Students of the Framers’ 1787 debates over the Constitution will recall that the country came close to splitting apart after the Connecticut Compromise in July of that year. And what was the compromise? It centered over whether states should be equally represented in the Senate, or whether they should be represented according to their population, as in the House of Representatives. The small-state delegates won that one, giving us equal representation by states in the Senate, prompting some large state delegates to contemplate a walkout.
For many years this was thought to shape American politics in an important way, and in fact probably did so. With equal representation by states, the Senate was perhaps more isolationist and certainly more sympathetic to farmers. We also saw more pork, in the shape of government offices and military bases, in places such as West Virginia and Alabama than we would have otherwise.
One message from the election last week, however, is that the Connecticut Compromise might matter less in the future than it did in the past. In 2015 the Senate will be 53 percent Republican, the House 56 percent Republican. In other words, the difference in the principle of representation doesn’t matter much when it comes to national politics.
That’s been happening for some time now, and there are a couple of reasons for it. One is technological and economic change. There isn’t the same split between small and large states today, as there was in the past, when there was a sharp difference between industrial and agricultural states. Politicians can talk all they want about “Iowa values,” but the fact is they aren’t very different from Virginia values.
The other difference is internal migration. There was a time when the difference in representation advantaged the Republicans more, when the more heavily populated industrial states were more likely to support Democrats. Back then the Connecticut Compromise hurt the Democrats. More recently, however, the relatively free market policies of Republican state have attracted jobs and people from Democratic states, and the playing field has leveled out.
The more astute delegates to the 1787 convention — people like Benjamin Franklin — didn’t worry overmuch about the Connecticut Compromise. They were right, and simply ahead of their time.
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