Rotten Boroughs of Congress

Rural California is considering a divorce from the rest of the state:

The founders of New California took an early step toward statehood Monday with the reading of their own Declaration of Independence from California, a state they describe as “ungovernable.”

Their solution: Take over most of current-day California — including many rural counties — and leave the coastal urban areas to themselves…

“After years of over taxation, regulation, and mono-party politics the State of California and many of it’s 58 Counties have become ungovernable,” the group said in a statement, citing a “decline in essential basic services” including education, law enforcement, infrastructure and health care.

The new state boundaries would look like this.

Old and New California

Old California would keep most the urban areas and much of the tax base.  New California would get much of the state’s water supply.

Splitting up the state in this manner is, of course, stupid.  The already-fraught issue of California’s water useage would simply become worse.  Additionally, cutting New California off from urban tax bases would not, contrary to the expectations of conservatives, lead to a better governed state.  Without tax revenues from urban economic powerhouses, those essential basic services they complain about would become even harder to finance, and would inevitably become even lousier.  In short, breaking away from Old California would just create another Kansas.

But should splitting up states be entirely dismissed out of hand?  Eric Levitz adequately sums up that adjusting state boundaries is not, in principle, a bad idea:

[T]his is what we in the business call an “Old Man Yells at Cloud” story. There is approximately zero interest, among Californian elected officials from either major party, in breaking their state in two.

But there should be.

New California is a worthwhile project launched for the unworthiest of reasons. Rural Californians will not get better public schools by locking themselves into a much poorer, slightly less blue state. But their state would get a significantly fairer amount of representation in the U.S. Senate.

The upper chamber has become one of the most genuinely tyrannical institutions of our government. At the republic’s founding, the most populous state in the union was home to 11 times more people than the smallest; today, that disparity is more than six times as large: California’s 39 million residents have as much say in the Senate as Wyoming’s 585,500.


Anyone familiar with British history (or at least Blackadder) knows that up until 1832, the British Parliament had ridiculously apportioned representatives.  Tiny little districts got the exact same representation in the House of Commons as burgeoning industrial cities.  These districts were called rotten boroughs, bear strong resemblance to America’s unrepresentative government today.

There is no way around the fact that the Senate makes a mockery of the principle of equal representation.  80% of the seats are controlled by 20% of the population. Let that sink in for a minute.  20% of the population gets 80% of the Upper House.  If this were happening in a Third World country, we would not praise it as a paragon of democratic governance.  No sir.  We would mock it as backwards for its undemocratic ways, as yet another proof of how other countries just can’t seem to get it right.  And yet, when the country in question is America, people won’t stop going on about how wise and far-seeing the Founders were.

But of course, a compromise that many of the Founders hated that was nonetheless needed to ensure the ratification of the Constitution is nothing more than a historical accident.  It makes no sense to call it wisdom, and pretending like it was designed with the present situation we find ourselves in mind is like Douglas Adams’ puddle imagining the space it resides in was built to exactly fit its shape and size.

Parliament eventually passed electoral reform that did away with rotten boroughs, There is no reason why such overhauls to the American Upper House (which by extension, affects the Electoral College) should be off the table today.

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