There is much hand-wringing going on in Washington these days about the inability of Republicans and Democrats to compromise even on seemingly unimportant issues. I think it is the inevitable result of long-term trends 100 years in the making.
The movement started in 1913 when the 17th Amendment was added to the Constitution. This is the one that requires senators to be elected by popular vote. Previously, as established by the Founding Fathers, senators had been elected by state legislatures.
Before the 17th Amendment, senators represented states as states. This made the states much more significant players in national politics -- collectively coequal to the national government in our federal system. But once senators became popularly elected, the states lost any real influence in Washington. Senators stopped representing their states as states and simply became super-congressman.
The impact of this fundamental constitutional change was not apparent for a long time, and in many ways we are still seeing the consequences play out. One reason is that senators from the Deep South retained a pre-1913 attitude long afterward. For cultural and historical reasons, the term "states rights" had real meaning in the states of the Confederacy. Unfortunately, the term became widely viewed as a code word for racism and therefore discredited as a valid constitutional principle.
But these same cultural and historical factors also kept the South solidly in the Democratic Party's control, even though it was the national Democratic Party that was leading the charge on racial integration, eroding what was left of states rights, and other policies that were fundamentally at odds with the attitudes of white Southerners. They were an outpost of political conservatism in an increasingly liberal party.
Northern Democrats were embarrassed by their Southern contingent, and Southern Democrats seeking national office -- such as Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- quickly adopted Northern attitudes to distance themselves from their roots. But national Democrats could not expel the Southerners from their ranks because they had a powerful base in Congress, especially the Senate, and because no Democrat could win the White House without Southern votes.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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