Friday, November 24, 2017

The Tea Party on Congress & Popular Sovereignty

Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, characterized the lame-duck session of the Congress at the end of 2010 as presumptuous because the Democratic-controlled House would be controlled by the Republicans in the upcoming session. In other words, the Democrats had just lost the right to control the House in the elections, so their continued control of the House was at odds with the “will of the American people.” According to Meckler, "For them to legislate when they've collectively lost their mandate just shows the arrogance of the ruling elite. I can't imagine being repudiated in the way they were and then coming back and saying 'Now that we've been repudiated, let's go pass some legislation. . . . I'm surprised by how blatant it was."

Meckler was undoubtedly reflecting a view of human nature with respect to the urge to power that was expressed by Anti-federalist opponents of the U.S. Constitution as it was being ratified in the several states.  Brutus, for example, writes, “This principle, which seems so evidently founded in the reason and nature of things, is confirmed by universal experience. Those who have governed, have been found in all ages ever active to enlarge their powers and abridge the public liberty” (Brutus, Letter 2, 2.9.25).  Brutus continues, "power, lodged in the hands of rulers to be used at discretion, is almost always exercised to the oppression of the people, and the aggrandizement of themselves; yet most men think if it was lodged in their hands they would not employ it in this manner" (Brutus, Letter 4, 2.9.54). In other words, there is not only a tendency in human nature to overextend political discretion; there is a built-in presumption whereby the drive is blind to itself. Presumption may be hardwired in human nature, such that we unknowingly walk on stilts made of empty straws.

Therefore, it is essential in a republic that the elected representatives be accountable to popular sovereignty. The Anti-federalist Brutus wrote back in 1788, "Perhaps no restraints are more forcible, than such as arise from responsibility to some superior power.—Hence it is that the true policy of a republican government is, to frame it in such manner, that all persons who are concerned in the government, are made accountable to some superior for their conduct in office.—This responsibility should ultimately rest with the People" (Brutus, Letter 16, 2.9.197, p. 187). Even so, the results of an election are not retroactive.

That is to say, the 2009-2010 Congress was not beholden to the election of 2010. Rather, the repudiation applied to the next Congress. Besides, the Democrats did not concur that their partyh had been totally repudiated.  It could be argued, for instance, that the moderate or conservative Democrats lost while the liberal Democrats such as Barney Franks and Dennis Kucinich survived. Nancy Pelosi was handily re-elected. Was she to view her votes in the lame duck session as inherently presumptuous? In other words, the foray of the Democratic Party onto Republican turf was pushed back--the Republicans taking back more of the Red states. To be sure, the Democratic Party certainly did not gain ground. At the same time, the resulting party may well be more coherent and thus on message.

In short, while Meckler is undoubtedly correct that elected representatives are beholden to their constituents, who can “toss the bums out,” he errs in holding the special session in 2010 to the election for the next Congress and he overstates the repudiation "message" of the 2010 midterm election. In general, so many factors go into elections that it is difficult to gleam one message from the outcome, especially if there are many races. Voters vote for a variety of reasons, even in one race. Superimposing one as a mandate may well be artifice.  Even so, Meckler can be forgiven for responding on the basis of the view of human nature espoused by the Anti-federalists, for it is only human nature to try to get as much passed as possible before losing control of a legislative body.


Kate Zernike, "As New Congress Begins, Actions of G.O.P. Leaders Anger Tea Party Activists," The New York Times, January 2, 2011, p. 13.

Brutus quotes are from Herbert J. Storing, ed., The Anti-Federalist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).