Where are our 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, in that era cherrypicked by states and owned by nefarious Trusts: 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 hardly salvaged one of the Founders’ blunders. The American replica of the House of Lords, our least democratic, least representative organ, lives on, still oppressive 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 where counting votes tests southern I.Q’s, only cloud our version of 1906-style corruption. We actually pay senators from, say, Oklahoma as dumb as posts, ignorant of science, economics and history, 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 but good business.
This Senate, Literally “Council of Old Men”
Modern misconduct invokes not just 1906 but Roman history and the root for “senate” – from the Latin, “senex,” old man, as in senior, seniority, and senility. Toadying to entrenched 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: 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, nor deranged rightwingers full of 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), Bunning (KY), Sessions (AL), Shelby (AL), and Cornyn (TX) – and we’re shamed by this House full of Lords who demagogue sham heresies: a duly-elected, “colored” president, evolution, stem cell research, democratic health care, global warming, or negotiation with unconquerable foes. None call that intellectual treason?
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 of 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 re-election?
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 original geographic imperative (two for every state) was a slave-owners’ ultimatum: otherwise those poor, slave states would never have joined the union. 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 posited the “tyranny of the majority,” a legitimate threat to minority rights. Today, we face permanent tyranny by funded operatives speaking for a tiny population, yet whose seniority (also no democratic virtue) gives them huge sticks to crush majority will. Do we need not 60 Democrats now but 60 liberals to pass good bills? This impasse defeats not only steadfast national unity (on health reform), but infects the all-important healing after eight years of unmatched misrule.
Reform the Senate or No Reform
Our decadent Senate epitomizes privilege and prerogative, seniority and senility (often rescued only by death) – thus it’s 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 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 savvy, strategic team of leaders – 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 – altogether changing the notion of government as the best vehicle to redeem us from our worst excesses. Where’s today’s team or any urgency?
Instead of a first-rate starting team, we’re saddled by minor-league, well-financed treachery run by scared, 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. What voices today dare call that treasonous?
The American Banana Republic
A senate that worships failed reforms, making never-ending slices of the same loaf, assures good reform won’t even be tested. Nothing works forever. The ancient 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, just like the right to switch Gods. Seven Deadly Sins have lost their 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, when it’s do or die? If the corrupt status quo is not reversed, then Gore Vidal’s ominous prophesy applies, leaving open only the kind of banana republic we’ll become. No man-made system is forever, especially when doomed from internal infections.