Senatorial stalemate

Rather than addressing what most Americans recognize as critical issues, including voting rights and climate change, today’s United States Senate serves as a place where legislation—as some have put it—“goes to die.”

How this sad state-of-affairs arose—and what reforms might correct the problem—is the subject of Professor Daniel Wirls’s latest book, The Senate: From White Supremacy to Government Gridlock (University of Virginia Press, 2021). In the book, Wirls discusses, among other matters, how the two Senate features of equal representation and the filibuster, the first fundamental and the second adopted, have effectively stalled lawmaking, maintained white supremacy, and become institutional barriers to democracy. “If we were to start over again, the Senate would have neither,” said Wirls.

In his latest book, The Senate: From White Supremacy to Government Gridlock, Professor of Politics Daniel Wirls exposes the current dysfunction in what many used to call “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” and how it is undermining effective democratic government and maintaining white supremacy in America. Credits: Courtesy of Daniel Wirls, with permission; University of Virginia Press (public domain).

The problem arose as urban populations exploded in the 19th and 20th centuries, exacerbating the rural-urban divide. Equal representation meant Senate seats increasingly stacked in favor of less diverse rural areas, resulting in disproportionately reduced sway for the greater numbers of voters living in more diverse urban areas. “We're sending a Senate to Washington that not at all accurately represents the American population,” said Wirls. “Senators elected by a very small minority of the American population can stop anything the majority of voters might want to do.”

—Katie Brown