Establishment Democrats are suggesting that if they can get former Vice President Joe Biden over the finish line not with a squeaker of a win but with a landslide, and take solid control of the Senate too, they will be able to cement control of the upper house of Congress by adding four more Democratic senators.
The idea is to use a Senate and House majority and presidential support to pass legislation admitting both the nation’s capital, Washington, DC, and the island colony of Puerto Rico as new states, each of which would, under the Constitution, receive two Senatorial seats. The hope would be that those new states, one majority brown and Latin, the other majority black, would be likely to reliably send Democrats to the US Senate for years to come.
The concept might well fly in the case of the District of Columbia. For far too long this minority white city’s residents (46% black and 11% Latinx) have been deprived not just of representation in the Senate, but also in the House, thought since 1967 they have at least had the right to vote for the president. The district’s license plates , however, understandably still bear the slogan “No taxation without representation.” Washingtonians powerfully and unambiguously want statehood.
Republicans in years past have sometimes endorsed statehood for the district, which at a current population of 705,000 would be larger than Wyoming and Vermont, and would receive, under the Constitution, two Senators and one at-at large member of the House of Representatives (at present it gets only a non-voting but elected member of the House who can participate and vote on committees, but not on action on bills and resolutions in the full House).
But since the end of the 1970s, few Republicans, already faced with a shrinking national demographic base of older white people, have favored adding a state which would be nearly 50% black and that is known to vote heavily Democratic. That said, were Democrats to control all three branches of government, making DC a state would be relatively easy and, once accomplished, irreversible.
Puerto Rico is another story altogether, however.
A colony of the US since the US victory over Spain in the Spanish-American war at the end of the 19th Century, Puerto Rico’s over three million residents are in the odd position of being US citizens, but with no right to vote in national elections (unless they move to the mainland), and no representation in Congress beyond a non-voting member in the House, much like Washington DC. Theoretically Puerto Ricans have the autonomous power to run their own island through their elected governor and legislature, but in practice, Congress can invalidate any Puerto Rican law, and federal laws on the island, over which local Puerto Ricans have no control, are enforced by US government prosecutors . Any legal issues as well as the trials of offenders charged with violations of federal law are tried in federal courts which are part of the First Circuit located in Boston.
The US has tried for almost a century to maintain the fiction that the island is not a colony but a “commonwealth” but when push comes to shove, the charade is exposed. Consider how, when the island a few years ago faced technical bankruptcy, it was prevented from escaping its debts by US federal courts, which instead imposed a Financial Oversight Board of mostly mainlander bankers from New York. That oversight board slashed public employee salaries pensions, guaranteed repayment to bond-holders and bank lenders, and caused enormous damage to the island population. Consider too how Puerto Rico has no right to control immigration, to override federal laws its people oppose, or even to prevent its National Guard unit troops from having to fight in US wars such as in Iraq. When there is conscription, Puerto Rican men aged 18-26 are subject to the draft, though they cannot vote for the government that sends them off to war.
Over the decades since 1967 there have been five plebiscites on the island offering residents a choice of independence, statehood or the “commonwealth” status quo (or in some cases an “enhanced” commonwealth status supposedly offering more autonomy), as choices. Although as late as the 1950s there was a strong and militant independence movement and even several armed independence uprisings crushed by the US military, in later years electoral support for independence in those plebiscites has been low. In all but one of the five, statehood support has been less than the vote for the status quo.
But critics, and the pro-independence parties, have always pointed out that the plebiscites themselves are not really what they appear to be. Since they are not Congressionally mandated, with their results binding not just on Puerto Rico but also on Washington, they are actually just glorified opinion polling exercises. There has never been a commitment from Congress to recognize the desires of the Puerto Rican people, either for admission as a state or for independence, and so the colonial charade of a Commonwealth has continued.
It’s not at all clear that a majority of Congress, even a majority of Democrats, would support a new state where the main language is Spanish (which would legally be declaring the United States to be a bilingual nation, like Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Singapore, New Zealand and 50 other countries (a concept unacceptable to a vast number of white nativist US politicians and citizens). At the same time, it’s clear that Puerto Ricans, many of whom speak only Spanish, would not support becoming a state in a country where Spanish would become viewed as a secondary language. Thus it’s not certain that Congress, even with a narrow Democratic Party majority in the Senate, would be able to muster the votes to authorize a binding plebiscite among Puerto Ricans which would require Washington to accept an island vote for statehood and that would include terms that could win majority support from Puerto Ricans.
Then too, even if they did succeed in doing that, such a binding plebiscite would also be sure to stir to life the nationalist sentiments of the 25% of islanders who have historically ignored or boycotted prior non-binding plebiscites, as well as the 50% or more who have always backed the status quo “Commonwealth” option in those plebiscites, not out of any love for that continued colonial status, but out of a desire to preserve the island’s Latinx culture and Spanish language by preventing statehood.
As Victor Santos, a Puerto Rican friend of mine from the mountain town of Villalba who has been an independentista activist all his adult life put it to me recently, “Puerto Ricans will never agree to become a state of the United States!”
Alfredo Lopez, a Puerto Rican activist, former Young Lords Party member in New York, founder of the May First Movement Technology organization, and a lifelong Puerto Rican independentista (and also a member of ThisCantBeHappening!) puts it, “I think it is hideous for Democrats to be talking about using Puerto Rico to get two more senators! It is despicable opportunism!” He adds that Puerto Ricans would never assent to becoming part of the US.
Democrats, if they want to maintain a majority in the US Senate in the face of a Constitution that grants excessive power to Midwestern states with conservative politics, a largely white demographic, and small populations that tend to vote for Republican candidates, will simply have to stop being the party of Wall Street and the arms industry and start passing legislation that actually benefits the people — something studies show only happens these days about 1% of the time in a Congress composed mostly of millionaires in the pay of large corporations and the rich.