The 17th Amendment is Good for America

There’s a movement afoot to repeal the 17th Amendment of the United States Constitution which allows for the two US Senators from each state to be “elected by the people thereof.” As proof that the Tea Party wants to infringe on your democracy and make it easier for elite corporate interests to control Washington, they want to take away our vote and allow state legislators to secretly appoint Senators through back-room deals.

So apart from the obvious contradictions of claiming to be a populist, patriotic movement while attacking the popular vote and the democratic traditions of our nation, why else is repealing the 17th Amendment a bad idea?

One of the central themes of the Tea Party is the idea of returning to and honoring our Founding Father’s intent. Glenn Beck, who hosts Founders’ Friday every week on his show, recently evoked James Madison — who Beck called a “little cutie pie” — to make the case for repealing the 17th Amendment and taking American back to 1776.

Before we get too misty eyed and nostalgic, let’s remember what America was like in 1776 — and why the 17th Amendment was such a vital addition down the road.

The vaunted leaders at the Constitutional convention were all very wealthy, very white men and included the largest slave owners in the colonies. None of the Founders were very pro-equality on the subject of race, but some were more opposed to slavery than others. In particular, the North was more opposed to slavery than was the South. And the North had more people. So the South was worried that, if the new nation were just based on the popular vote alone, it would have less power and slavery would be abolished.

They created a Constitution to preserve slavery, with all sorts of compromises to appease the South and keep it — and slavery — in the union.

For instance, the North only wanted free persons to be counted for purposes of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives. But the South, which hand tons of slaves, wanted slaves to count too — even though they (like all black folks at the time) couldn’t vote. So the genius Founders agreed to count slaves as 3/5ths of a person, which gave the South more power in the House. This wasn’t changed until the 14th Amendment in 1868. (Maybe the Tea Party wants to repeal that one, too…)

The Senate was also created to give more power to the slavery-loving South — so less populous Southern states would have just as much say in the Senate — two seats — as more crowded Northern states. Why make Senator’s appointed by legislatures instead of elected by the people? Like the Electoral College — which unfortunately still remains — the point was to “insulate” politics from popular will. This was Madison’s idea of democracy. He said, “A pure democracy is a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.” Glenn Beck and the Tea Party, by siding with Madison on this point and wanting Senators to be appointed, are siding with the idea of elite rule by a very few rather than true, popular democracy. The inspiration, by the way, for this original idea of the Senate was the House of Lords in England. While “the people” were represented in the House of Commons, the other branch were only appointed from wealthy landowners and elites — who would make sure that the interests of the people would never completely win out over the interests of the wealthy, privileged elite.

The Tea Party doesn’t want state laboratories of democracy. They want elite fiefdoms ruling every level of government. It’s no accident that the state legislators the Tea Party and Glenn Beck want to give more power to are disproportionately wealthy and white — um, just like the Founding Fathers. The 17th Amendment originated after exposes in the early 1900s showed already-well-to-do state legislators using their Senate appointment power to get even richer.

Now, let’s get one thing clear. I think the Founders are great. I think the Constitution is great. I think our nation is great. But not perfect! The Founders, actually, recognized this too. They created a living, breathing document for a living breathing nation — that could be changed as needed. It was that little cutie pie Madison, for instance, who wrote the Bill of Rights — the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. (If we’re gonna start repealing amendments, let’s start with the 2nd instead!)

Madison said, “The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” So the question is, who do you trust more? Do you trust the American people to directly elect our government? Or do you want to give more power to state legislators for them to potentially abuse? Do you want to believe that the American people can wisely change and carryout the governance of our nation, including amending the Constitution? Or do you think that a few wealthy elites from centuries ago still know absolutely best how our country should be run today?

Gee, I guess I put more faith in the American people than Glenn Beck or the Tea Party do.


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