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Our ‘landed gentry’ democracy

The framers of our constitution unmistakably were visionaries. They crafted one of the most amazing documents in history — quite possibly the most amazing document in history.

But its also true that they were landed gentry whose vision blurred badly when it came to the rights of women, and African-Americans and even men without property, all of whom would wait well into the history of the United States before winning the right to vote. We had to amend these flaws, and in some cases, people had to die to make those changes possible.

The further truth, however, is that we are still in 2004 living with a document that contains landed gentry thinking wrapping enigmas inside the document we live by as a nation.

Among them the U.S. Senate. Does it make any sense that Idaho, a state about 1.3 million inhabitants, has two U.S. senators while California, with several that contain more people than Idaho and a total population estimated at 35 million, has the same number of senators?

More than two centuries ago, this was very deliberate: the framers wanted an upper house of the new American legislature (the Senate) made up of wealthy gentry – men who they felt would be wiser than the rest of us, but just as importantly, who would have the power to make sure the unwashed rabble in the lower house (the House of Representatives) refrained from crack-pot notions like, for instance, taxing the rich.

This is a truly republican notion – small ‘R” – in which each state is equal and should be equally represented in the Senate no matter what the population of that state.  For the framers, democracy was fine as long as the upper house could provide a check on popular passions when things got out of hand.

The Electoral College is another relic of this kind of mind set.  It makes no sense that today that a bunch of states that make up just over half of California’s population add up to the same number of electoral votes as California. The Electoral College is obsolete, and I’ll go out on a limb here and predict that if George Bush wins re-election, he will do so by losing the popular vote again while cobbling enough electoral votes to carry the day.

While we’re tinkering, it makes sense to look at another flaw in our democracy: the fact that the citizens of the District of  Columbia are not represented by a single vote in either the Senate or the House. (This one can’t be blamed totally on the landed gentry since D.C. didn’t exist when the Constitution was being framed.

We are a democracy, founded as a republic. Many of the rules we live by were written by men who wanted to ensure that the privileged had the upper hand, and the minority of the privileged would always stay in control.

In 2004, this translates into a system that helps to keep the Republican Party in power.  Don’t believe me?  Just add two senators from the District of Columbia, abolish the Electoral College and stir. George Bush would not have won the first time, and Democrats would control the Senate.   

Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's former campaign manager, is an MSNBC contributor and a political analyst for "Hardball with Chris Matthews."  He's contributes to Hardball's "Hardblogger," weblog, and is author of "The Revolution Will Not be Televised: Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything."