‘[Democrats] cannot build a time machine to bring them back to 1789, so that they can stiffen James Madison’s spine against the small states’ demands. They cannot erase Article V from the Constitution. They probably cannot persuade Mike Bloomberg and other billionaires to pay for the resettlement of a few hundred thousand Californians and New Yorkers to the Dakotas. They have no choice, then, but to find the messages and the organizing tools that can break through that new red wall that stands between their national majority and the power to govern.”
Greenfield is correct. There is no choice but to do exactly that.