When I got the news that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had died, I suddenly couldn’t move. I sat down for half an hour, staring blankly at the ceiling with my head tilted so that my mask wouldn’t be too dampened by tears. The weekend that followed was one of mourning. We had lost an icon, a giant: a woman of great integrity, intelligence and power. But as the hours wore on and the shock wore off, it became clear that we had lost much more.
After four years of whispers, shouts that Roe v. Wade might be overturned echoed around newspaper articles and hallways alike. My Instagram feed filled with posts about how to stock up on birth control or obtain forms of it that would last for many years. It began to register that, during the worst health crisis in most Americans’ lifetimes, healthcare in all forms might not be given but instead taken away, even as the uninsured segment of the population (already 29 million pre-pandemic) surged. The ever-present danger faced by my transgender friends increased, and the possibility of marrying whomever one loved was suddenly in jeopardy. Whatever progress Americans might have hoped to make in undoing voter suppression faded. To add insult to grave injury, Americans began to realize that Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee could help hand him the election.
Underneath my sadness and fear was an even deeper well of anger. This was not Trump’s seat to fill. The opening was the third empty robe on the Supreme Court seized for his party by a president who lost the popular vote by almost three million. In fact, the court as it stands today includes four justices nominated by presidents who did not win the popular vote. Each of these justices owes their position to the institution of the Senate, where a Republican majority ensured their confirmations. It was also abundantly clear that whomever Trump nominated to this newly vacated seat would be confirmed by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and thus by the Senate. Before the death of Justice Ginsburg, Trump had already filled the seats left empty by Antonin Scalia’s death before the 2016 election and Anthony Kennedy’s retirement before the 2018 midterms.
Four years ago, Republicans argued that President Barack Obama did not have the authority to nominate a justice during an election year. This was blatantly untrue – multiple justices had been nominated and confirmed during election years, most notably FDR’s Justice Frank Murphy and Lincoln’s Justice Salmon Chase. Obama nominated Merrick Garland on Mar. 16, 2016, months before either party had nominated a candidate for the presidency. The Republican-controled Senate did not even grant Garland a hearing. On Sept. 26, 2020, barely a week after the death of Justice Ginsburg and the day after she was laid to rest, Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to fill her seat on the bench. On the day of Barrett’s nomination, nearly a million Americans had already sent in their ballots for the 2020 election. By the time she was confirmed, over 60 million Americans had voted either to reelect Trump or to kick him out of office. The majority of Americans did not want Trump to fill the vacancy. He might not have been able to fill it – or the other two – had it not been for the institution of the Senate.
There is no legislative body less representative of the American population than the US Senate. In a country that is 40.6 percent Black, Asian and Hispanic and 50.8 percent female, we are represented by a body that is 88 percent white and 75 percent male. But the most apparent disconnect between the will of Americans and the votes of the Senate occurs, as most things do, along party lines. As the Senate stands in 2020, Republicans have a majority, with 53 seats, while Democrats have 45 and Independents, who typically align with Democrats, have two. This control of the Senate would seem to indicate that Republicans not only represent the majority of this chamber of Congress, but also the majority of Americans – or those who voted in Senate races, at the very least. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Every election cycle, we discuss how many votes have been invalidated by the Electoral College. We bring up that the last time a Republican entered the first term of his presidency with both the popular vote and Electoral College behind him was in 1989. We remember that, despite winning the 2000 election by half a million votes, Al Gore never became president. We lament the fact that, despite her three million vote lead, Hillary Clinton did not become our first female Commander in Chief. This disenfranchisement is quaint in comparison to the invalidation of Americans’ votes in the US Senate. In the 116th Congress, very few bills that Democrats sent to the Senate were passed. In fact, over 350 bills passed by the House are still awaiting a vote in the Senate, including vital coronavirus relief and stimulus bills. Of course, if you look at this through the lens of a Republican majority, this is unsurprising. But this majority comes through individual states’ popular votes, not the national popular vote. In fact, Republican senators in the 116th Congress got a full 9.7 million fewer votes than their Democratic colleagues. 9.7 million is equal to the population of 16.5 Wyomings, more than all the people in the states that both Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham represent and significantly over the population of 10 of the least populous states combined. All of those votes amount to nothing: despite the will of the people favoring Democrats, the Senate rests in the hands of Mitch McConnell, who was elected with only 806,787 votes.
America is not and has never been a direct democracy. The Electoral College invalidates millions of votes. The justices and federal judges who make some of the country’s most important decisions are unelected. The power is not in the people; it is in the states. The Senate was built to misrepresent the country. The disparities that exist within it are not mistakes: the Founding Fathers never meant to give the power fully to the people. One stipulated that democracy was “the worst of all political evils,” another believed that democracy was imprudent because the people “seldom judge or determine right.” The Founders created the Electoral College and the Senate purposefully, with the knowledge that these institutions would give more power to some citizens than it would to others. They ensured that only white, male property owners were eligible to vote. Thus, we ended up with a pseudo-democracy in which candidates fight for the votes of states’ electors, not America’s citizens, and one where states and not people have a real say.
I am in no way a textualist – I do not believe in governing and adjudicating based on an interpretation of the Constitution as a stiff, unbending document. I do not argue that the Founders wanted the sort of equality I think America should strive for. I staunchly believe that we should not run our country exactly the way that those many white men decided it should be run over two hundred years ago. The Founding Fathers created a government by the white man and for the white man, and to be a textualist is to perpetuate that idea in full. Yes, abolishing the Senate goes directly against the founding of America. So does the declaration that Black people are equal to their white neighbors. So does voting as a woman. Because it was built to misrepresent voters, the Senate as an institution is structurally unsound and beyond repair. There is no way that the Senate can be a body that truly and equally represents all Americans, even if we were to give statehood to Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia or the Navajo Nation. More fundamentally, because of its partisan divide, the Senate does not serve as a check or a balance as much as a paper shredder for legislation passed by the far more democratic House of Representatives. Even the problems of the House are not incurable: viciously harmful racial and political gerrymandering shapes our government, but at least districts’ lines have the possibility of being redrawn, a possibility not awarded to the similarly poorly-mapped states.
We should not abolish the Senate for the reason that doing so might benefit Democrats. We should abolish the Senate because not doing so disenfranchises millions upon millions of Americans and vastly favors the opinions and votes of white men. America prides itself on being the single greatest democracy in the world. We are far from it. Not only is this country a republic at its core, but it does not even come close to valuing equal representation. This country suppresses votes at every turn and at every point in history — we should never forget that our Constitution still contains a clause declaring “other Persons” to count as three-fifths of white men. The Senate is just another way to invalidate voters while pretending that America thinks they matter. If we hope to take any steps towards true democracy, we must abolish the Senate.