23 February 2009

The Senate: How About LESS Democracy?

The recent senatorial appointment follies in Illinois and New York have convinced many people, most prominently Senator Feingold of Wisconsin, that it's time to amend the Constitution to require elections to fill all Senate vacancies rather than leave replacement appointments in the capricious hands of governors. Feingold's proposal of anything rings alarm bells for Republican columnist George Will, who views the McCain-Feingold bill as the greatest crime against civil liberties since the Alien and Sedition Acts. If Feingold proposes greater democratization of the Senate, Will is almost obliged to go in the opposite direction. His solution, presented in his latest column, is to repeal the 17th Amendment, the measure that mandated popular election of Senators in the first place.

In Will's view, that amendment has only done mischief. He argues that it ended the Senate's status as a bulwark of states' rights against encroaching centralization and expanding federal power. In his view, it also betrays the Founders' intention that the upper house be a more "deliberative" than "responsive" body, compared to the House of Representatives. According to Will's history, the 17th Amendment was foisted upon the nation by Washington-based lobbyists " who preferred one-stop shopping in Washington to currying favors in all the state capitals." These lobbyists share blame with "urban political machines, which were then organizing an uninformed electorate swollen by immigrants." They all had intellectual backing from the "Progressive" movement (accursed among conservatives for its eagerness to tell people how to live), which held, Will claims sarcastically, that "more, and more direct, democracy is always wonderful." To get liberals' attention, he notes that popular election of Senators gave the nation Joe McCarthy, as opposed to all the master statesmen of the early 19th century who failed to prevent the Civil War. That blade cuts both ways.

I'm sort of a student of early 20th century politics, enough of one to say that Will isn't telling the whole story of the period. The movement for popular election of Senators was part of a more general movement (call it "Progressive" if you like) that also involved the establishment of direct primaries in which rank-and-file party members could choose their candidates for offices rather than have the nominations dictated by party bosses. Taking senatorial elections out of state legislatures was another blow against party bosses, of whom there were more than the urban kind that Will mentions. There were legislative party bosses who dictated the nominations of local party organizations as well as the selection of U.S. Senators. Will implicitly idealizes the situation so that the Senators of this period represented their states rather than the states' ruling parties. Instead, they too often represented their parties first, and their bosses specifically. Progressives within both major parties supported the 17th Amendment because they wanted to take the original constitutional power out of the hands of the bosses who had usurped it. For them, the alternatives were democratization or oligarchy.

I don't doubt that Will understands this, but I'm also pretty sure that he'd accept the re-establishment of senatorial selection by party bosses if it has the results he expects. The Senate in those days was more solicitous toward states' rights, and was more conscious of its status as an independent branch of government. Even well after the amendment, Senators retained this attitude. As late as the 1960s, they could tell Lyndon Johnson that his former status as Majority Leader counted for nothing once he became Vice President, and he could not expect to tell them what to do. If that has changed more recently, the subservience of Senators toward Presidents of their own party, best illustrated by Republicans' deference toward Vice President Cheney, has different origins than the 17th Amendment. It's not impossible that a centralization of party power and an increased subservience of Senators took time, as Will might suggest, and it's not impossible that a reversion of senatorial election to state legislatures might re-establish some sense of independence from Washington on the part of state parties. It's tantalizing to think that one way of disrupting the American Bipolarchy might be simply to decentralize the two major parties -- but I don't think that outcome is likely. The national fundraising apparatus is so great, and local organization so dependent upon it, that the national party leaders would most likely still bend Senators to the President's will. Nor is this moment in history necessarily the time to reinforce state sovereignty when states are increasingly likely to start a "race to the bottom" to make themselves more attractive to business at workers' expense. Anyone who looks to an isolated past for solutions to America's predicament in a globalized world has his head screwed on wrong. States' rights should not be our top priority at this hour, and for that reason we should dismiss George Will's whimsy.


Anonymous said...

Another way to look at it is to simply dissolve the states. Elminiate state government, eliminate state taxes. We should cease being the "United States" in preference to the idea of "one nation, one law". Then there would be no reason for senators or the Senate and the question of how we decide becomes a moot point.

Samuel Wilson said...

Of course, unless you can convince 3/4 of the states to sign off on their own annihilation, you'll probably need a whole new constitutional convention with as revolutionary a mandate as the Philadelphia crew of 1787 to pull off this scheme.