October 16, 2009 “Information Clearing House” — -Where are gutsy muckrakers of yesteryear? In a stunning 1906 Cosmopolitan expose, journalist David Graham Phillips made history with his headline, “The Treason of the Senate.” He then justified his condemnation of mercenary senators, then cherrypicked by states and owned by nefarious Trusts:
By Robert S. Becker
Treason is a strong word, but not too strong, rather too weak, to characterize the
situation in which the Senate is the eager, resourceful, indefatigable agent of
interests as hostile to the American people as any invading army could be.
By 1914, the 17th Amendment mandated senators be popularly elected but, judging by today’s unevolved results, we have not yet salvaged one of the Founders’ worst blunders. This American replica of the House of Lords, our least democratic, least representative organ, lives on, still the blockage after all these years.
You’d think franchising ex-slave descendants, non-land-owning men and wise women would save us? Yet our pretend elections, especially when counting votes tests southern I.Q.’s, only obscure contemporary 1906-style corruption. We pay senators from, say, Oklahoma as dumb as posts, as willfully ignorant about science and economics as history, hence easy pickings for modern “trusts” run by smarter executives. Beyond the energy, mining, banking and endless war cartels, robber barons of health will spend $400 million fighting reform just this year, on top of $50 million channeled to Senate Finance committee members. None dare call that treason, just good business.
This senate, literally “council of old men”
Modern misconduct invokes not just 1906 but Roman history and root meanings for “senate” – from the Latin, “senex,” old man, as in senior, seniority, and senility. Toadying to tyrannical authority, and including only handpicked, aged patricians enlisted for life, early Roman senates did the bidding of kings. 2500 years later, our least enlightened senators honor this history, as feckless, impregnable lifers beholden to masters of the economic universe.
Until we reform the Senate, via election, outrage and amendment, forget strong systemic reform that reverses our hastening slide. Pogo aside, the enemy is “them” – “indefatigable,” moneyed interests “hostile” to America’s future. The log jam is not public opinion, the House, the White House, not deranged rightwingers gushing sound and fury – not even Senate Republican blowhards, despite bad faith fictions that poison debate. The current enemy, treasonous to good government and rationality, are Senate DINOs – Democrats In Name Only.
Just what our Bush-bludgeoned republic needs: mercenary, intellectually senile “councils of old men” who shudder at the tamest “public option” reforms – thus holding all hostage. That’s only Democrats: throw in GOP primitives – Inhofe (OK), DeMint (SC), Burning (KY), Sessions (AL), Shelby (AL), and Cornyn (TX) – and voila! reactionary Lords who demagogue against heresies: a duly-elected, “colored” president, evolution, stem cell research, democratic health care, global warming, or negotiation with unconquerable foes.
Tyranny of the Minority
Not since the ‘60s has one institution so mocked the majority. The stunning ’08 surprise, that Democrats squeaked out 60 senators, is buried by this shocking reality: it’s mere numerical symbolism. Whether on bank bailouts, imperial occupations, corporate welfare, unfair taxation, health fiascos, climate threats, or energy dependence, even moderate progress stalls in the Senate swamp – beset with minefields, medieval obstructions, and petty dictatorships. The crowning gridlock – the filibuster, the ultimate minority third finger – comes now less from principle than payola: at least old-time, filibustering racists believed themselves morally superior to the riffraff forbidden full citizenship rights. Do rancorous Republicans today believe in anything but obstructionism?
In fact, not until 1919 was “cloture” approved to halt filibusters; not until 1975 was the original 2/3s requirement reduced to merely 3/5s. Contempt for majority rule lies at the heart of the Senate, whose two-per-state geographic imperative was a slave-owners’ ultimatum: otherwise those poor, slave states would have bolted. That travesty also adds 100 votes to our 535 members of the Electoral College, making the Senate a bulwark against the “wrong” (reform) president, the “wrong” treaty or the “wrong” Supreme Court justice. Time to reboot?
In the 19th Century, aristocratic deToqueville warned against the “tyranny of the majority.” Dream on. Today, we face permanent tyranny by operatives speaking for tiny populations, yet whose seniority (that other less than democratic virtue) gives them huge veto sticks. Do we now need not 60 Democrats but 60 liberals to pass good bills? This impasse defeats both fragile national unity (on health reform) and healing after eight years of unmatched misrule.
A Senate Unfit to Rule
Our decadent Senate epitomizes privilege and prerogative, seniority and senility (often rescued only by death) – guaranteed to be a generation in arrears. Over decades, elections (if fair) may displace uninformed, petty tyrants inconvenienced by majority rule. But do we have decades? That leaves only Constitutional redress: correcting outdated, dysfunctional institutions is why Jefferson endorsed political revolutions every generation. The majority must act by invoking the amendment process.
The urgency of now: in one regard, this country is worse off than in the 1930’s. The duration and severity of that depression empowered a strategic team of leaders – a progressive president and co-operative, post-medieval Congress. Together, this alliance achieved massive, historic advances: old-age pensions, serious regulations like Glass Stiegal, genuine pump-priming, and more – proving government the best cure to our worst excesses. Where’s today’s team or any urgency?
Instead of a first-rate starting team, we’re saddled by minor-league treachery by intellectual midgets. Today’s Senate may not be the most corrupt of all time, but the gap between its fitness and foresight vs. what must be done for survival has never been greater. The problems are global, complex and daunting, thus the small, partisan minds that clawed their way into power are wholly inadequate to the task.
The American Banana Republic
A contaminated senate that elevates reforms likely to fail, making never-ending slices of the same loaf, assures good program won’t even be tested. Nothing never needs fixing. Ten Commandments get “rewritten” as cultural values shift: stoning for adultery is not what it once was. Advertising promotes coveting our neighbors’ goods, and taking “the name of the Lord in vain” is commonplace, ditto the right to switch Gods without retribution. Seven Deadly Sins have lost their palpable sting, though excesses of sloth, gluttony, wrath, and lust can certainly do you in.
Reality always works for someone. The status quo is just peachy for the 1% haves, especially when have-nots are manipulated to vote against their interests. Do we have another 225 years’ leeway before the second Constitutional Convention? If political gridlock is not reversed, then Gore Vidal’s ominous prophecy applies, leaving open only the kind of banana republic we’ll become.
This item was first published at www.beyondchron.org