The Cambridge Dictionary defines populism as political ideas and activities that are intended to represent ordinary people’s needs and wishes. Generally, we have come to define it as anything related to grass-roots democracy, egalitarianism, and simply appealing to the common person. Populism’s philosophy is about respecting the needs of the common, everyday citizen rather than some elite. It’s anti-establishment and sometimes anti-intellectual.
By most definitions, especially the media’s, the Tea Party movement is a populist one. (But okay, maybe not an egalitarian one.)
I’d like to share another definition with you—that for popular: of, pertaining to, or representing the people, especially the common people. Also, of the people as a whole, especially of all citizens of a nation or state qualified to participate in an election.
The essences of populism and popular are inherently connected, but there is a growing bloc of regressive activists insisting on separating that connection, and they are infiltrating the Tea Party movement and, by extension, the Republican Party. The latest eyebrow-raising issue to fall out of the Tea Partiers is a desire to repeal the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
For anyone who doesn’t know (and don’t feel bad), the 17th Amendment is the one that provides for direct election of United States senators. Before it was adopted in 1913, senators were appointed by the state legislatures. Evidently, some vocal citizens want to return to that era.
When the nation was founded, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and most other authors of the Constitution insisted on having the state legislatures appoint U.S. senators to ensure that states had federal representation in Congress. The members of the House of Representatives were to be elected by the people and therefore represent the people, and the members of the Senate would represent the states. When the method of choosing senators was changed, many argue that it was done in sacrifice to states rights.
Madison and company were also concerned that if senators were directly elected by the people, they would be susceptible to special interests and corrupt behavior. That’s pretty interesting, considering one of the primary reasons for enacting the 17th Amendment was to put a stop to all the corruption that went with state legislatures appointing senators, not least among that corruption being William A. Clark openly bribing members of the legislature at $10,000 a pop for a vote for the senate. He won. (I do appreciate his statement, though, that he “never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”) (nytimes)
I suppose I can see some validity in the reasoning that one of the houses of Congress should be more responsible to the individual states. After all, many of the giant federal mandates of the past century (Social Security, Medicare, the minimum wage, civil rights) might not have been passed if the people in charge of governing the states had more of a say.
But does anyone honestly think this is the way to go? To revert to a system that bred just as much corruption and pandering to special interests as anything we can conceive of today?
For starters, the Tea Party claims to be a populist movement, but taking the election of senators out of the hands of the popular vote and putting it into the hands of a much more elite set of people is blasphemy to populism.
Not to mention, a populist movement standing up for the “common” person has historically meant fighting for the little guy, the underdog, and those in a position of less. The Tea Partiers are fighting against all of that. They want to put the responsibility of appointing our national senators in the hands of people who look an awful lot like them—more white, more Christian, more middle and upper class, and often past middle age. Many are disgruntled by the influx of Latinos into this country and by the rights being increasingly extended to homosexuals, among plenty of other things. They don’t like the idea that just anybody can vote and influence policy, so they want to repeal that darned 17th Amendment.
In an age of Rod Blagovich and Joe Sestak, do we really want to give more power to lifelong politicians? Why, so they can just appoint themselves and other members of the good ol’ boys club, or just the highest bidder? The very idea is baffling and leaves me with a furrowed brow.
Even though not everyone who can vote does, luckily pretty much everyone likes that they can, and I don’t foresee this repeal gaining legitimate support from enough members of Congress who owe their positions to the voters. What do you think?
Why do you think a repeal of the 17th Amendment has gained ground with this vocal subset of activists and even Senate and House candidates (I’m looking at you Steve Strivers, Raul Labrador, and Tim Bridgewater, even if some of you later backpeddled)? Do you think the original method of having state legislatures appoint senators makes sense in our system of government? Why? Of all the things to be frustrated about in today’s political atmosphere, why would something like this strike a chord with people?
And don’t look now, but your 13th Amendment might not be safe either. Recent primary winner and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul seems to have a problem with at least the first sentence, which states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” (I have a feeling this has a little something to do with that battle going on in Arizona right now.) Paul told a Russian broadcaster, “We’re the only country I know that allows people to come in illegally, have a baby, and then that baby becomes a citizen. And I think that should stop.” I will let that stand on its own and ask for your thoughts instead!
As always, please feel free to express your opinion here, whatever it may be. I welcome civil discussion and am always pleased when people comment. Have at it.