As the actual policy agenda of the Tea Party slowly condenses—like fog on a mirror held up to Joe McCarthy’s unconscious mouth—opposition to the 17th amendment is emerging as a bizarrely signature issue. If you’re like me, your visceral position on this matter can best be described as, “the what?” The 17th amendment provides for the direct, popular election of US Senators. Prior to 1913, Senators were chosen by state legislators, on the theory that the higher house of Congress would thereby be made more deliberative and less responsive to the whims of the mob. Ironic that, since at least two Republican congressional candidates swept to primary victories by Tea Party support—Steve Stivers in Ohio and Vaughan Ward in Idaho—have recently changed their position on the issue so as to appear less, um, insane. In the annals of things to say that will endear you to undecided voters, pledging to reduce the number of things they get to vote on ranks low. So we come to our usual Tea Party question: Why?
The short answer is the ever-popular state’s rights. Allowing state legislatures to choose whom they send to Washington will give those legislatures more power, which will in turn ensure that the will of the people is better reflected because…okay, the logic train breaks down here. Presumably, the argument for repeal centers on some imagined opposition between state and federal governments, but the solution substitutes the state electorate for the feds. Getting rid of the 17th amendment would certainly strengthen state governments, but at the expense of the people they’re supposed to represent.
“Less power to the people” is hardly the stated objective of the Tea Party. It’s tempting to decide that “repeal the 17th amendment!” simply sounds good when shouted through a megaphone, but the push for repeal is stronger than that. The amendment figured prominently in the questionnaire given to Republican primary candidates, and at least one Tea Party official said that Vaughn’s subsequent flip-flop “means a lot to us.” Clearly, this idea came from somewhere, and it’s captured the imaginations of enough 55 year-olds in khaki baseball caps to stick around.
It’s interesting to note that the amendment was itself the product of a similar people’s movement. During the 1890s, the Populist Party made direct election of Senators a central element of its platform, in an attempt to reduce corruption. The Populists were composed primarily of farmers in states where railroad companies exercised enormous influence over local governments. Those railroads routinely charged higher rates during harvest time and otherwise found ways to gouge farmers who needed to get their crops to market before they rotted. Attempts to pass price-fixing laws or, later, to convince local authorities to enforce anti-trust acts invariably foundered at the state level, where a moderately successful railroad could easily buy off a majority of legislators. The direct election of US Senators was a bid to gain representation at a less corruptible level of government.
Which makes it all the more baffling that the Tea Party would come out against it—unless you consider what I have come to think of as the Dark Theory. The Dark Theory holds that, beneath its We The People rhetoric and obsession with liberty and tyranny, the Tea Party is a movement of people who are afraid of losing power. In the past, we’ve talked about the surprising discovery that members of the Tea Party are generally wealthier and better educated than the general populace, and the less surprising discovery that they’re overwhelmingly old and white. They are the old regime, which explains why their sudden, energized existence coincided with the election of a young black President.* The Tea Partiers fear a tyrannical democracy because they fear that they are no longer in the majority, or soon won’t be.
Seen in this light, their opposition to the 17th amendment makes perfect sense. Long after white people cease to be a majority in Arizona, the real estate developers and wealthy doctors in the state legislature will be inordinately white. Eliminating direct election of Senators addresses the Republican Party’s greatest fear: that they will represent the interests of an ever-dwindling portion of the electorate. You can’t ride to Washington on promises to eliminate Pell grants and cut taxes on small business owners if your state is full of laid-off factory workers hoping to finally send one member of their family to college. Or you can, but only if the election is decided by 100 people sufficiently rich and homogenized to become state legislators.