In last week’s midterm elections, Democratic and progressive political candidates flipped red House districts, key state legislative bodies, governors’ offices, and even Senate seats in Nevada and Arizona. We’ve elected one of the most diverse Congressional classes in history, with historic numbers of women and LGBTQ representatives, including the first Muslim and Native American women representatives.
Yet, despite many positive returns from the midterms, we were also forced to see how our government remains fundamentally structured around protecting and maintaining white patriarchy — particularly through the U.S. Senate.
Democratic candidates won seats in the House, but lost Senate seats in North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, and possibly Florida for a net loss of one or two seats. In order for Democrats and progressive candidates to gain even a narrow Senate majority in the years to come, this would require them to win seats in every single traditionally blue or purple state, with zero margin of error.
That’s because the Senate’s structure fundamentally disadvantages progressive candidates by granting disproportionate power to conservative, majority-white, rural states that are vastly less populous. During the Constitutional convention back in 1787, equal political representation of the states in the Senate was demanded by small states and, along with the formation of the electoral college and the three-fifths compromise, helped to protect the interests of slave-owning regions of the country. And today, the Senate’s skewed representation gives voters in regions that are sorely lacking in immigrant communities or people of color decisive power to maintain a status quo of intolerance and misogyny, regardless of how broadly unpopular these ideologies and policies are to the rest of the country—and how much they harm people and women of color, immigrants, and marginalized people across the country.
In substantially more populous, Democratic states, diversity has driven a demand for progressive policies. Voters in these states are much more likely to vote for Democratic representatives because of their lived experiences—either their own oppression, or the experience of witnessing the oppression of members of their communities. Lived experience and empathy drive politics, and in states and regions that lack this diversity, which are given equal decision-making power and representation despite having anywhere from less than a quarter to half the populations of blue states, anti-choice, anti-immigration, and anti-LGBTQ representatives are consistently elected.
Los Angeles and New York City, which rank among the most diverse communities in the world, have double or triple the populations of entire states, including the Dakotas, Kansas, and West Virginia. And despite reductive, condescending narratives of these cities and other predominantly liberal coastal or western regions as “elitist,” unsaid numbers of disproportionately people of color in these areas live in poverty. The traditional narrative of the neglected working-class as white, male, and based in the Midwest utterly erases impoverished immigrant families and people of color in coastal areas.
Furthermore, voter suppression tactics that disproportionately occur in traditionally Republican states contribute to the GOP’s absolute hegemony in these states. Many notoriously red states do not lack for people of color, with sizable black constituencies in Southern states. Yet, despite how these constituencies traditionally support Democrats, voter suppression tactics in these regions erase and rob them of representation; voter ID and name match laws specifically and almost exclusively target black and Latinx voters. And despite how Democrats won big in the House, they would have won even bigger were it not for aggressive gerrymandering by the GOP.
Upon being elected, Senators representing states where many constituents have yet to so much as interact with an immigrant or person of color in their lives, proceed to slash key rights and protections of marginalized groups. The Republican-controlled Senate has voted to confirm a string of Trump administration officials who have gone on to weaken civil rights and criminal justice for people of color in the Justice Department and Education Department. The Senate has repeatedly jeopardized immigrants’ rights and ability to remain in this country with their families by sabotaging crucial reform attempts, all while threatening key protections of the Affordable Care Act that disproportionately allowed immigrants and black and Latinx people to access life-saving coverage for the first time. Additionally, the chamber has the power to confirm judges and Supreme Court justices who could gut human rights like abortion, health care access, and more, for marginalized people across the country, for generations to come.
Women of color also disproportionately suffer under the Senate’s disproportionate empowerment of Republicans, despite being more likely than any other bloc to vote for Democratic representation. For example, women of color who have experienced economic success are more likely than white women to attribute their success to access to birth control, and also comprise the majority of American women who seek abortion care. When Senators target funding for Planned Parenthood and reproductive health organizations, attack the Affordable Care Act and its protections of contraception access, and confirm anti-choice judges like Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, they are decisively targeting and punishing women of color.
They are decisively using their inflated electoral power to stall progress—and to prevent women, people of color, and all other marginalized groups from gaining equal status, autonomy, and recognition that white men have always had, through voter suppression tactics and disproportionate political empowerment of states that practice suppression. And the product of this power dynamic is a Senate that maintains white, male dominance as governance.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons