George Will’s Odd Aversion to Democracy

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"George Will’s Odd Aversion to Democracy"


I somehow managed to miss George Will’s latest missive, an idiosyncratic attack on the idea of voting for politicians in elections:

The Wisconsin Democrat, who is steeped in his state’s progressive tradition, says, as would-be amenders of the Constitution often do, that he is reluctant to tamper with the document but tamper he must because the threat to the public weal is immense: Some governors have recently behaved badly in appointing people to fill U.S. Senate vacancies. Feingold’s solution, of which John McCain is a co-sponsor, is to amend the 17th Amendment. It would be better to repeal it.

The Framers established election of senators by state legislators, under which system the nation got the Great Triumvirate (Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun) and thrived. In 1913, progressives, believing that more, and more direct, democracy is always wonderful, got the 17th Amendment ratified. It stipulates popular election of senators, under which system Wisconsin has elected, among others, Joe McCarthy, as well as Feingold.

As it happens, I agree that the progressive-era fetishization of direct democracy was not a great idea. On the other hand, this mode of argument is absurd. The post-1913 era has given us plenty of good Senators. Indeed, I think Russ Feingold’s a pretty admirable guy. Or consider a statesman like Michigan Republican Arthur Vandenberg who forged an alliance with Harry Truman to lay the foundations for the postwar internationalist consensus. Or McCarthy’s Senatorial opponent, Herbert Lehman. Besides which, the idea that all was hunky-dory until direct election of senators ruined everything in 1913 is pretty nutty. The blessed framers also maintained chattel slavery. And, indeed, it was in defense of that system that Calhoun made his name, while Henry Clay’s big idea was to try to split the difference on the issue of human freedom in the interest of national unity.

I would hardly say that indirect election was the cause of slavery, any more than direct election is the cause of our problems. Indeed, I suspect that in a macro sense it just doesn’t make that much of a difference. Either way, the Senate would broadly-but-imperfectly represent public sentiments mixed with a bias toward the interests of small states mixed with a bias toward the status quo.

Feingold’s idea, by contrast, targets a couple of real problems. One is simply that the possibility of appointment-driven changes in partisan makeup of the Senate is weird distorting effect on presidential appointments. The other is the potential for corruption and self-dealing. And on the other side I see basically . . . nothing to recommend the appointments system. It was written into the constitution at a time in which we hadn’t yet become accustomed to Senators being elected, and didn’t really have the modern party system, so the ways in which it doesn’t make sense weren’t evident at the time.

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