What’s the Matter With North Dakota?

Think the Senate is too Republican? You can always move.

In the wake of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, some of his opponents have taken to denouncing the U.S. Senate as undemocratic. “It may not happen in our lifetimes,” NBC reporter Ken Dilanian tweeted, “but the idea that North Dakota and New York get the same representation in the Senate has to change.”

Needless to say, the Founders gave significant thought to such concerns when they designed the U.S. Congress. They weren’t concerned only with creating a popularly responsive government but also with designing a structure that could unite a vast and diverse republic of sovereign states. It’s also peculiar that the left is now objecting to the Senate when it has been a significant obstacle to President Trump’s agenda on many issues. If it were up to the House, the more democratic chamber, Justice Kavanaugh would have been confirmed more swiftly.

Still, countermajoritarian arguments carry less weight today than they did in the 18th century. And it’s true that the Senate’s structure dilutes the political power of populous states. It’s understandable that this leads to grousing among liberals in places like New York and Los Angeles.

 

Broadside announcing a public discussion on the proposed Kansas Constitution.
Broadside announcing a public discussion on the proposed Kansas Constitution. PHOTO: GILDER LEHRMAN COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

But this isn’t the first time the nature of the Senate has come under contestation in a bitterly divided America. As the U.S. expanded westward in the early 19th century, Congress generally admitted a slave state and a free state at the same time to keep the Senate “balanced.” In 1854 it passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed those territories to determine for themselves whether slavery would be sanctioned. Kansas’ status became fiercely contested; its admission as a free state, and the seating of two new antislavery senators, would pose an existential threat to Southern slave power.

Abolitionists, who had an advantage in the House, didn’t merely complain about the Senate. They launched an ideologically motivated effort to settle Kansas. The New England Emigrant Aid Company was founded in Massachusetts to promote settlement by free-staters. The city of Lawrence was named after an antislavery philanthropist who supported the effort. Pro-slavery emigrants also poured into the territory from Missouri.

Would it be unreasonable to suggest that today’s Democrats, concerned about their handicap in the Senate, launch a deliberate effort to send like-minded voters to less-populated Republican states like North Dakota? Maybe—you can’t simply set up a farm along the frontier today. But some of today’s liberal corporate tycoons—I’m looking at you, Jeff Bezos—have the power to create tens of thousands of jobs virtually wherever they want.

What if instead of attacking an institution that’s here to stay—equal representation in the Senate is the Constitution’s lone unamendable provision—the resistance used some of its ample resources to create a new tech hub in Fargo? It could attract thousands of workers and improve the prospects for Democratic Senate candidates. Educated metropolitan areas tend to lean left.

Liberals are unlikely to invest the money and effort such a project would require, for a variety of reasons. But the most important one is that for all their insistence that today’s conservatives represent an existential threat to the republic on the order of Southern white supremacists, in their hearts they know better.

Mr. Willick is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.

Appeared in the October 9, 2018, print edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.