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.”
“Some Tea Partiers call for the 17th Amendment to be reversed or repealed. Is that something you would support?” Perry was asked. The governor responded that his first priority was to cut spending but added, with regard to ending the direct election of senators, “It’s important to have that conversation.”
Perry won’t end direct election of senators anytime soon. The idea has little popular appeal and cannot advance without two-thirds approval of both houses of Congress and ratification by thirty-eight states. But his desire for a “conversation” about dialing down democracy should raise a red flag for small-d democrats. At a time when we should be expanding democracy, Perry and his allies want to turn the clock back a full century.
* * *
The Seventeenth Amendment, adopted in 1913, addressed one of the most unsettling contradictions in our Constitution. While the core of the founding document required direct election of members of the House by the voters in individual districts, it handed the responsibility for choosing senators to governors and legislators. From 1789 until 1913, senators were chosen by insiders, under a system so prone toward corruption that calls for reform began to be heard as early as the 1820s. Revelations about how wealthy men were bribing their way into the Senate, and about how powerful interests were buying seats in order to shape federal policies, inspired the “fit of populist rage” about which Perry now complains.
The most ardent advocates for direct election were Republican senators like Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, William Borah of Idaho and Joseph Bristow of Kansas. They didn’t campaign for the Seventeenth Amendment just to combat corruption; they believed in what was once a guiding principle of the Republican Party: the view expressed by La Follette that “the cure for what ails democracy is more democracy.”
Much prodemocracy campaigning of the past century has focused on extending voting rights to women, African-Americans, Native Americans and 18- to 21-year-olds. But it is important to remember that representative democracy has two foundations. The first is that the franchise must be broadly available, so that all people have the right to participate in the electoral process. The second is that people must have the opportunity to vote directly for or against the local, state and national officials whose decisions shape their lives.
The direct election of senators was a major breakthrough for democracy, as was the opening up of the presidential nominating processes of the two major parties in the 1960s and ’70s, the Supreme Court ruling in the early ’60s that voting districts must be drawn on the basis of population rather than geography and the slow shift of decision-making in the District of Columbia from unaccountable bureaucrats to locally elected officials.
Not too long ago, criticism of the direct election of senators was mostly limited to far-right fringe dwellers like Welch, who saw constitutional empowerment of citizens as an assault on the original intent of the founders—an intent, it should be noted, that was not always based on high ideals but also on crude compromises, such as counting an African-American slave as three-fifths of a human being. The antidemocratic dogmas of the Birchers, which were once dismissed as ardently by mainstream Republicans as by mainstream Democrats, have served in recent years as fodder for Tea Party proposals parroted by a growing number of prominent Republicans. After the GOP suffered severe setbacks in the elections of 2006 and ‘08, billionaire donors like David and Charles Koch poured money into a network of activist groups and media outlets that promoted a fantastical reading of the Constitution as a semi-sacred document that was being abandoned by secular reformers. Pundits like Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter began to argue, as Beck said on his TV show, that “democracy means one man, one vote. Sure, sounds great. But when you have powerful people organizing…it means mob rule.” In 2010 Joe Miller, Alaska’s GOP Senate candidate, brought Tea Party skepticism about direct election of senators into the mainstream discourse of his state. Now Perry is taking anti–Seventeenth Amendment politics national—even if he does not make too big a deal of it on the campaign trail, where, ironically, he will be seeking the support of Republican senators and urging the election of a Republican-controlled Senate.
It would, however, be unwise to disregard Perry’s opposition to the direct election of senators. If recent developments in the states have taught us anything, it should be that it is dangerous to dismiss extreme Republican views as too far out to shape broader debates and ultimately to become public policy. The state-based battles over efforts by newly elected GOP governors to undermine the collective bargaining rights of public employees and teachers—and in so doing to weaken the ability of their unions to advocate for public services and public education in the electoral process—captured most of the media attention in the late winter and spring. But the GOP wrecking crews in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Maine and other states have over the past nine months been busy advancing an antidemocracy agenda that is as ambitious and far-reaching as it is unsettling.
In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder and his legislative allies have dramatically expanded the state’s power to in effect take over cities, shove aside local elected officials and appoint “emergency managers” with the power to terminate labor contracts, block local ordinances and sell off public assets. Under a new law, the governor can authorize dissolution of local governments and the elimination of not just elected school boards but historically independent school districts through forced mergers. Snyder and his allies have already moved against the predominantly African-American city of Benton Harbor, where local elected officials had refused to sell public lands along the Lake Michigan waterfront to developers. The appointed “emergency manager” of Benton Harbor arrived with an announcement that local officials would retain the power to convene and adjourn official meetings but not to act during them.
In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has moved to deny local elected school boards the authority to make basic decisions about charter schools and education policy in their districts while shifting decision-making powers and state funds to an appointed board that would respond not to local voters but to the governor. Walker has also proposed a move to prevent elected town boards from setting budget priorities. And he says he is interested in ending the election of State Supreme Court justices. Already, his legislative allies have proposed eliminating elected state constitutional offices that retain some authority to check and balance the governor. Among the targeted positions is that of Secretary of State Doug La Follette, a Democrat who earned Walker’s wrath by refusing to publish antilabor legislation until legal disputes about it were resolved.
After recent recall elections defeated two Wisconsin state senators aligned with the governor in last winter’s labor-law dispute, Walker’s top ally on the powerful legislative Joint Finance Committee proposed amending the state Constitution to limit the ability of citizens to initiate recall votes.
The assault on democracy at the state and local levels—which extends to enacting “pre-emption laws” that prevent local governments from passing legislation to protect workers, raise the minimum wage or extend sick-leave protections—is spreading rapidly in states where Republican governors and legislatures were swept to power in 2010. Many of these initiatives have been outlined and advanced by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate-funded alliance of legislators and lobbyists that has long promoted expansion of state officials’ power to override local laws, and which has recently been campaigning to make it harder for citizens to gather petitions and organize referendum votes, such as the popular “living wage” initiatives many cities and counties have enacted.
ALEC has operated largely behind closed doors, at least until the recent “ALEC Exposed” project revealed the group’s machinations [see Nichols et al., “ALEC Exposed,” August 1/8]. But the new breed of hard-right Republican politicians is less circumspect. The 2010 election of governors like Wisconsin’s Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich—both ALEC alumni—has moved the antidemocratic agenda from the fringe into the halls of power at the state level.
As the 2012 election approaches, Rick Perry, a keynote speaker at ALEC’s 2010 States and Nation Policy Summit, has emerged as a front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination. It is easy to dismiss Perry’s attack on the direct election of senators as crazy talk. But there were plenty of voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and other states who dismissed the fringe positions of Republican gubernatorial candidates in 2010, only to see those positions written into state statutes this year. Perry’s views regarding an elected Senate are so extreme they should disqualify him from consideration not just by progressives but by conservatives who hold to the traditional Republican, and American, view that the cure for what ails democracy is more democracy—not less.