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The Constitution's Support for Oligarchy


Let's start at the beginning. Well, almost the beginning. By the late 18th century, America had won its independence from Great Britain but was still figuring out how to handle its business. Jonathan Gienapp takes it from here. He is an associate professor of history at Stanford University. He specializes in early American history. He told us that the young nation was facing an economic crisis and didn't agree on how to deal with it. Now, remember, political parties barely existed then and were just starting to form. So the founders got together to hash out some solutions that made sense to them at the time but that have profound effects on us to this day in ways they probably never envisioned.

So, Professor Gienapp, to start us off, I'm just going to ask you to set the stage for us, for people who don't remember that period in history or maybe they skipped that class. So what was going on in 1787 that created a need for the Constitutional Convention?

JONATHAN GIENAPP: In 1787, The United States was in something of a crisis. Life as independent states was not going particularly well. Under the first Constitution, the Articles of Confederation set things up such that every state had an equal voice. Each state had the equivalent of one vote. It also provided a stipulation that nothing in the Articles of Confederation could be changed, could be amended, without the unanimous agreement of all 13 states. So even if 12 states were interested in changing something, that wasn't sufficient. All 13 were necessary. And this was a problem in the 1780s 'cause certain states refused to pass small constitutional amendments that would have given the national government a little bit more power.

So this is part of the reason a constitutional convention is called in 1787. And a lot of people say we don't just need small changes. We really need to blow things up and start over. But that doesn't erase the small-state-big-state division. The compromise that saves the Constitutional Convention that we still live with to this day is that there will be two houses that make up the national legislature - Congress. One of those, the House of Representatives - representation will be based on population; and the other house, the Senate - representation will be based on equal suffrage, or the idea that each state gets the same vote.

So today, California has considerably more representation in the House of Representatives than does Wyoming or Delaware or Connecticut, but they all have equal representation in the Senate.

MARTIN: So how does the compromises that made for small states benefit the minority political party, which, in the current moment, are the Republicans? How does it benefit them today? Does it?

GIENAPP: It most certainly does. And that's because of the unique features of modern American political culture, that the way that partisan affiliation has become distributed in the modern United States is increasingly affiliated around proximity to urban or rural spaces. So closer you are to a big city or to suburbs surrounding the big city, the more likely you are to be liberal or in a place that votes for liberals and vice versa. So given that reality, if you layer that on top of the same constitutional system, the same political system that we've had since the late 18th century, what that means is that votes in less populated places are dramatically amplified.

Read entire article at NPR