Zombie Senates

by Jim McCarthy

Zombies have been depicted in ancient cultures such as that of Norse mythology (draugar) very similar to those in contemporary culture. The Roman senate with the iconic SPQR dates to 753 B.C. as an advisory body to the king composed of elders (senes, Latin root for senescent or deteriorating in age) of the society.

The nation’s current politisphere has witnessed a resurrection of zombie allusions that could be applied to the country’s senates. In this regard, progress may not be our most important product, as General Electric spokes master Ronald Reagan intoned Sundays each week (1954-1962). There are probably as many measures of political progress as there are stars and constellations viewed by the Hubble telescope.  Yet, we cling to a concept of legislative governance by a senate with little question or consideration of the contemporary merits of the idea.

The living dead, or zombies (a/k/a revenants), can contribute to fear of progress or even ignorance of its possibilities. Most of us voting today were taught in high school civics that a two-chamber legislature was a desirable and noble institution, one where the upper chamber (senate) existed to slow down any rush to legislative measures that might be deemed harmful or intemperate with respect to the public interest. The common syllabus often characterized the function of the US Senate as “slowing down” the legislative sausage-making to ensure the best or most considered outcomes devoid of irrational provisions.

In the olden days, when the Constitution was being drafted, the political theory to shelter the federal government from hasty or ill-considered action may have had some historical resonance. This caution was similar to the justification for the Electoral College scheme which, in some respects, was created to function like a super-senate in selecting the top executive officers. State legislatures, faithfully modeled on the national legislative body, it was supposed, were to perform a similar task.

Republicans, along with their conservative branch, perpetually advocate for smaller government while Democrats, along with their progressives, argue for increasingly democratic institutions. These twin points have never met in a piece of legislation although, upon reflection, they share more in common than not.

In Congress, that role has too often become a graveyard for legislation, discombobulated and compromised by arcane procedures such as filibuster and courtesies regarding judicial appointments. Despite the growth of para-military violent groups, the nation’s electorate is far less the emotionally unstable rabble that concerned the authors of the Constitution. January 6th is obvious testimony to the resilience of the civic fabric of the United States against irrational, dangerous political ambition.

Frustration with government indifference to the wants, needs, and voices of the electorate continues. In part, this dissonance must be attributed to structural barriers like the senates. With only a modicum of consideration, state senates can be seen to behave as vestigial organs in redundancy, only exacerbating a sense of bloated, unresponsive government. State senators represent the identical constituencies as those elected to lower houses, only distinguished by artificially drawn boundaries. For the most part, state representational districts are no longer the wild west for gerrymandering. Thus, the sole desirable rationale to retain state senates is – hold your horses – political power or dominance of the legislative process as targets of political party factions.

Redundancy of state senates is of little interest to political parties so long as a desire for majority rule persists, justifying retention of upper chambers. The interests of the electorate in a more efficient, more responsive government, and one more democratic hardly breaches the consciousness of party or elected officials. Money and power dominate over the hoi polloi.

Achieving the mutually aligned goals of Republicans and Democrats in this regard is a wish. Among other things, such an accomplishment would require forceful leadership. Until then, the nation is saddled with personages like “President Manchin” and “Moscow Mitch” in Washington, as virtually every state of the union fails to look inward towards its own capital to discover what continues incrementally at work to frustrate electorates. The corps of living dead walk among us, campaigning for our votes and attention without ever revealing that, when they resume residence in their upper chambers, they will plan and create statements about their failure to accomplish delivery of promises.  Political opponents in the lower chamber, they will claim, frustrate goals, strategies designed for perpetuity in office.

In Virginia, a legislature reduced by 40, along with accompanying impedimentia (including campaigns and fund raising and state-financed election expenses), should sound attractive to advocates of smaller government and increased democracy. The electorate would benefit from the loss of excuses blaming legislative failure on members of the upper chamber, perhaps controlled by the opposition. Trimming campaigns to a single legislative chamber should increase and focus the interests of voters as well as permit more directed campaign contributions by a smaller number of PACs and campaign committees.

At present, a Virginia senate with a narrow margin of majority for one party has been lauded as a bulwark against the lower chamber with a narrow majority of the opposition. Both sides are presently deeply engaged in electoral strategies to reverse that margin in the lower chamber in November. The senate campaigns reach voters a year later in 2023 affording both factions more opportunity to engage in the blame game about legislative progress. Issues such as abortion and, perhaps, same sex marriage will be subordinated to partisanship further adding to constituent malaise and disappointment. A General Assembly without a senate offers the potential for legislative results that are more binary, reflecting the will of the people in their choices of candidates.

District boundaries for the House in Virginia have been drawn with near-perfect equality of population applicable for the next decade. That equilibrium creates a stable platform of competition to test partisan interests and candidates. Without the option for advancement to a senate seat in pursuit of a longer term of office and membership in a more exclusive and influential club, the electorate would also enjoy a respite from campaign fatigue that characterizes the Commonwealth’s calendar. Focusing and streamlining voter choices should foster increased confidence in the value and clout of every vote no longer subject to deflection anxiety concerning senate majorities. One person, one vote, one legislature.

Americans do not blithely rush to adopt political reforms that rub against custom and mores as the lag time between enfranchising slaves and women’s suffrage indicate. However, popular culture informs that zombies may be “killed” or completely disabled by a bullet or other projectile piercing their heads. Blunt force to the head is also said to be effective. On the other hand, January 6th tells us that the peaceful transfer of power is possible despite a conscious plot to thwart it. State and national political leadership might connect the dots between the frustrations of insurrectionists with the necessity of eliminating structural barriers to improve the republican form of government.

Concurrently, polls indicate that an increasing number of Americans are inclined to support violence as political reform. Perhaps it can be channeled against zombie senates with the Commonwealth championing a unicameral legislature consistent with its bellwether reputation. Lifeless or zombie governmental structures are scary.

Jim McCarthy, a former New York attorney, lives in Northern Virginia.