Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Breaking Silence / The magic of 60

I've been silent for quite some time and for anyone still out there who has me in their RSS feeds and hasn't purged me yet, I apologize. I've made fitful attempts to return to blogging but I've never been able to quite restore the bug I had a few years back. Maybe I'll talk more about that later.

In the meantime, this post by the incomparable Bob Somerby just demanded that I link to it and expound on it, in whatever pitiful attempt I can make to improve on it. Bob makes a point about Senate arithmetic that I have rarely heard talked about and he discusses it in a way that really brings home an essential point: 60 Democratic Senators is not the same as having 60 Republican Senators.
As everyone knows except liberal leaders, the logic of the Senate currently tilts toward conservatives—toward the GOP. It does so because small rural states get two senators—the same number the giant states get. Sparsely-populated Wyoming gets two. So does over-flowing California.

And uh-oh! At present, small rural states tend to be conservative. This means that the Senate system strongly favors conservatives—and thus the GOP. Under current arrangements, a Republican president with sixty senators would almost inevitably be more powerful than Obama currently is.


To reach the magic number of sixty, Democrats have to elect a bunch of senators f rom red states. On balance, these red-state Democrats are substantially better than the Republicans whom they defeated. But they tend to be more conservative, more corporate-friendly, than their blue-state Democrat counterparts.


George Bush never had sixty senators. Amazingly, Obama does. But if Bush had ever gotten to sixty, it would have been a stronger, purer ideological bloc than the group Obama is working with. Obama’s sixty includes a whole batch of red state Senate Dems. But then, there is virtually no way for Democrats to elect sixty senators without including a bunch of red-staters. Had the GOP elected sixty under Bush, there would have been fewer blue-staters. This is unfortunate, but it’s just bone-simple Senate logic.

Small state voters have a disproportionate influence over the Senate because their Senators have a higher Senator-to-voter ratio. Small state voters tend to be more conservative than large state voters. Therefore, conservative voters have a disproportionate influence over the Senate.

Progressives need to understand this and absorb it when they criticize the Democratic leadership in the Senate for not using their 60 votes in the same way Republicans would use them. The truth is that the 60 vote Democratic majority is NOT a 60 vote progressive majority. It's probably not even a 50 vote progressive majority.

Activists should also consider what this means when it comes to increasing the power of progressive causes in the Senate: in order to increase that power, you have to make the small states more progressive. This means you need to swing red states blue not just in their representatives but also in their voter attitudes. You need to win the heats and minds of people living in Montana, Wyoming, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, etc. You can't just write them off ass small town yokels. If you do, you are shooting yourself in the foot.

Political movements triumph when they come from the smaller states. That is the real battleground of ideas.


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