It has been just a little over 100 years since Senators have been directly elected by the proletariat, and even in that relatively short time, the tyranny of the mob has become de rigueur.
I propose that as a first step in the right direction (backwards), the 17th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States be repealed forthwith.
Chris Stirewalt puts it very nicely in this piece I stumbled upon this afternoon.
Predictably, Washington is losing its entire mind over a procedural vote in the Senate to lower the threshold for ending debate on the confirmations of Supreme Court justices.
Even the name, “nuclear option” has a gratifyingly apocalyptic vibe.
We know how we got here: tit-for-tat escalations stretching back for 40 years. Was it Democrats’ filibuster of Judge Neil Gorsuch? Yes. Was it Republicans’ blockade of a raft of Obama lower-court nominees? Yep. Was it the public humiliation of Clarence Thomas? You betcha. Was it the defeat of Robert Bork’s nomination? For sure.
But who cares about blame? Partisans rely on “he started it” arguments for almost everything they do, so trying to unravel who is exactly to blame is a pointless exercise. This ball has been rolling downhill for decades.
A reasonable person should wonder: “So what?” And they wouldn’t be wrong to think that all of this primate-house behavior in Washington doesn’t have much to do with real life or the real concerns of the people of the republic. Nuke or don’t nuke, the good people of Beech Bottom, W. Va. won’t be able to sense that much is different.
We have often talked about how politics descends from culture, even though those of us in this world tend to believe it’s the other way around. If our politics are gross – and they surely are – they are still not the cause of the current cultural crisis in the United States, but rather its result.
Politicians are people too, and like most people, they will tend to do only the minimum that is required of them. That applies to standards of honor, patriotism, honesty and selflessness. We only get as good of a government as we demand.
The scoundrels and scallywags of previous generations would no doubt look upon their heirs in politics today and say “You kids have it made.” The amount of venal, dishonest, self-interested, shortsightedness that voters will tolerate today in the name of partisan victory would have made Teapot Dome but a teacup.
With today’s vote, the Senate takes another step toward undoing its original role as an upper chamber in the true sense of the term.
The Founders gave senators longer terms, a smaller chamber, equal representation among states and shielded them from direct election by voters in the hope that senators would elevate, restrict and refine the populist passions surging up from the House.
Starting with the Progressive Era change to elect senators directly, rather than by their states’ legislatures, we have gradually undone that vision.
The rule that was changed today, interestingly, was actually a rather belated attempt to restore some of the original function of the Senate, not part of the showroom model. Once, it took two-thirds of the Senate to advance legislation to a final vote and then it was the current three-fifths. And that won’t last long.
The threshold was lowered for lower court appointments and other presidential picks in 2013, now that includes the Supreme Court. One day, it will, assuredly, cover all legislation.
As one of that body’s most esteemed former members might have said, they are defining deviancy down…
The consequence of the current change, though, will be significant enough on its own. Resentments will deepen and chances for bipartisan cooperation will diminish. And the motivations that govern the selection of Supreme Court nominees will be radically altered.
Pity the poor judges who have spent decades of their lives meticulously avoiding the appearance of prejudice in all legal matters and avoiding ideological activism for the sake of remaining eligible for the Supreme Court.
The future belongs not to the Neil Gorsuches of the bench but to those individuals who are best able to stoke the strongest partisan sentiment when activist groups start militating for the – depending on who is president – farthest right or farthest left nominee possible.
The standard until today was to find a nominee who could attract bipartisan support and be viewed as broadly acceptable. Going forward, it will be all about a party’s base trying to force anxious moderates to accept the most hardline choice possible.
In time, that scorched-earth approach will make things worse at the court, too. It is helpful for the administration of justice when rank partisans try to appear otherwise. The phony politesse of judicial non-partisanship not only allows judges to reason together better but also gives an incentive for deference and decency.
By the time everybody has gotten to the court by having been the red-hot poker shoved up the backside of one party or the other by activist groups, those niceties will matter a great deal less. That change will be reflected in the conduct of the court, the predictability of its decisions on partisan lines and the esteem in which those decisions are held.
The Senate is getting to be more like the House, but so will the Supreme Court.
So, back to the good people of Beech Bottom, W. Va., and what this all has to do with them.
The Supreme Court is one of very few civic institutions that still counts for much with ordinary Americans. Respect for Congress, the presidency, organized religion, big business, education, the free press and just about everything other than the Easter Bunny, has tanked over the course of recent decades, but the high court has held on to much of its luster.
Polls consistently show that justices are in pretty rare air along with the two perennial favorites for public confidence: the military and small business.
That will change over time, and the court will descend that slippery slope down to where those folks without robes in the big building on the other side of 1st St., NE reside. It will take time, but the justices will be in the muck just like the members of Congress.
Perhaps you think this is fitting. After all, in many ways over the past two generations, the court has acted like a super legislature. If they are going to behave that way, maybe it’s good that justices live in the same partisan hellscape as their elected counterparts across the street.
What we lost today was another chunk of republican virtue. The aloof, apolitical, unelected Supreme Court is a key feature of our Framers’ plan, but the court is moving earthward at a faster pace now.
As it turns out, the expansion of direct democracy for Americans has been no picnic.
Once, voters only got to choose the members of the House, with the rest of their government chosen indirectly. Are we better off with a directly elected chief executive and Senate? Do you think they are more accountable? Do you think they are more responsible and diligent?
It is not a coincidence that the Supreme Court is more respected and that its members don’t seek the votes of their countrymen. Justices were supposed to meet the standards of an indirectly elected Senate and then place their duty strictly to the Constitution.
It is not hard to imagine the day when we will have both chambers of Congress directly elected, a president directly elected by a national popular vote and even elections for Supreme Court justices.
Proponents will argue that it will make these black-robed figures more accountable to the people. And ending lifetime appointments would be the next logical step since, after all, don’t we want these folks constantly pandering to the fickle demands of voters?
Whether they know it or not, ordinary Americans lost a little something today. It will take time for them to feel it, but they lost part of one of the remaining bulwarks against the tyranny of the mob.