Published Humanitas, Volume IX, No. 2, 1996

It was with no small sense of vindication that Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan signed the proclamation of 31 May 1913, declaring the Seventeenth Amendment duly ratified and incorporated into the fundamental laws of the United States. More than twenty years earlier as a Nebraska congressman, “The Great Commoner” had joined the struggle to free the Senate from the control of corrupt state legislatures, and despite three failed campaigns for the presidency, he never wavered in his determination to make the Senate a popularly elected body. Now, after the most protracted political battle in that usually bloodless revolution historians refer to as the Progressive Era, Secretary Bryan put his seal upon the reform that, in the expectations of those who had labored for it, would end the dominance of party “bosses” and the state “machines,” stamp out the undue influence of special interests in the Senate, make it more responsive to the will of the people, and of course, eliminate, or greatly reduce, the execrable practice of spending large sums of money to get elected.

As we shall see, even while the amendment was still being considered by the American public, there were ample reasons to doubt its effectiveness and to question the credulity, if not the integrity, of those who proposed it. But more than eight decades after the amendment, the current condition of Senate elections and Senate politics makes the sanguine predictions of 1913 look wholly na‹ve. Progressive Era reformers scandalized by the rare campaign expenditure of a hundred thousand dollars might be shocked senseless to learn that by the 1990s the average cost of a Senate seat would be well over five million dollars, that a candidate would not even approach the threshold of scandal until he had spent fifteen or twenty million dollars. If there was once cause for concern in the muckraking stories of industrial tycoons and railroad barons buying Senate influence through contributions to the state legislators, then the largess of lobbyists and activists that is today handed openly and directly to Senate candidates (overwhelmingly in favor of incumbents) should be a cause for outright alarm. And if in 1913 the old-time brokers of Senate elections were cleared from their smoke-filled rooms, the current regime of media consultants, professional pollsters, mass-market specialists, and “constituent-minded” software is hardly the victory over political cynicism that Bryan and the Progressives had envisioned.

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