February 13, 2013

Representing Places as Well as People

Marc Comtois

In The Disenfranchisement of Rural America, James Huffman writes:

The county by county map of the 2012 presidential election clearly portrays the irony and unfairness of a nation of predominantly red communities governed by a blue, urban, national majority. President Obama won 52 percent of the states and 51.4 percent of the popular vote, but only 20 percent of the counties. Yet, everyone in every one of those counties is subject to the will of distant majorities lacking any understanding of or stake in the local communities they control. It wasn’t supposed to be that way, and should not be that way, in our extended national republic.

Democratic government at its best must be about more than the arithmetic of nose counting. Communities require representation if they are to survive in an ever more centralized world. Not the political interest groups we now call communities, but the real communities in which people raise their children, pursue their livelihoods, and nourish their friendships. These are the communities people call home, and they are slowly decaying with the loss of control over their own destinies.

As appealing and self-evident as it seemed at the time, one person/one vote was too simple to be right for a vast and diverse republic.

The much ballyhooed "Bloodless Revolution" in RI resulted in the seizing of political power from the towns to the urban core (as we now call it). It was an "end-justify-the-means" exercise if ever there was one. Yet, RI was in the vanguard of turning the "upper" house of the legislature--the State Senate--into nothing more than a differently-districted mimic of the lower House of Representatives. As Huffman explained, it was the Supreme Court that removed geography or "place" as a legitimate construction for governmental representation.
Prior to the 1964 United States Supreme Court decision in Reynolds v. Sims (here's some background ~ MC), most state legislatures included one house apportioned on the basis of population and a second chamber apportioned on the basis of counties or other geographical regions. Many of the former had not been reapportioned for decades, leaving growing urban areas with less representation per capita than rural regions. On the basis of the principle of one person/one vote, the Court found that the failure of most states to regularly reapportion their lower houses put them in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

While one person/one vote was widely accepted as the appropriate standard for lower state legislative chambers, most states defended their geographically apportioned upper houses by drawing a parallel to the U.S. Congress in which the Senate is apportioned on the basis of states rather than population. The Supreme Court rejected their argument, concluding that counties and other local entities are merely subdivisions of unitary state governments lacking any claim comparable to state sovereignty. “Legislators,” said the Court, “represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests...." On the technical question of what constitutes a sovereign entity, the Court was right. But history has shown that the Court was wrong in its understanding of the function served by geographically apportioned state senates. While state senators elected from geographic regions rather than on the basis of population certainly did not represent trees or acres, they did represent communities.

Indeed, State Senates are, or were, intended to be structured like the U.S. Senate, where each region, i.e. state, has the same representation (two Senators) regardless of population. At the state level, it was usually counties (or cities and towns like in Rhode Island) that determined State Senate representation. If that hadn't change, each state's citizens would continue to have equal representation along populist lines in the House and each place--each city and town--would be equally represented in the Senate (for bi-cameral state legislatures, of course). In Rhode Island, each city and town would elect one State Senator so that Jamestown and Providence or Newport and Exeter or Central Falls and Block Island would have the same representation. However, the Bloodless Revolution of 1935 changed all that and, obviously, we aren't going back. But Huffman explains that the unforeseen consequences (if not unwanted by the urban political machines) has been detrimental for rural communities:
Inexorably, the values and ambitions of urban America have been imposed on small town and rural communities. Despite the often broad agreement among their citizens, the rural communities of red county America have gradually lost control of their own destinies at the hands of statewide majorities marching to a different drummer....The point is not that the different drummer is blue and the rural communities are red. That is just the reality of 21st century American politics. The point is that, because of their minority status in statewide population terms and their lack of representation as communities, rural Americans are denied full self-governance.
The environment we live in imposes certain needs and priorities upon us. Country folk often have no idea the kind of issues that city dwellers have to deal with. And the reverse is also true. Money for a new irrigation project is much more important to a farmer than paying for street lights in the city. It's no surprise that these acute concerns aren't held in equal esteem by those with differing backgrounds and priorities. However, as Huffman argues, urban dwellers have the political power to prioritize their needs and desires far more than do their rural fellow citizens.

Maybe the other argument to be made is that the redundancy of State Senates should be dealt with by removing them and going to a unicameral legislature. That certainly wouldn't help rural communities any more, but it might make government (or at least legislating) more efficient (if that's a good thing?).

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I am reminded of the "rotten boroughs" in British politics which gave the likes of WInston Chruchill their start. I understand the "pot wallopers" have been dispersed and the "rotten boroughs" eliminated.

I am in sympathy with the views expressed in this article but I think a map showing population density would be helpful. We may have "tyranny of the majority".

Posted by: Warrington Faust at February 13, 2013 5:12 PM

I think we should go back. The SC's logic that "Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities [. . .]" goes away if the legislators are specifically appointed by Mayors or Town/City councils (preferably with short (1 year?) terms and restrictions on the same person being appointed more than once out of every 3 years, to maintain the power of the cities post appointment). It's a perverse system, overall, where some of the largest recipients of state outlays get no voice in that distribution. Municipalities deserve representation.

You could even grant the largest cities (by size, not by name) additional representatives to smooth out the population differential.

Posted by: Mario at February 13, 2013 5:13 PM

What a bunch of bullshit from Huffman. He is a salesman for big mining. The so called Disenfranchisement of Rural America is nothing more than a power play by the largest multinational corporations to exert even more control and political power at the local and national level. But since RI was brought up in this I thought that this early historical account would be relevant.
The Blackstone River Valley of Massachusetts and Rhode Island is the “Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution,” the place where America made the transformation from Farm to Factory. America’s first textile mill could have been built along practically any river on the eastern seaboard, but in 1790 the forces of capital, ingenuity, mechanical know-how and skilled labor came together at Pawtucket, Rhode Island where the Blackstone River provided the power that kicked off America’s drive to industrialization.
In 1789, Providence merchant Moses Brown was attempting to build a new factory to spin cotton fiber into thread at the falls of the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, RI. Along with a source of water power, Pawtucket also had a century old tradition as home to tool and machine makers, and Brown had plenty of capital to invest in the project. However, months of work led only to frustration, Then in December 1789, Brown hired Samuel Slater, a recent immigrant from England. Slater had spent seven years working in a textile mill in England, rising to the position of overseer of machinery and mill construction. When he arrived in Pawtucket, Slater determined that Brown’s machinery would not work, but Slater was convinced that he could modify it into working order. He set to work and one year later in December 1790 the experimental mill was in operation - the first successful water powered cotton-spinning factory in the United States, and the beginning of a new age of industrialization.
The success of the Slater Mill inspired other entrepreneurs to build their own mills, first throughout the Blackstone Valley and then eventually all over New England. To take advantage of water power sources, new mill villages were built where once only field and forest stood.
Here investors built not only mills, but homes, schools and churches for their workers. The lifestyle changes for these new mill workers, mostly Yankee farmers, were dramatic. On the farm, the seasons and the sun governed the workday. Once in the mill, the rhythm of nature was replaced by the tolling of the factory bell. Time became a commodity, to be strictly measured and sold at a set rate. The artisan’s skill or farmer’s produce no longer had as much value as the sheer amount of time a worker was able to stand beside their ceaseless machine.

Posted by: David S at February 15, 2013 7:44 PM

I can't quote a good source for this, but I always understood that British mill machinery was a closely guarded industrial secret and that Brown "bought him out". Seems strange to think that anyone, such as Slater, reached a high position and then simply departed, without prospects, for Pawtucket, RI. I think the site quoted cleans him up a bit.

The Blackstone was selected over competitors, it was not by happenstance. Although short, the Blackstone "falls" at a far greater degree than most rivers. This increases the flow, or power, of the river. This makes extraordinarily expensive "mill ponds" unnecessary. It would have drawn mill builders from afar, much as the isolated rivers of Vermont did. Unfortunately they were textile mills, more sensitive to labor costs than power supply, so they moved first to North Carolina and now the Orient. Much the same happened to Oriental Rugs after the Germans "industrialized" them with their aniline dyes during the 1800's in "Persia". Seeking cheap hand labor, production went to Pakistan, then India and now China.

As to New England farmers. As anyone who has actually farmed here knows, what New England grows is rocks. Regardless of the Industrial Age, most "real farmers" in New England departed for the Mid-West (no glacial erratics) about 1850.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at February 15, 2013 10:18 PM

If the tax money of people who do not live in cities,such as Providence,must go to help support cities such as Providence,then we have a situation of taxation without representation,because those who live in other towns and cities cannot vote in the elections of places such as Providence.

Posted by: helen at February 17, 2013 6:15 AM

David S,

It's all nothing but an intellectual exercise for you. That's obvious because you do not speak from experience. It's just a political football for you. However,it is true that how long you can stand at a machine is your paltry worth.

I can't do it long,I faint.

Posted by: helen at February 17, 2013 6:23 AM

"...Mostly Yankee farmers."

You quoted this from some "authority",well,what about all of the legal immigrants who had to work in these hell holes to barely survive? I guess they don't merit mention.

Posted by: helen at February 17, 2013 6:59 AM
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