It has become a widespread belief in some circles that our smaller-population states are pampered with outsized representation in the Senate (and, to a lesser extent, the Electoral College and the House of Representatives – though in actuality the best and least represented states in the House both have one rep). While this is true, without these mechanisms these states would be outright ignored. Even in the current system, the larger states arguably have undue influence. Even when a state like Montana or New Mexico is up for grabs, presidential candidates aren’t going to spend a whole lot of time there. Even though California and Texas are not up for grabs, Republicans will spend some time in the former and Republicans in the latter for fundraising reasons alone.
Of course, the complaints are not without merit. If you look at donor and beneficiary states, you see not only the red/blue distinction that many comment on, but an urban/rural distinction as well (the major exception being the rust belt). It’s a fair point. Also worth noting, however, is that in some cases it just costs more on a per-capita basis to service a large and sparse state than a primarily urban one. So if Wyoming is getting its mail, and New York is getting its mail, but on a per-tax-dollar basis the former costs a lot more than the latter, they’re not exactly getting a freebie. As Americans, they’re getting the same services as their urban counterparts because they, like their urban counterparts, are Americans and thus due the same services. The same goes for roads. It was Washington DC that drew the map for Montana. Should Washington then complain that it costs so much to service Montana’s roads in comparison to Rhode Island’s?
It also overlooks the fact that these states are often getting this money in return for a service. Surely, we wouldn’t consider a NASA engineer* to be the moral equivalent of someone getting federal food stamps, would we? But when people talk about beneficiary and donor states, they often fail to make these distinctions. Further, it’s advantageous not just to North Dakota’s economy, but also the United States government when we put nuclear silos there rather than upstate New York because it’s cheaper. The same goes for Nevada* and Utah accepting nuclear waste, because it’s safer (except for Nevada and Utah, that is). And military bases in Kansas instead of California. It wouldn’t save the government any money to put these in any of the donor states. It’s not unlike saying that my car mechanic is a “beneficiary” because I pay him for goods and services and he doesn’t pay me (directly) for any.
Of course, you can even put these aside and you’ll probably still also find a disparity. Partially due to per-capita income, but also because rural states do exploit the senate in order to get earmarks and the like. I am not wholly unsympathetic to the undemocratic nature of it.
But the big states gain from the fact that they have larger congressional delegations. And so they have natural alliances that they can then use to get outsized influence. It’s easier for eleven reps in Chicago to team up than the sole representatives from Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas to team up with the two reps in Idaho, the three in Utah and Nebraska even if they represent roughly the same population. Further, even under the current system, the big states get almost all of the presidents.
The last 13 Presidents have come from Illinois*, Texas, Arkansas, Texas, California, Georgia, Michigan, California, Texas, Massachusetts. Kansas, Missouri, New York. Clinton is exceptional and Eisenhower’s base was the mighty US Army rather than sparsely-populated Kansas. All the others come from one of the 20 most-populous states.
So too do most defeated Presidential nominees. Since FDR beat Wendell Wilkie the losers have come from: Arizona, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Kansas, Texas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Georgia, Michigan, South Dakota, Minnesota, Arizona, California, Illinois, New York.
Note the paucity of small-state nominees. Arizona wasn’t a major state when Goldwater ran while Bob Dole (Kansas), Mondale (Minnesota), McGovern (South Dakota) and Humphrey (Minnesota) were each Washington figures. If it’s tough to win the Presidency from the Senate it’s even harder to do so as a former governor of a small state.
Clinton, again, is the only ex-governor to reach the White House from one of the 30 least-populous states. Those states account for roughly 25% of the population and, obviously, 60% of governors and yet they produce very few successful candidates.
There are some good reasons for that: what works in a small state may not scale to national level and, just as importantly, the governor of a small state lacks names recognition in major media markets and, rather importantly, in major media newsrooms. Sure, you might have done a good job in your tiny, empty state thousands of miles from Washington but that means nothing on the national stage and it certainly doesn’t earn you the right to be taken seriously by sagacious pundits and handicappers.
All of this is more than compensated for by Senate representation, of course, and the electoral college benefit the senate seats give the small states (Al Gore would have won in 2000 is the EC counts had been determines solely by House representation).
Now (leaving aside for the moment the Chicago vs UT-ID-MT-WY-ND-SD-NE equation), in a perfectly democratic system, the response would be “screw the small states because they’re such a pitiful minority. If you want more representation, move!” But while we live in a democracy, we do not live under one whose primary goal is to represent the view of a majority of the people to the exclusion of everyone else. The states were designed to mean something. Maybe you consider them anachronistic, and in a sense maybe they are. But while you can argue “the founders never accounted for the kind of population differential you see between California and Wyoming”, it’s also the case that the initial compromise did intend for their to be disparities.
Of course, I am not an unbiased observer in this, seeing as how I live in a small state with outsized senate representation. But the same “move!” argument made above can be made here. If it’s that important to you, you’re more than free to join me in Arapaho. If you are disinclined to because of the lack of job opportunities or city amenities, than just consider it a bone thrown our way: We get maintained roads and mail service, too.
* – Florida (NASA), Texas (NASA), and Nevada (nuclear waste) are actually donor states. You get the point, though.
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