Stephen Colbert’s ignorance of history is the only thing funny about him
Why did the founders give each state an equal number of senators? To thwart slavery.
By mid-July of 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were exhausted. They had spent eight weeks arguing bitterly about how voting power in the new Congress would be apportioned, with the large, mostly southern, states arguing for proportional representation and the smaller states demanding a one-state-one-vote framework.
As James Madison, whose “Virginia Plan” proposed proportional representation in the Senate, would later write, “reconciling the larger states to the equality of the Senate is known to have been the most threatening [difficulty] that was encountered in framing the Constitution.”
Slavery, of course, was ever-present, with the large southern states fighting to protect their interests in keeping the practice. Pro-slavery delegates like South Carolina’s John Rutledge argued vigorously for proportional representation, even crafting the three-fifths compromise to include slaves in the calculation of the representation southern states would be granted. (It is a cruel irony that slaves were used to enhance southern voting power in Congress, primarily for the purpose of keeping them enslaved.)
In pressing the case for population-based representation in the Senate, Rutledge found an ally in Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson, who believed the American people would lose faith in the Constitution when they realized one-third of the people in the country would have equal voting rights in the Senate as the remaining two-thirds.
“Will our Constituents entertain when they find that the essential principles of justice have been violated in the outset of the Government?,” Wilson said. He later seconded a motion by Charles Pinkney of South Carolina to provide a diluted form of proportional representation in the Senate - for instance, Virginia would get five senators, while smaller states would only get one. This would have given the smaller states more power than if senators had been apportioned solely by population, but would retain southern dominance.
(James Madison even jumped in and proposed a confusing scenario in which a state’s voting power would vary based on the topic of the bill being debated - in cases where the government was acting on behalf of the people, he proposed the votes be proportional by population - in cases where the government acted on the states, the votes would be by state.)
On July 16, the delegates voted on the makeup of the Senate, and the non-slave states won. Proportional representation was gone.
Nearly 235 years later, the vote that day continues to cause consternation among America’s political left, who can’t fathom that the country’s high-population states don’t enjoy more voting power in the Senate than lower-population conservative states. Why does Wyoming, with a population of 579,000, have as much voting power as California, with a population of 40 million?
This week, in a rant against Democratic Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s support of the Senate filibuster, liberal late-night comedian Stephen Colbert bitterly criticized the framework of the Senate, complaining that the 50 senators currently filibustering a federal voting bill “represent 41 million fewer Americans than the senators who support it.”
“So stop acting like the filibuster is anything other than an anti-democratic tool,” he said, after mocking a shirt Sinema once wore. (For those keeping score, mocking the way a woman dresses is now fair game as long as you’re on the correct team.)
Later in the show, while interviewing Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Colbert doubled down, calling the Senate an “anti-democratic institution.” (This is also the position of perhaps the internet’s wrongest man, Vox’s Ian Milhiser, who claims the Senate is evidence Americans don’t enjoy “free and fair elections.”)
Of course, nobody likes the humorless scolds that fact-check jokes. But one would be hard-pressed to categorize what Colbert does these days as “humor.” His smug political screeds, engineered only to gin up “clapter” from his progressive audience, shouldn’t get a free pass because he still labels himself a “comedian.”
It appears Colbert believes the Founding Fathers took the same amount of time debating the makeup of the Senate as he took cooking up a joke calling Sinema “Mrs. Hamburglar.” It is perhaps apt he opposes equal representation in the Senate, given Colbert hails from South Carolina - his position aligns him with fellow South Carolinians like Rutledge and Pinkney.
The answer to the question that perplexes Colbert - why there is equal state representation in the Senate - is simple. The answer is slavery. Smaller northern states objected to a government of simple majority rule - they wanted a protection for minority factions within America that couldn’t simply bully legislation through. The Senate would be a place where cooler heads prevailed - and in 1787, the cooler heads were much less likely to support keeping people in chains.
Colbert’s take on the filibuster is equally as fact-averse. In the clip he shows of Sinema defending her support of the Senate’s 60-vote supermajority requirement, she actually makes a solid case for why it is necessary.
“While I continue to support these bills,” Sinema said on the Senate floor, “I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country…What is the legislative filibuster other than a tool that requires new federal policy to be broadly supported by senators representing a broader cross-section of Americans?”
Colbert, on the other hand, seems to believe Democrats have a stranglehold on the Senate they will never relinquish. But if Republicans win one more seat and control the Senate, it is unlikely he would be supportive of pushing through legislation with a simple 51-vote majority. You’re more likely to see a video of a yeti solving a Wordle puzzle than a video of Colbert supporting repeal of the filibuster when Mitch McConnell is in charge.
But late night comedians aren’t in the business of knowing things - they now believe they are in the business of provoking reactions.
Someone should explain to Colbert that being a laughingstock isn’t the same as being funny.