With the rise of increasingly extreme political figures like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, there’s been no shortage of debate over What Went Wrong With America. Is the republic failing? Is the constitution irreparably flawed? How will we survive the big-bad-no-good-very-mean scourge of populism? The truth is, the current problems in American governance may not stem from too much populism. They may stem from too little.
We often forget how personal politics were in the early days of the republic. Senators were elected by state legislators, which means, essentially, a club of a few dozen or hundred local notables got together, and picked somebody to go and represent the state legislature’s interests in Congress. Senators weren’t representing millions of people in their states as they do today, nor even thousands: they were representing, at most, a few hundred.
But beyond the Senate, the House was also far more personal. From 1789 until 1833, the House of Representatives grew from having 65 members to having 240. The result was that over the entire period, the average congressman never represented more than 60,000 people. When congressmen ran for election, they were running a quintessentially local campaign: retail politics, as it’s called. Indeed, Congressmen in the 1820s were representing constituencies roughly equivalent to many of today’s state legislators. This is the era where presidents welcomed random guests into the White House and saw that as a significant way of gauging public opinion.
You Can’t Represent People You Can’t Meet
Unfortunately, rapid population increase made this system hard to maintain, especially since 1913, after which the House of Representatives has been fixed by law (but not the Constitution) at 435 members. The result is predictable: today, there are more than 730,000 U.S. residents per member of Congress. At that ratio in 1789, the nation would have had a whopping eight congressmen.
The Founding Fathers never would have tolerated such a narrow oligarchy. The idea that one person can represent the interests of three-quarters of a million people is so ridiculous that, in a sane world, we wouldn’t even consider it. The Senate was intended to be an “upper house” for persons of particular note, fame, celebrity, or capability, hence its far less democratic means of election—but the House was not.
The House was supposed to be the peoples’ house, truly representative, not only in ideas but in actual personhood. Representatives were supposed to be, well, representative. As in, a pseudo-random sample of the population. James Madison, in the Federalist papers, quipped that even a mob where all are as wise as Socrates is still a mob; that is, the House could be the first few hundred names in the phone book, for all it matters.
“Federalist 58,” written by Madison (who also, you know, wrote the Constitution), is entirely and explicitly about the proper size of the legislature. Go read it right now. Madison and the other authors and supporters of the Constitution desired and intended that, at each census, the number of representatives should be “augmented.” Apportionment isn’t supposed to be just a re-arrangement of representatives, but an increase.
The End of the People’s House
Earlier, in “Federalist 55,” Madison, speaking more about the initial size of the legislature, suggested representatives should be taken from essentially the same socioeconomic class as the population on the whole; we do not want elite representatives, only representative representatives. The Anti-Federalists were even more explicit about this, worrying, such as in “Letter V,” that large districts would mean only well-known people, celebrities essentially, could hold elected office. Sound familiar? Such an event would be a catastrophe, leading to basically just two Senates, rather than a Senate and a House.
During the debates over ratification of the Constitution, the Federalists in support of the Constitution needed to prove to anti-Federalists that they were serious about ensuring that the House remained truly representative. So, as part of the Bill of Rights, Madison included an amendment requiring that, eventually, for every 50,000 people counted in the census, there should be one representative.
This amendment capping a congressman’s constituency at 50,000 passed Congress, and was within one state’s vote at being fully ratified. However, Congress’ decision to rapidly increase the number of legislators mollified concerns over the size of the legislature, and the issue was allowed to languish. As long as the Founders lived, they made sure, by custom rather than constitution, that House remained the people’s. But after the Founders died, the next generation decided to leave the issue aside, even decreasing the size of the House in 1842. This was a fateful error.
You’re Right: Nobody Is Listening to You
The originally intended structure of American governance can be restored, and fairly easily. Consider, if you will, Madison’s worry that representatives to the House might eventually come to be “unrepresentative.” How many constituent letters does a congressman receive? Thousands! How many are truly read and considered in detail? A handful, at best.
More to the point, large constituencies lead to constituents who know nothing about their representatives, who feel disconnected, who believe nobody listens to them. And they’re right! Nobody listens to Jane Constituent! She doesn’t matter (on the margin)! The congressman receives too much mail to care about Jane, to listen to her problem. Even with advances in travel and transportation, and especially communications technology, making it much easier to stay connected to a home district, congressmen today simply are not one-tenth as connected to their districts as the congressmen of the Founding Era.
No wonder, then, we have a national politics of disaffection. Voters rightly recognize that their representatives do not represent them personally, do not care about them personally, and will not be swayed by their personal actions because, seriously, they’ve got 729,999 other people to think about.
So Let’s Amend the Constitution
What if we just ratified the Congressional Apportionment Amendment? It doesn’t require an act of Congress; Congress already approved it. It doesn’t require presidential approval. It already has 11 state approvals. In 1992, we ratified the congressional pay amendment, which Congress had originally approved in 1789, in the exact same legislation that approved the Congressional Apportionment Amendment. We can do this! We can change the Constitution in the next round of state legislative sessions, launching the most monumental shake-up of American politics since Reconstruction.
To vastly increase the size of the House of Representatives, all that’s needed is for 27 more states to decide they want thousands of congressmen.
If the Apportionment Amendment were ratified, it would cause absolute chaos in Washington. Madison, in “Federalist 55,” scoffed at the idea of thousands of representatives, suggesting that a large legislature would depend on a few legislative demagogues. He may turn out to be right. I suspect a legislature of 6,000 would have a few demagogues among it. But we have a vibrant network of parties and think tanks and partisan presses today, which have their own interests: and, frankly, the Senate has at least as much demagoguery as the House.
But whatever the hypotheticals of Madison’s concern, we know the anti-Federalists were right: with large constituencies, only the favored elite, the oligarchy of the well-connected, even consider running for office. Once in office, they are detached from their home, as often as not choosing to live quasi-permanently in Washington DC, where a single determined intern in her first two weeks on the job will outnumber the constituent contacts ever handled by a congressman.
Rome Is a Model for Us Again
By the way, there’s a powerful classical precedent to this proposal that our Founders would appreciate. When the plebeians of the ancient Roman Republic agitated for wealth redistribution and isolationist foreign policy (i.e., not conquering the Latins and Samnites), the patrician elite offered them something else instead: access to power. The Senate was expanded, the tribunate established (and then expanded), and eventually even the consulate was opened to the people. This model preserved the Roman Republic through much harder times than we face for twice as long as our nation has existed; I’d say it’s a fair strategy to emulate.
The truth is, what supporters of Trump and Sanders really want isn’t a specific tax policy, or a specific health care plan, or a wall of a specific height: they want redress of grievances. That’s why Trump’s policies don’t matter.
What the disaffected voter wants is to be heard, to be included, and to shove his thumb right smack-dab in the eye of the Washington elite, seen by many now as much like an imperial overlord as a representative government. The solution to this disaffection is simple. Don’t co-opt Trump by compromising essential values and rallying around a fascist political campaign: just ratify the amendment the Founders wrote for our benefit, and give 6,000 Americans a chance to sit in the Capitol and make their voice heard. Don’t co-opt the candidate, co-opt and outmaneuver his base.
It will be chaos. But, then again, that’s why we’ve got the Senate.