Like punch-drunk Jacobins

Charles C.W. Cooke, arguing for repeal of the 17th Amendment.  I love his description of progressives and of 1913 as “one long, ghastly mistake.”

Still, whatever his schools might have told him, the United States is not in fact a democracy but a constitutional republic, and her virtues lie as much in her undemocratic institutions as in her ample provisions for self-rule — more, perhaps.

Doubt it? Look around. Despite the violence that the 17th Amendment did to it, the Senate remains a partially anti-democratic institution; the Supreme Court is an entirely undemocratic institution; the Constitution is undemocratic, too, requiring for any changes to its structure the consent of a supermajority and containing the Bill of Rights, which is as elevated and explicitly counter-majoritarian a component of national law as you will find. The strong American protections of free speech, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, due process, privacy, and the right to a jury trial are triumphs of minority rights. How about the absence of a state church? Not for nothing did Patrick Henry cry ardently for “liberty or death.” It is liberty, not democracy, that is America’s highest ideal.

Walter Lippmann famously observed that, at some point in their history, “the American people came to believe that their Constitution was a democratic instrument, and treated it as such.”

It makes no more sense to argue that to return to this original arrangement would be to “take away” the “rights” of the people than it does to maintain that not being able to vote directly for Supreme Court justices violates their democracy. Everything has its place, and indulging popular sovereignty is simply not what the Senate was designed to do. One could sometimes be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but the states are not regional departments of the federal government. To ensure that they had a working mechanism by which to resist the expansion of federal power, the architects of our Constitution hard-wired the state legislatures into its structure; with the 17th Amendment, progressives pulled out that wiring like punch-drunk Jacobins.

This is problematic because, to their great discredit, The People seem not
greatly to care how power is structured. Who then is surprised that the
abolition of the Senate as the supporting wall of federalism has led inexorably
to, as Jefferson warned just before his death, “all government, domestic and
foreign, in little as in great things,” being “drawn to Washington as the center
of all power”? Returning the selection of senators to state legislatures would
help to focus citizens’ eyes locally, where they belong.

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One Response to Like punch-drunk Jacobins

  1. Especially after reading the Federalist papers on this issue, I find it fascinating. Great post!

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