Just Say No

Siger wished to remain a professing Catholic, and to safeguard his faith he had recourse to the celebrated theory of the two truths: what is true in philosophy may be false in religion, and vice versa.
—“Siger of Brabant” New Catholic Encyclopedia. 1914. 
If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices.
—Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles
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“The Triumph of Thomas Aquinas Over Averroës”  Benozzo Gozzoli        (1420-1497)

Let no one,” read the sign over Plato’s Academy, the famed school of ancient Athens, “ignorant of mathematics enter here.” To Plato, understanding mathematics was prerequisite to the discussion of other topics, including politics. During the 1880s, however, some professors in the German university system (like Wilhelm Windelband and Wilhelm Dilthey) divided knowledge into what they called “geisteswissenschaften” (“human sciences”) and “naturwissenschaften” (“natural sciences”), so that where Plato viewed mathematics as a necessary substrate in a vertical, hierarchical relation with other fields, the Germans thought of that relation horizontally, as if they were co-equals. Today, that German conception is best exemplified by what’s known as “science studies”: the “institutional goal of” which, as Mark Bauerlein of Emory University observed some years ago, is “to delimit the sciences to one knowledge domain, to show that they speak not for reality, but for certain constructions of reality.” (Or, as one of the founders of “science studies”—Andrew Ross—began a book on the matter back in the early 1990s: “This book is dedicated to all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.”) Yet, while it may be that the German horizontal conception (to use Plato’s famous metaphor) “carves nature at the joint” better than Plato’s vertical one, the trouble with thinking of the mathematical, scientific world as one thing and the world of the human, including the political, as something else is that, among other costs, it makes it very difficult to tell—as exemplified by two different accounts of this same historical event—the story of George Washington’s first veto. Although many people appear to think of the “humanities” as just the ticket to escape America’s troubled political history … well, maybe not.

The first account I’ll mention is a chapter entitled “The First Veto,” contained in a book published in 2002 called Political Numeracy: Mathematical Perspectives on Our Chaotic Constitution. Written by law professor Michael Meyerson of the University of Baltimore, Meyerson’s book is deeply influenced by the German, horizontal view: he begins his book by observing that, when he began law school, his torts teacher sneered to his class that if any of them “were any good in math, you’d all be in medical school,” and goes on to observe that the “concept of mathematics can be relevant to the study of law seems foreign to many modern legal minds”—presumably, due to the German influence. Meyerson writes his book, then, as an argument against the German horizontal concept—and hence, implicitly, in favor of the Platonic, Greek one. Yet Meyerson’s work is subtly damaged by contact with the German view: it is not as good a treatment of the first presidential veto as another depiction of that same event—one written long before the German distinction came to be dominant in the United States.

That account was written by political scientist Edward James of the University of Chicago, and is entitled The First Apportionment of Federal Representatives in the United States: A Study in American Politics. Published in 1896, or more than a century before Meyerson’s account, it is nevertheless wholly superior: in the first place because of its level of detail, but in the second because—despite being composed in what might appear to contemporary readers as a wholly-benighted time—it’s actually far more sophisticated than Meyerson on precisely the subject that the unwary might suppose him to be weakest on. But before taking up that matter, it might be best to explain just what the first presidential veto was about.

George Washington only issued two vetoes during his two terms as president of the United States, which isn’t a record—several presidents have issued zero vetoes, including George W. Bush in his first term. But two is a pretty low number of vetoes: the all-time record holder, Franklin Roosevelt, issued 635 vetoes over his twelve years in office, and two others have issued more than a hundred. Yet while Washington’s second veto, concerning the War Department, appears fairly inconsequential today, his first veto has had repercussions that still echo in the United States. That’s because it concerned what’s of tremendous political importance to all Americans even now: the architecture of the national legislature, Congress. But it also (in a fashion that may explain just why Washington’s veto does not receive the attention it might) concerned that basic mathematical operation: division.

The structure of the Congress is detailed in Article One of the U.S. Constitution, whose first section vests the legislative power of the national government in Congress and then divides that Congress into two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Section Two of Article One describes the House of Representatives, and Clause Three of Section Two describes, among other things, just how members of the House should be distributed around the nation: the members should, the clause says, “not exceed one for every thirty Thousand” inhabitants. But it also says that “each state shall have at Least one Representative”—and that causes all the trouble.

“At the heart of the dispute,” as Meyerson remarks, is a necessarily small matter: “fractions.” Or, as James puts it in what I think of as his admirably direct fashion:

There will always be remainders after dividing the population of the state by the number of people entitled to a representative, and so long as this is true, an exact division on numerical basis is impossible, if state lines must be observed in the process of apportionment.

It isn’t possible, in other words, to have one-sixth of a congressman (no matter what we might think of her cognitive abilities), nor is it likely that state populations will be an easily-dividable number. If it were possible to ignore state lines it would also be possible to divide up the country by population readily: as James remarks, without having to take into account state boundaries the job would be “a mere matter of arithmetic.” But because state boundaries have to be taken into account, it isn’t.

The original bill—the one that Washington vetoed—tackled this problem in two steps: in the first place, it simply divided the country, whose population the 1790 Census revealed to be (on Census Day, 2 August 1790) 3,929,214, and divided by 33,000 (which does not exceed one per 30,000), which of course gives a product just shy of 120 (119.067090909, to be precise). So that was to be the total number of seats in the House of Representatives.

The second step then was to distribute them, which Congress solved by giving—according to the “The Washington Papers” at the University of Virginia—“an additional member to the eight states with the largest fraction left over after dividing.” But doing so meant that, effectively, some states’ population was being divided by 30,000 while others were being divided by some other number: as James describes, while Congress determined the total number of congressmen by dividing the nation’s total population by 33,000, when it came time to determine which states got those congressmen the legislature used a different divisor. The bill applied a 30,000 ratio to “Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia,” while applying “one of 27,770 to the other eight states.” Hence, as Washington would complain in his note to Congress explaining his veto, there was “no one proportion or divisor”—a fact that Edmund Randolph, Washington’s Attorney General (and, significantly as we’ll see, a Virginian), would say was “repugnant to the spirit of the constitution.” That opinion Washington’s Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson (also a Virginian) shared.

Because the original bill used different divisors, Jefferson said that meant that it did not contain “any principle at all”—and hence would allow future Congresses to manipulate census results for political purposes “according to any … crochet which ingenuity may invent.” Jefferson thought, instead, that every state’s population ought to be divided by the same number: a “common divisor.” On the one hand, of course, that appears perfectly fair: using a single divisor gave the appearance of transparency and prevented the kinds of manipulations Jefferson envisioned. But it did not prevent what is arguably another manipulation: under Jefferson’s plan, which had largely the same results as the original plan, two seats were taken away from Delaware and New Hampshire and given to Pennsylvania—and Virginia.

Did I mention that Jefferson (and Randolph and Washington) was a Virginian? All three were, and at the time Virginia was, as Meyerson to his credit points out, “the largest state in the Union” by population. Yet while Meyerson does correctly note “that the Jefferson plan is an extraordinarily effective machine for allocating extra seats to large states,” he fails to notice something else about Virginia—something that James does notice (as we shall see). Virginia in the 1790s was not just the most populous state, but also a state with a very large, very wealthy, and very particular local industry.

That industry was, of course, slavery, and as James wrote (need I remind you) in 1896, it did not escape sharp people at the time of Washington’s veto that, in the first place, “the vote for and against the bill was perfectly geographical, a Northern against a Southern vote,” and secondly that Jefferson’s plan had the effect of “diminish[ing] the fractions in the Northern and Eastern states and increase them in the Southern”—a pattern that implied to some that “the real reason for the adoption” of Jefferson’s plan “was not that it secured a greater degree of fairness in the distribution, but that it secured for the controlling element in the Senate”—i.e., the slaveowners—“an additional power.” “It is noticeable,” James drily remarks, “that Virginia had been picked out especially as a state which profited” by Jefferson’s plan, and that “it was […] Virginians who persuaded the President” to veto the original bill. In other words, it’s James, in 1896, who is capable of discussing the political effects of the mathematics involved in terms of race—not Meyerson, despite the fact that the law professor (because he graduated from high school in 1976) had the benefit of, among other advantages, having witnessed at least the tail end of the American civil rights movement.

All that said, I don’t know just why, of course, Meyerson feels it possible to ignore the relation between George Washington’s first, and nearly only, veto and slavery: he might for instance argue that his focus is on the relation between mathematics and politics, and that bringing race into the discussion would muddy his argument. But that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? Meyerson’s reason for excluding slavery from his discussion of Washington’s first veto is, I suspect at any rate, driven precisely by his sense that race is a matter of geisteswissenschaften. 

After all, what else could it be? As Walter Benn Michaels of the University of Illinois at Chicago has put the point, despite the fact that “we don’t any longer believe in race as a biological entity, we still treat people as if they belonged to races”—which means that we must (still) think that race exists somehow. And since the biologists assure us that there is no way—biologically speaking—to link people from various parts of, say, Africa more than people from Asia or Europe (or as Michaels says, “there is no biological fact of the matter about what race you belong to”), we must thusly be treating race as a “social” or “cultural” fact rather than a natural one—which of course implies that we must think there is (still) a distinction to be made between the “natural sciences” and the “human sciences.” Hence, Meyerson excludes race from his analysis of Washington’s first veto because he (still) thinks of race as part of the “human sciences”: even Meyerson, it seems, cannot escape the gravity well of the German concept. Yet, since there isn’t any such thing as race, that necessarily raises the question of just why we think that there are two kinds of “science.” Perhaps there is little to puzzle over about just why some Americans might like the idea of race, but one might think that it is something of a mystery just why soi-disant “intellectuals” like that idea.

Or maybe not.

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I Think I’m Gonna Be Sad

In all Republics the voice of a majority must prevail.
—Andrew Jackson.

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise that control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take control from them, but to inform their discretion.
—Thomas Jefferson. “Letter to William Charles Jarvis.” 28 September, 1820

 

 

When the Beatles first came to America, in February of 1964—Michael Tomasky noted recently for The Daily Beast—they rode from their gig at Ed Sullivan’s show in New York City to their first American concert in Washington, D.C. by train, arriving two hours and fifteen minutes after leaving Manhattan. It’s a seemingly trivial detail—until it’s pointed out, as Tomasky realized, that anyone trying that trip today would be lucky to do it in three hours. American infrastructure in short is not what it was: as the American Society of Civil Engineers wrote in 2009’s Report Card for American Infrastructure, “years of delayed maintenance and lack of modernization have left Americans with an outdated and failing infrastructure that cannot meet our needs.” But what to do about it? “What’s needed,” wrote John Cassidy, of The New Yorker, recently, “is some way to protect essential infrastructure investments from the vicissitudes of congressional politics and the cyclical ups and downs of the economy.” He suggests, instead, “an independent, nonpartisan board” that could “carry out cost-benefit analyses of future capital-spending proposals.” This board, presumably, would be composed of professionals above the partisan fray, and thus capable of seeing to the long-term needs of the country. It all sounds really jake, and just the thing that the United States ought to do—excepting only for the disappointing fact that the United States already has just such a board, and the existence of that “board” is the very reason why Americans don’t invest in infrastructure.

First though—has national spending on infrastructure declined, and is “politics” the reason for that decline? Many think so: “Despite the pressing infrastructure investment needs of the United States,” businessman Scott Thomasson wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations recently, “federal infrastructure policy is paralyzed by partisan wrangling over massive infrastructure bills that fail to move through Congress.” Those who take that line do have evidence, at least for the first proposition.

Take for instance the Highway Trust Fund, an account that provides federal money for investments in roads and bridges. In 2014, the Fund was in danger of “drying up,” as Rebecca Kaplan reported for CBS News at the time, mostly because the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn’t been increased since 1993. Gradually, then, both the federal government and the states have, in relative terms, decreased spending on highways and other projects of that sort—so much so that people like former presidential economic advisor and president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, say (as Summers did last year) that “the share of public investment [in infrastructure], adjusting for depreciation … is zero.” (That is, spending on infrastructure is effectively less than the rate of inflation—which itself is pretty low.) So, while the testimony of the American Society of Civil Engineers might, to say the least, be biased—asking an engineer whether there ought to be more spending on engineering is like asking an ice cream man whether you need a sundae—there’s a good deal of evidence that the United States could stand more investment in the structures that support American life.

Yet, even if that’s so, is the relative decline in spending really the result of politics—rather than, say, a recognition that the United States simply doesn’t need the same sort of spending on highways and railroads that it once did? Maybe—because “the Internet,” or something—there simply isn’t the need for so much physical building any more. Still, aside from such spectacular examples as the Minneapolis Interstate 35 bridge collapse in 2007 or the failure of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there’s evidence that the United States would be spending more money on infrastructure under a different political architecture.

Consider, for example, how the U.S. Senate “shot down … a measure to spend $50 billion on highway, rail, transit and airport improvements” in November of 2011, as The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman reported at the time. Although the measure was supported by 51 votes in favor to 49 votes against, the measure failed to pass—because, as Helderman wrote, according to the rules of the Senate “the measure needed 60 votes to proceed to a full debate.” Passing bills in the Senate these days requires, it seems, more than majority support—which, near as I can make out, is just what is meant by “congressional gridlock.” What “gridlock” means is the inability of a majority to pass its programs—absent that inability, nearly certainly the United States would be spending more money on infrastructure. At this point, then, the question can be asked: why should the American government be built in a fashion that allows a minority to hold the majority for ransom?

The answer, it seems, might be deflating for John Cassidy’s idea: when the American Constitution was written, it inscribed into its very foundation what has been called (by The Economist, among many, many others) the “dream of bipartisanship”—the notion that, somewhere, there exists a group of very wise men (and perhaps women?) who can, if they were merely handed the power, make all the world right again, and make whole that which is broken. In America, the name of that body is the United States Senate.

As every schoolchild knows, the Senate was originally designed as a body of “notables,” or “wise men”: as the Senate’s own website puts it, the Senate was originally designed to be an “independent body of responsible citizens.” Or, as James Madison wrote to another “Founding Father,” Edmund Randolph, justifying the institution, the Senate’s role was “first to protect the people against their rulers [and] secondly to protect the people against transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.” That last justification may be the source of the famous anecdote regarding the Senate, which involves George Washington saying to Thomas Jefferson that “we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” While the anecdote itself only appeared nearly a century later, in 1872, still it captures something of what the point of the Senate has always been held to be: a body that would rise above petty politicking and concern itself with the national interest—just the thing that John Cassidy recommends for our current predicament.

This “dream of bipartisanship,” as it happens, is not just one held by the founding generation. It’s a dream that, journalist and gadfly Thomas Frank has said, “is a very typical way of thinking for the professional class” of today. As Frank amplified his remarks, “Washington is a city of professionals with advanced degrees,” and the thought of those professionals is “‘[w]e know what the problems are and we know what the answers are, and politics just get in the way.’” To members of this class, Frank says, “politics is this ugly thing that you don’t really need.” For such people, in other words, John Cassidy’s proposal concerning an “independent, nonpartisan board” that could make decisions regarding infrastructure in the interests of the nation as a whole, rather than from the perspective of this or that group, might seem entirely “natural”—as the only way out of the impasse created by “political gridlock.” Yet in reality—as numerous historians have documented—it’s in fact precisely the “dream of bipartisanship” that created the gridlock in the first place.

An examination of history in other words demonstrates that—far from being the disinterested, neutral body that would look deep into the future to examine the nation’s infrastructure needs—the Senate has actually functioned to discourage infrastructure spending. After John Quincy Adams was elected president in the contested election of 1824, for example, the new leader proposed a sweeping program of investment in roads and canals and bridges, but also a national university, subsidies for scientific research and learning, a national observatory, Western exploration, a naval academy, and a patent law to encourage invention. Yet, as Paul C. Nagel observes in his recent biography of the Massachusetts president, virtually none of Adams’ program was enacted: “All of Adams’ scientific and educational proposals were defeated, as were his efforts to enlarge the road and canal systems.” Which is true, so far as that goes. But Nagel’s somewhat bland remarks do not do justice to the matter of how Adams’ proposals were defeated.

After the election of 1824, which elected the 19th Congress, Adams’ party had a majority in the House of Representatives—one reason why Adams became president at all, because the chaotic election of 1824, split between three major candidates, was decided (as per the Constitution) by the House of Representatives. But while Adams’ faction had a majority in the House, they did not in the Senate, where Andrew Jackson’s pro-Southern faction held sway. Throughout the 19th Congress, the Jacksonian party controlled the votes of 25 Senators (in a Senate of 48 senators, two to a state) while Adams’ faction controlled, at the beginning of the Congress, 20. Given the structure of the U.S. Constitution, which requires agreement between the two houses of Congress as the national legislature before bills can become law, this meant that the Senate could—as it did—effectively veto any of the Adams’ party’s proposals: control of the Senate effectively meant control of the government itself. In short, a recipe for gridlock.

The point of the history lesson regarding the 19th Congress is that, far from being “above” politics as it was advertised to be in the pages of The Federalist Papers and other, more recent, accounts of the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Senate proved, in the event, hardly to be more neutral than the House of Representatives—or even the average city council. Instead of considering the matter of investment in the future on its own terms, historians have argued, senators thought about Adams’ proposals in terms of how they would affect a matter seemingly remote from the matters of building bridges or canals. Hence, although senators like John Tyler of Virginia, for example—who would later be elected president himself—opposed Adams-proposed “bills that mandated federal spending for improving roads and bridges and other infrastructure” on the grounds that such bills “were federal intrusions on the states” (as Roger Matuz put it in his The Presidents’ Fact Book), many today argue that their motives were not so high-minded. In fact, they were actually as venial as any motive could be.

Many of Adams’ opponents, that is—as William Lee Miller of the University of Virginia wrote in his Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress—thought that the “‘National’ program that [Adams] proposed would have enlarged federal powers in a way that might one day threaten slavery.” And, as Miller also remarks, the “‘strict construction’ of the Constitution and states’ rights that [Adams’] opponents insisted upon”— were, “in addition to whatever other foundations in sentiment and philosophy they had, barriers of protection against interference with slavery.” In short—as historian Harold M. Hyman remarked in his magisterial A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution—while the “constitutional notion that tight limits existed on what government could do was a runaway favorite” at the time, in reality these seemingly-resounding defenses of limited government were actually motivated by a less-than savory interest: “statesmen of the Old South,” Hyman wrote, found that these doctrines of constitutional limits were “a mighty fortress behind which to shelter slavery.” Senators, in other words, did not consider whether spending money on a national university would be a worthwhile investment for its own sake; instead, they worried about the effect that such an expenditure would have on slavery.

Now, it could still reasonably be objected at this point—and doubtless will be—that the 19th Congress is, in political terms, about as relevant to today’s politics as the Triassic: the debates between a few dozen, usually elderly, white men nearly two centuries ago have been rendered impotent by the passage of time. “This time, it’s different,” such arguments could, and probably will, say. Yet, at a different point in American history, it was well-understood that the creation of such “blue-ribbon” committees or the like—such as the Senate—were in fact simply a means for elite control.

As Alice Sturgis, of Stanford University, wrote in the third edition of her The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure (now in its fourth edition, after decades in print, and still the paragon of the field), while some “parliamentary writers have mistakenly assumed that the higher the vote required to take an action, the greater the protection of the members,” in reality “the opposite is true.” “If a two-thirds vote is required to pass a proposal and sixty-five members vote for the proposal and thirty-five members vote against it,” Sturgis went on to write, “the thirty-five members make the decision”—which then makes for “minority, not majority, rule.” In other words, even if many circumstances in American life have changed since 1825, it still remains the case that the American government is (still) largely structured in a fashion that solidifies the ability of a minority—like, say, oligarchical slaveowners—to control the American government. And while slavery was abolished by the Civil War, it still remains the case that a minority can block things like infrastructure spending.

Hence, since infrastructure spending is—nearly by definition—for the improvement of every American, it’s difficult to see how making infrastructure spending less democratic, as Cassidy wishes, would make it easier to spend money on infrastructure. We already have a system that’s not very democratic—arguably, that’s the reason why we aren’t spending money on infrastructure, not because (as pundits like Cassidy might have it), “Washington” has “gotten too political.” The problem with American spending on infrastructure, in sum, is not that it is political. In fact, it is precisely the opposite: it isn’t political enough. That people like John Cassidy—who, by the way, is a transplanted former subject of the Queen of England—think the contrary is itself, I’d wager, reason enough to give him, and people like him, what the boys from Liverpool called a ticket to ride.

Several And A Single Place

 

What’s the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate?
Coriolanus 

 

The explanation, says labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan, possesses amazing properties: he can, the one-time congressional candidate says, “use it to explain everything … because it seems to work on any issue.” But before trotting out what that explanation is, let me select an issue that might appear difficult to explain: gun control, and more specifically just why, as Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post wrote in July, “it’s never the right time to discuss gun control.” “In recent years,” as Ingraham says, “politicians and commentators from across the political spectrum have responded to mass shootings with an invocation of the phrase ‘now is not the time,’ or a close variant.” That inability even to discuss gun control is a tremendously depressing fact, at least insofar as you have sympathy for the needless waste of lives gun deaths are—until you realize that we Americans have been here before. And that demonstrates, just maybe, that Thomas Geoghegan has a point.

Over a century and a half ago, Americans were facing another issue that, in the words of one commentator, “must not be discussed at all.” It was so grave an issue, in fact, that very many Americans found “fault with those who denounce it”—a position that this commenter found odd: “You say that you think [it] is wrong,” he observed, “but you denounce all attempts to restrain it.” That’s a pretty strange position, because who thinks something is wrong, but yet is “not willing to deal with [it] as a wrong?” What other subject could be called a wrong, but should not be called “wrong in politics because that is bringing morality into politics,” and conversely should not be called “wrong in the pulpit because that is bringing politics into religion.” To sum up, this commenter said, “there is no single place, according to you, where this wrong thing can properly be called wrong!”

The place where this was said was New Haven, Connecticut; the time, March of 1860; the speaker, a failed senatorial candidate now running for president for a brand-new political party. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

He was talking about slavery.

*                                            *                                        *

To many historians these days, much about American history can be explained by the fact that, as historian Leonard Richards of the University of Massachusetts put it in his 2000 book, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860, so “long as there was an equal number of slave and free states”—which was more or less official American policy until the Civil War—“the South needed just one Northern vote to be an effective majority in the Senate.” That meant that controlling “the Senate, therefore, was child’s play for southern leaders,” and so “time and again a bill threatening the South [i.e., slavery above all else] made its way through the House only to be blocked in the Senate.” It’s a stunningly obvious point, at least in retrospect—at least for this reader—but I’d wager that few, if any, Americans have really thought through the consequences of this fact.

Geoghegan for example has noted that—as he put it in 1998’s The Secret Lives of Citizens: Pursuing the Promise of American Life—even today the Senate makes it exceedingly difficult to pass legislation: as he wrote, at present only “two-fifths of the Senate, or forty-one senators, can block any bill.” That is, it takes at least sixty senatorial votes to overcome the threat known as the “filibuster,” the invocation of which requires a supermajority to overcome. The filibuster however is not the only anti-majoritarian feature of the Senate, which is also equipped with such quaint customs as the “secret hold” and the quorum call and so forth, each of which can be used to delay a bill’s hearing—and so buy time to squelch potential legislation. Yet, these radically disproportionate senatorial powers merely mask the basic proportionate inequality at the heart of the Senate as an institution itself.

As political scientists Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer point out in their Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation, the Senate is, because it makes small states the equal of large ones, “the most malapportioned legislature in the democratic world.” As Geoghegan has put the point, “the Senate depart[s] too much from one person, one vote,” because (as of the late 1990s) “90 percent of the population base as represented in the Senate could vote yes, and the bill would still lose.” Although Geoghegan wrote that nearly two decades ago, that is still largely true today: in 2013, Dylan Matthews of The Washington Post observed that while the “smallest 20 states amount to 11.27 percent of the U.S. population,” their senators “can successfully filibuster [i.e., block] legislation.” Thus, although the Senate is merely one antidemocratic feature of the U.S. Constitution, it’s an especially egregious one that, by itself, largely prevented a serious discussion of slavery in the years before the Civil War—and today prevents the serious discussion of gun control.

The headline of John Bresnahan’s 2013 article in Politico about the response to the Sandy Hook massacre, for example, was “Gun control hits brick wall in Senate.” Bresnahan quoted Nevadan Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader at the time, as saying that “the overwhelming number of Senate Republicans—and that is a gross understatement—are ignoring the voices of 90 percent of the American people.” The final vote was 54-46: in other words, the majority of the Senate was in favor of controls, but because the pro-control senators did not have a supermajority, the measure failed. In short, the measure was a near-perfect illustration of how the Senate can kill a measure that 90 percent of Americans favor.

And you know? Whatever you think about gun control, as an issue, if 90 percent of Americans want something, and what prevents them is not just a silly rule—but the same rule that protected slavery—well then, as Abraham Lincoln might tell us, that’s a problem.

It’s a problem because far from the Senate being—as George Washington supposedly said to Thomas Jefferson—the saucer that cools off politics, it’s actually a pressure cooker that exacerbates issues, rather than working them out. Imagine, say, had the South not had the Senate to protect its “peculiar institution” in the years leading to the Civil War: gradually, immigration to the North would have slowly turned the tide in Congress, which may have led to a series of small pieces of legislation that, eventually, would have abolished slavery.

Perhaps that may not have been a good thing: Ta Nehisi Coates, of The Atlantic, has written that every time he thinks of the 600,000-plus deaths that occurred as a result of the Civil War, he feels “positively fucking giddy.” That may sound horrible to some, of course, but there is something to the notion of “redemptive violence” when it comes to that war; Coates for instance cites the contemporary remarks of Private Thomas Strother, United States Colored Troops, in the Christian Recorder, the 19th century paper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church:

To suppose that slavery, the accursed thing, could be abolished peacefully and laid aside innocently, after having plundered cradles, separated husbands and wives, parents and children; and after having starved to death, worked to death, whipped to death, run to death, burned to death, lied to death, kicked and cuffed to death, and grieved to death; and worst of all, after having made prostitutes of a majority of the best women of a whole nation of people … would be the greatest ignorance under the sun.

“Were I not the descendant of slaves, if I did not owe the invention of my modern self to a bloody war,” Coates continues, “perhaps I’d write differently.” Maybe in some cosmic sense Coates is wrong, and violence is always wrong—but I don’t think I’m in a position to judge, particularly since I, as in part the descendant of Irish men and women in America, am aware that the Irish themselves may have codified that sort of “blood sacrifice theory” in the General Post Office of Dublin during Easter Week of 1916.

Whatever you think of that, there is certainly something to the idea that, because slaves were the single biggest asset in the entire United States in 1860, there was little chance the South would have agreed to end slavery without a fight. As historian Steven Deyle has noted in his Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life, the value of American slaves in 1860 was “equal to about seven times the total value of all currency in circulation in the country, three times the value of the entire livestock population, twelve times the value of the entire U.S. cotton crop and forty-eight times the total expenditure of the federal government”—certainly a value much more than it takes to start a war. But then had slavery not had, in effect, government protection during those antebellum years, it’s questionable whether slaves ever might have become such valuable commodities in the first place.

Far from “cooling” things off, in other words, it’s entirely likely that the U.S. Senate, and other anti-majoritarian features of the U.S. Constitution, actually act to enflame controversy. By ensuring that one side does not need to come to the bargaining table, in fact, all such oddities merely postpone—they do not prevent—the day of reckoning. They  build up fuel, ensuring that when the day finally arrives, it is all the more terrible. Or, to put it in the words of an old American song: these American constitutional idiosyncrasies merely trample “out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

That truth, it seems, marches on.