Repealing the 17th Amendment?

Matt Bai has written an interesting little article for the NY Times about one of the lesser known goals of the Tea Party movement. Besides their vocal calls for lower taxes and less government interference, some people within the movement also want to repeal the 17th Amendment. Which one is that, again?

The 17th Amendment, added to the Constitution in 1913, allows senators to be elected directly by the people of the states, instead of being named by state legislators. Here is the full text:

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.

When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.

Passed in order to mitigate widespread corruption in late-19th century American politics, where senators would buy their seats from legislators, this seems like a pretty unobjectionable piece of legislature. Why are the Tea Partiers, as well as conservative figures like George Will, Alan Keyes, and Zell Miller opposed to a law that is supposed to give more influence to the average voter than to a state politician?

As Bai explains,

Senators would be more likely to fulfill their Constitutional role as the brake on runaway populism, the thinking goes, if they were not so always at the mercy of the popular will. “Direct democracy is the worst form of government possible,” says Howard Stephenson, a Republican state senator from Utah who has pushed for repeal, “because it relies on 60-second sound bites and the ability of the ad firm that can best make an impression on the voters.”

According to this line of argument, popular elections of state senators leaves too much to the control of people whose opinions are easily swayed by the media (which, as conservatives and populists love to believe, has a liberal bias.) By giving back legislators the right to pick state senators, states will in theory have more power to curb the federal government’s policies.

So far this seems like a fairly straightforward message, making the case for elite rule and against the dangers of direct democracy. This kind of thinking is quite in line with a conservative, Hamiltonian position on the relationship between republicanism and the notion of popular government. But what throws off the equation is that now, paradoxically, the populist Tea Partiers seem ready to harm themselves by pushing for this change.

The way I see it, there are two possible answers for this, and neither makes their movement look all that good. One is that the Tea Partiers’ loss of faith in the American version of democracy is so drastic that these people are willing to give up their immediate political rights for a long-term goal. This kind of logic has certainly been used before, appearing most often in fascist and right-populist mobilizations. Superficially, this tendency can be compared with Hobbes’s Leviathan, where authority is constructed through a universal abdication of individual political autonomy and its projection onto a third entity.

On the other hand, there is the less complicated answer: there is in fact nothing populist about the Tea Partiers. As shown by a recent poll, the Tea Partiers are wealthier and better educated than the average American. Of course, looking at some of the footage from their rallies, those findings fly in the face of intuition. Yet it can’t be ruled out that the Tea Party is more of an upper-middle class bourgeois reaction than a lower and lower-middle class populist uprising.

Let’s conclude these reflections on populism with a timely excerpt from Zizek (First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, p. 61):

“To put it in Nietzschean terms which are here highly appropriate, the ultimate difference between a truly radical emancipatory politics and a populist politics is that the former is active, it imposes and enforces its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, the result of a reaction to a disturbing intruder. In other words, populism remains a version of the politics of fear: it mobilizes the crowd by stoking up fear of the corrupt external agent.”


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