Progressives and the Media: Still Together after 100 Years
Every relationship has its consummate moment; for some, it is a Garden of Eden moment, when a partnership is forever perverted by consuming the forbidden fruit. A century ago, a segment of the American media abandoned their role as facilitator of public discourse and became active participants in making politically achievable the transformative change being offered by the newly formed progressive movement. The marriage was undeclared, yet under the cover of darkness they conceived a leviathan child which fashioned a mammoth government beyond even the imagination of Hobbes.
The silent marriage of progressives and the media was unnoticed by history, which as a general rule catalogues change as a dramatic event -- rulers deposing one another, invading neighboring countries and seizing power by sword and spear. It is the nature of a Republic, by contrast, for change to be much more subtle. The genesis of revolutionary change often is found in insignificant events, unnoticed by the citizenry, unremarked upon by historians. These unremarkable events are often not detected until the autopsy of a once-great nation, their full impact revealed only in the rubble of once-great cities. Just as Gibbon and Lord Byron were able to gaze into the rubble of ancient Rome to ascertain the cultural changes that begat the ruins, we can today look into the swamp of Washington and see the fundamental transformation that began in the alliance between progressives and willing media outlets more than a century ago. Our rubble is the Senate Building; our clue is a long-forgotten magazine cover.
The cover story in Cosmopolitan, March 1906, featured the first of a multi-part exposé by David Graham Phillips entitled "The Treason of the Senate." Published by media mogul William Randolph Hearst, the article exposed the corrupt nature of the Senate, the ability of big business to purchase votes, the contentious nature of appointing senators, the nature of the Senate being a roadblock of popular legislation, and the overall detachment of the senators from the people they were to represent. The series of articles was the public culmination of several decades' worth of attempts to amend the Constitution in such a way as to replace the appointment of senators by direct elections. The article proved to be a watershed event, turning the tide of public opinion in favor of the direct elections crowd. The 17th Amendment was passed and ratified in 1913. This was an example of the citizenry going through the proper steps to amend the constitution, and was a reflection of the strong democratic urge amongst the people. This was also the first big political victory for the infantile progressive party, and it would become the blueprint for a progressive-media alliance that is today a markedly powerful driver of our politics.
A century hence, what has been the outcome of this action to make senators more responsive to, and representative of, the people? Is the Senate any less beholden to special interests, is money any less powerful in the election process, is the Senate less of a roadblock along the legislative process, and is the process of filling vacant seats no longer contentious and corrupt? A good argument can be made that every concern raised by the Cosmopolitan piece has gotten significantly worse since the 17th Amendment claimed to fix each previous defect. The damage of the 17th Amendment is not that it failed to quiet the din of politics; the unnoticed long-term evolution of the Senate this action triggered and the mainstreaming of progressivism make for a story to be told by future Gibbonses as they peruse the rubble that was America.
The direct election of senators altered the nature of the Senate and removed the encumbering restraints on the actions of individual senators. The Senate was designed to be the representative of individual states; senators were appointed by their state houses to be the voice of that state at the federal level. The Senate was designed to restrain the growth of government by not allowing costs and burdens of proposed legislations to be borne on the backs of individual states. Senators were directly responsible to the legislatures of their state; any burden placed upon the budget of the state was faulted on the senators, thus their chief aim was to protect their states from encroachment by federal government.
The Senate has not been the source of great change in America; it has, however, abandoned its role as protector of individual states, allowing unsustainable progressive programs to weasel their way into law. Huge transformative programs from the New Deal and the Great Society to Fanny Mae and ObamaCare have fundamentally altered the nature of the relationship between the citizen and the State, quietly passing the invoice for their generosity to individual states. Forces seeking to make dependents out of individuals born into liberty have gotten away with setting up massively expensive programs by obscuring the true cost of such programs through diffusing them over the budgets of all fifty states.
Why have individual senators allowed such huge burdens to be imposed on their home states? Simply stated, the fortunes of senators are no longer tied to the condition of their states. Our senators today play to a national audience, claiming to work on behalf of the entire nation. It has become quaint and liturgical for the rules of the Senate to require that John Kerry be referred to as "the Senator from Massachusetts." John Kerry does not represent Massachusetts; he does not plead on behalf of his state for passage or in opposition to specific legislation. John Kerry petitions Congress on behalf of the poor, the children, the nation, even the planet -- never is he so modest as to appeal on behalf of the people of the state of Massachusetts. The Senate, designed to house 100 contentious people stubbornly protecting their own state, is today made up of 100 national legislatures in competition to best represent some semblance of humanity. This redirection of aim has changed the nature of senators into something more akin to a 17th-century duke or viceroy, appealing to parliament at the behest of a particular aristocratic power with little regard for the serfs and peasants constituting his fiefdom. Is there much difference between the pantaloons and palaces of times past and the designer suits and swanky D.C. eateries frequented by this ruling class?
Our legislatures have become the pompous aristocrats we severed ourselves from through war several centuries ago. Just as parliamentarians of times past, our leaders today are perfectly free from the responsibilities of maintaining a Republic and have reverted to enriching and empowering themselves and those closest to them. Just as the royals of times past were detached from the miseries of the general populace, our leaders today are unaffected by the unrealistic and completely unaffordable lifestyle they have codified into law on our behalf. This was allowed to happen through the democratic process, and was in fact peddled as a panacea to the corruption of politics present. The change installed to protect citizens from government removed all restraints from the corruptible persons endowed with political power -- that these people became systemically corrupt should surprise no thinking person.
In college, I interned in the office of the mayor of a nearby town -- a real-world application of what I spent years studying. Our first meeting began with the mayor asking a simple question: "Do you know what an unfunded mandate is?" I spent the rest of the semester learning firsthand just how much of a city's budget is dictated by forces outside the control of local officials. The bulk of the budget was dictated by various state agencies, and the bulk of the state's actions were dictated by Washington, D.C. It was a pyramid scheme so massive that its presence was undetectable, even to a student of politics. Today, the addition of bailouts, takeovers and ObamaCare has and will continue to place a fatal weight upon states, counties, and cities. This was allowed because the states were left without an advocate in the legislative process; left unchecked, our politicians evolved into aristocrats and social engineers.
Our Republic has devolved from a federation of self-governing individuals into a ruling class lording over a subservient citizenry. We have become small and dependent as our government has grown massive and Machiavellian. Our Republic is bearing the weight of tyranny because we removed the restraints placed upon people given limited power. Thus is the dark rut of humanity -- that the few exploit the many. The economic realities of our current government are nothing more than a symptom of the problem; the nature of our Republic has been transformed, as has the relationship between the citizen and the State. This change happened through constitutional means, and with widespread public support. This was the plan: that progressives could bring their transformative and unwanted "change" into the American culture by exploiting the democratic sympathies of people inbred with liberty.
The unremarkable action to alter the process through which senators are chosen will, in time, be understood as the gate through which America began the long journey back to being a commonplace nation in the annals of history. It was the moment when the dark forces of exploitative power were unleashed on the one people who had bucked history and founded a society of individual liberty based upon the equality of man. In fact, the ratification of the 17th Amendment may well prove to be the moment when the Republic began its slow and painful death -- or we may be the people who again shackle the evil of history and usher in a new age of freedom.
It is our republic, bequeathed to us by giants -- should we choose to keep it.
Andrew K. Boyle writes from a gulch, hidden in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on twitter (@andrewkboyle) or on his website, andrewkboyle.com.