What Do You Want?

US_Senate_Chamber_c1873Today’s amendment–the 17th–is one of those Progressive Era changes to the Constitution designed to make the more democratic.  Its most important sections read:

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.

A lot of people may not know this, but for the first 125 years of our nation’s history, United States senators were not directly election by the people.  Rather, state legislatures had the responsibility for this task.  Why?  Well, it had to do with reserving some important powers for each of the states even as it provided a little insulation from the dangerous shifting winds of popular politics.  The House of Representatives was, after all, the body more open to that kind of democracy.  There, elections held 31beb16e9f704852991d5e6576b2cdaf-2bc7fb0b5a4b449281d54b95b73e0854-4every two years guaranteed they would be much more beholden to the popular will.  As designed, senators were meant to be very different: creatures more of their state than the people, whose six-year terms would keep them from having to constantly worry about the electoral process.

Over time, though, campaigns for the Senate became a statewide push for a slate of legislators of a certain political party.  If a particular candidate’s party won the day, the expectation would be that he would be selected as that state’s senator.  There were more issues than this involved, no doubt…but this was one of them.  So much so that deadlocks could emerge in the selection of senators and an overemphasis on this one task (to the potential exclusion of other important state matters) was feared.

With the passage of Seventeenth Amendment, this all changed.  Senators would now be elected as they are today: by direct vote of the people.  By removing the state apparatus, the system became simpler and the states were allowed to fWilliam Andrews Clarkocus mostly on matters within their own borders.  But–and no doubt this is the old traditionalist in me–what has resulted is twofold: 1) the potential for the transformation of the Senate from a more reflective “best interests of the nation” body into a potentially more demagogic one and 2) the loss of a direct voice for state leadership in national affairs.  I realize that politics is politics, and that before 1913 America did not live in some golden age of pure-hearted public servants or that the federal-state balance was perfect.  Things like pork-barrel politics and “earmarks” had their day then as well.

Yet there is something to be said here for a moderated democracy instead of a direct one.  Indeed, for all that we talk about democracy and “the will of the people” in our country, this is still only partially true.  We have selected leaders and established systems that, while ultimately responsible to us, nevertheless often operate quite independently from what the popular will might be at any given moment.  I think that’s alright, and in a number of cases even best.  It goes back to that old quandary of parenting, education, and ministry: when it comes to those under our care, do we give them what they want or what they need?

In the United States (as constructed, it would seem), we have both. want-v-need The House of Representatives is an institution very beholden to what we want.   Congresspersons are constantly electioneering and have to follow the public will closely.  Supreme Court Justices?  A much different story.  To be sure, their position has to do with the democratic process, but once put in place they are able to act as they see fit.  To give us what they think we need.  As originally designed, Presidents and Senators enjoy comparative privileges, albeit to a much lesser degree.  With the passage of the 17th Amendment, however, the needle has shifted more than a bit towards the “want” for members of the Senate.

So then: is too much democracy bad?  Depending on the moment and the issue, I can imagine people at both ends of the political spectrum agreeing or disagreeing.  Whatever the case, it is a matter worth considering.

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