Texas Governor Rick Perry has brought to the race for the Republican presidential nomination a radical antidemocracy stance borrowed from the far-right fringe that once expressed itself at John Birch Society meetings but has now entered the mainstream of the Grand Old Party.
Perry’s particular extremism seeks to limit the role of voters at the national level of American politics: he would end the direct election of senators. But his candidacy highlights a broader agenda of Republican governors, who have been moving in recent months to diminish state and local democracy by undermining the authority of local elected officials, who tend to be the ones most accountable to the people. Those governors are instead shifting power to statewide executives, who are more accountable to the billionaire campaign donors and business interests that were freed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision to buy the election results that most favor their interests.
Perry is not the first antidemocracy extremist to make a presidential bid. But he is the first in recent decades to achieve front-runner status in the race for a major party’s nomination. And Perry’s fringe views are not the “youthful indiscretions” of a former right-wing radical. In a book published last year, he wrote, “The American people mistakenly empowered the federal government during a fit of populist rage in the early twentieth century by giving it an unlimited source of income (the Sixteenth Amendment) and by changing the way senators are elected (the Seventeenth Amendment).”
Perry’s book, Fed Up!, recalls Glenn Beck’s restatements of old-right complaints about the evils of Progressive Era reforms that extended the franchise, regulated corporations and laid the foundations for the bigger and bolder government that was constructed by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers. Robert Welch, who founded the John Birch Society to exploit cold war fears on behalf of a radical right-wing program, wrote in his 1966 condemnation of political leaders who, he claimed, were engaged in a “Master Conspiracy” to consolidate their power that “the direct election of senators was actually their first huge legalistic step in that direction.” But Perry was not just cribbing notes from conspiracy theorists to add some pages to a campaign manifesto. He has defended and expanded the argument that voters should not be electing senators. In an interview with the Daily Beast last year, the governor was asked about his support for a move that would make Americans “less free, and the country less democratic.” Perry responded with a convoluted but unequivocal states’ rights line: “The 17th Amendment is one of those where they were making… the states were historically more in control when they decided who those senators were going to be. They took the states out of the process at that particular point in time. So that’s the… uh… the historic concept of checks and balances, when you had the concept of the federal government and the states. The 17th Amendment is when the states started getting out of balance with the federal government, is my belief.”