Tea Party wants to repeal 17th amendment

Dog demands bag of M&Ms.

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.

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  1. Excellent post. You should check out the Brookings “State of Metropolitan America” report. They see the next ten years as a “decade of reckoning” for the US. The big reason? A massive demographic shift is afoot, and it brings a whole host of ugly problems.

    Will an aging white population pay for a young multiethnic population’s education, as an investment in the nation’s future? Will a young multiethnic workforce pay for massive entitlement programs for an aging – and increasingly hateful – white population?

    If not, what the fuck do we do?

    Despite their apparent belief in free-market principles, the Tea Party does not seem to understand that one needs to make an investment to see a return, and that that principle applies not only to individuals, but also the federal government.

    I suppose it’s easy to be shortsighted if you don’t expect to be living in 20 years or so, but it’s a damn shame.

  2. A fun bit of hypocrisy just occurred to me after reading this post; The Tea Party/Old White Folks I know have moral objections to handing out support to ‘lazy kids who think they have everything coming to them’. While these same old white folks sit back and collect social security checks, receive Medicare and Medicaid and bitch about their retirement packages and 401k.

    IMHO, the corporate retirement promises of the past amounted to nothing more than an elaborate, legalized Ponzy scheme. Nobody should be surprised that these promises are now falling apart, it was only a matter of time. TP/OWF anger is misdirected; they should go after the corporations that lied to them, or the brokers who lost the retirement funds in on Wall St. not the current political leaders.

  3. willy: deep down you know that America’s slide is directly related to the demographic change, with decline correlated to brownness

    It’s all over, and as a white kid raised in the 90s suburbs in what was the last culturally cohesive generation this country will see, all I’m concerned about is sitting back and watching this shithole slide into oblivion with a grin on my face and a bunch of money flowing in from 40 different directions of the soon-to-be-history past of the euro-christian nation formerly understood of as America

  4. God, I hope you’re some kind of comedian. The whole point of America is that it’s not a “euro-christian” nation, whether a bunch of white Christians live here or not. America at its best has always been about ideas, not who your grandparents were. Your attitude never belonged in America in the first place. Its natural home is in some village in Romania, or better yet the Middle East—somewhere ideas and capability take a back seat to inheritance and orthodoxy. Thank Christ the demographics of this country are changing; it offers hope that one of these days, people like you won’t be able to pass off their household prejudices as culture.

  5. Jean Raspail was a comedian too. That’s all there’s left to do: sit back and watch while people like you encourage your own subordination until you finally get what you deserve. Directly or not you’re going to feel it, we all are already. I can see the back of your neck pressed under the forearm of a 240lb black recidivist, you hand him a condom as he pulls down your pants, “I tested positive for HPV last check”

    Witness the naturalized Canadian-Chinese at the last Olympics burst from their seats for every — CHINESE goal or advantage scored against the CANADIAN team.

    Here’s an idea for you, a tidy simulacra with a lesson for us all: Amy Biehl.

  6. As much as I appreciate being in your rape fantasy, I think you’re missing a crucial element of the Amy Biehl story. Biehl was in South Africa to work against apartheid—that is, to improve the lives of black people in South Africa. She was murdered in spite of that, by people who didn’t know what she was doing, which is what makes the story so tragic. When she was pulled from her car, it wasn’t because she was Amy Biehl; it was because she was white.

    That’s the same reasoning that prompts Chinese-Candian fans to identify with the Chinese Olympic teams more than the Candian ones. I point this out because it’s also the same reasoning that suggests some people born in America are not Americans. What we’re talking about when we talk about repealing the 17th Amendment—what you’re talking about when you talk about “encouraging [my] own subordination”—is making ethnic identity more important than national or personal identity. The people who pulled Amy Biehl out of her car were people like you—dumber, more violent people maybe, but people operating on the same value system. I don’t understand how you can spend so much time thinking about race and not see through that.

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