09/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Small States with Big Power

There is a lot of discussion right now about how Senators from small states hold too much power compared to the percent of population they represent. There's a lot of truth to this. Alex MacGillis of the Washington Post wrote in an analysis column in their Sunday Outlook section, and David Sirota and Nathan Newman have done good pieces on the topic as well. The simple facts are that the key gang of six negotiating health care in the Senate Finance Committee represent less than 3% of the nation's population; that the ten largest states are home to over half the country's population but represent only 20% of the Senate; the 21 smallest states together have less total population than California does.

It's good that people are raising these issues, and pointing out this unfairness. The plain fact of the matter, though, is that absent a constitutional convention suddenly being held, there is no changing this particular injustice. It would take 2/3 of the Senate, after all, to pass a constitutional amendment to restructure the Senate, and virtually all of the Senators from small states would vote against it. So we are stuck for now.

What we ought to be focused on instead are strategies that might work. Some folks I know are for ending the filibuster entirely, or at least cutting the vote needed for cloture from 60 to 55. This doesn't address the small state issue, but would at least bring us closer to majority rule. Being for more democracy rather than less, I would tend to favor such a thing despite the downside of all the damage Republicans would do when they had the majority. Senators themselves, though, like the additional power they get from only having to get 40 of their colleagues to agree with them instead of 50, and liberals tend to be scared of an unencumbered right wing in control of the government would tend to oppose such a thing, so I'm thinking that will be tough to win.

There is one thing that the progressive movement can start to do today, though, that can help change the dynamics in the Senate, and that is to invest in a small state/rural strategy.

I have felt for years that I am one of the few people in national Democratic politics who is both a strong progressive and a strong advocate for aggressively reaching out to people in rural and small state America. When I was on the 1992 Clinton campaign, and in the Clinton White House, I was liaison to both the broad progressive community and to farmer/rancher/small town groups. Ever since, I have strongly advocated both strong progressive positions and a vigorous small town/rural strategy even as (a) my mostly east and west coast and urban progressive friends were suspicious that outreach to rural folks would water down progressive politics, and (b) my friends from small states and rural areas were convinced big city liberals could never relate to them.

Having grown up in conservative Nebraska, with my in-laws family farmers in (very) rural and (very) Republican Missouri, I don't underestimate the challenges of a progressive small state strategy, but I would offer the following items from recent history as evidence:

  • In the 1950s, in one of the most Republican states in the country, George McGovern went county by county in South Dakota and built an organization that not only elected him Senator three times, but has been electing Democrats ever since. McGovern and his colleague James Abourezk were among the most progressive Senators in the country, while modern day South Dakota Democrats Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson have been loyal and mainstream Democratic leaders, in spite of South Dakota's strong Republican nature.

  • Iowa for most of its history had been one of the most Republican states in the country. When I first starting talking to people about taking a job there with a new statewide progressive coalition (the Iowa Citizen Action Network) in 1982, the state had a Republican Governor, two Republican Senators, a Republican majority Congressional delegation, and both Houses of the legislature controlled by the Republicans. But a group of progressive Democrats came together to rebuild the state Democratic Party as well as progressive organizations like ICAN. In 1982, Democrats took control of both legislative chambers, and in 1984 populist progressive Tom Harkin won a Senate seat. In 1988, Mike Dukakis won in Iowa, the first Democrat to win the state's electoral votes since the LBJ landslide in 1964, a victory which started a trend: in five of the six elections from 1988 to 2008, the Democrats won, losing narrowly only in 2004. Although Democrats lost control of the legislature for a while in the 1990s and early 2000s, a Democratic Governor, Tom Vilsack, finally won in 1998, and Democratic infrastructure kept getting stronger. Today, Democrats have the entire Congressional delegation except for one seat, and both houses of the legislature firmly in their control. They still have the Governor's mansion, and Tom Harkin is still there.
  • Montana is another state which has been strongly Republican over the years. Governor Brian Schweitzer has made a name for himself as a leader of western populist progressives, and Jon Tester came out of nowhere to surprise an establishment Democratic primary front runner, and then edge right wing Republican Senator Conrad Burns. Max Baucus is giving all of us progressives heartburn on health care, but I suspect if he was facing an election rather than just being elected to another 6 year term last year, he would be approaching the issue quite differently. A progressive group in the state, Forward Montana, has been doing an incredible job building an organization there.
  • As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there is a fascinating combination of libertarianism and populism in the small states of the west and Midwest, and while this combination can produce a negative politics at times, it can also produce people like Schweitzer, Harkin, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, and the beloved progressive icon Paul Wellstone.

    For too many years, progressive organizations and leaders have paid far too little attention to the small states and small towns of the Midwest and west. It is not as easy to organize there, pick up new direct mail or online members. And there are big cultural barriers between big city coastal progressives and rural/small state folks. The pay off for a long term strategy of organization and party building in small states is immense, though. We need to be investing in both national organizations that work on rural organizing such as RuralVotes, and great statewide groups like Forward Montana and ICAN. There is simply no other path to passing progressive legislation through the Senate without going through the small states.