If there is one thing we Americans should know by now, it is that the mistakes we have made as a nation—the wrongs we have done—live on.
With tragic results.
This is particularly true of those wrongs born of bigotry.
We still struggle with the consequences of the decision to enslave other human beings. God only knows how many more years will have to pass before we find a way to expiate that sin.
And how many more people will have to suffer before we do.
We are in the middle now of a debate about whether filibusters in the U.S. Senate should be allowed to continue. Critics assert—accurately—that the filibuster often has been used in defense of racist and segregationist policies. The filibuster’s defenders say it is a bulwark of minority rights, a barrier preventing a tyranny of the majority.
More neutral observers argue that the wrangling over the filibuster offers evidence that the Senate itself is broken.
That argument is too small.
The Senate, in some ways, is functioning as it should.
It’s the entire federal government that is a broken system.
And as is so often the case in American history, it was bigotry that did the breaking.
When our bicameral system—meaning two chambers of Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate—was set up, the House was supposed to reflect the will of the majority. Each state’s representation in the House was determined by its population. Big states were allowed more members and small states fewer ones.
The small states feared they would be overrun by the big ones if population alone determined representation. So, the Senate was structured in a different way. Each state, regardless of how big or small, was entitled to the same number of senators—two.
The electoral college, which selected the president, tracked with the membership of the two chambers. The total number of electoral votes squared up with the total number of senators and representatives.
The purpose of this arrangement was to give the majority the preponderance of influence but also establish a way to keep the views of a minority—the small states—from being disregarded.
That is how things worked for the first 140 years America lived under this constitutional arrangement.
As the country grew—and as states grew in population—the size of the House increased. The same went for the electoral college.
Presidential elections in which the winner of the electoral vote was not the winner of the popular vote were rare. There were only three—and two of them were anomalies.
In 1824, the first such election, four different candidates each received more than 10 percent of the popular vote, which allowed John Quincy Adams to sneak past Andrew Jackson. The second one, in 1876, involved a hotly disputed and likely corrupt decision by a partisan committee that put Rutherford Hayes in the White House at the cost of abandoning reconstruction in the South and prolonging America’s racial agonies for who knows how many more ages.
Then, as now, appeasing bigots produced tragic consequences.
In the past 20 years, we have seen two presidential elections “won” by the candidate who did not win the popular vote. In one of those elections, 2016, the victor lost the popular vote by roughly 3 million ballots.
This happened because, nearly 100 years ago, Congress decided to put a permanent cap on the size of the House—and thus also the size of the electoral college.
This meant that smaller, more rural states no longer had just a bulwark in the Senate. They had a built-in, disproportionate advantage over the bigger, more populous states.
Why did Congress do this?
Because lawmakers in the 1920s were terrified of the influence immigrants moving into America’s cities might exert over the political process.
So, they acted in accordance with their bigotry.
This has had disastrous consequences for the country. Among other things, it has encouraged many conservative Americans to think their of status—even their rights—as being taken away when, really, they’re just being required to share the land and its blessings with others.
Lord knows how many horrible conflicts that sad misunderstanding has provoked—and will continue to provoke.
But that’s the nature of history.
The wrongs we do live on.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.