TCS Daily

Altered States

By Douglas Kern - August 20, 2004 12:00 AM

If a political candidate has integrity, competence, and an appealing ideology, who cares where he's from?

Does my senator come from my state, my race, my gender, or my age group? It makes no difference to me. I want to know: will he cut my taxes? Will he defend my nation from its enemies? Will he protect America's innocent and the American way of life? The answers to these questions guide my voting. The candidate's address does not.

The Illinois Republican Party has selected the conspicuously non-Illinois-based Alan Keyes to be its 2004 senatorial candidate. Republican pundits have clucked their tongues at this selection, claiming that Keyes' status as a carpetbagger detracts from his credibility.

But we are all carpetbaggers now.

In the last twenty years I have lived in seven different states - never living in any one state for more than four years at a time. I have no home state. I don't even know what "home state" means.

I'm not alone. Ours is an increasingly mobile society. Workers move all the time, in search of better job opportunities and living arrangements. The "carpetbagging" of Alan Keyes merely reflects the carpetbagging that takes place thousands of times a day in the United States. Don't carpetbaggers deserve representation, too?

Over these last twenty years I have been represented in the Senate by at least fourteen different Senators. And I would have preferred Alan Keyes to all of them, because his ideology mirrors my own - irrespective of his "home state," or mine. We share the same mind-space, if not the same physical space.

In a society increasingly united by a common popular culture and cheap, ubiquitous communication technology, the need for "regional representation" grows ever smaller. To be sure, real regional differences exist; no one will ever mistake the Deep South for downtown Boston, even if both areas watch the same channels on basic cable. But a gay Jewish libertarian in Vermont has more in common with a gay Jewish libertarian in California than he has with his straight Methodist Democrat neighbor across the street. The Catholic homeschooler in Michigan can swap e-mails with Catholic homeschoolers in Texas and Iowa; the would-be marijuana legalizer in New Hampshire can easily strategize with fellow abolitionists in Indiana and Kentucky; Bush-haters across the country can unite in Internet fora to quench their unholy thirst for "regime change." Do state boundaries matter to these people? Ideas and moral codes - not geography - will define the contours of 21st century politics.

For most legislation, the entire notion of "regional representation" is absurd. "Well, we've just about got this anti-terrorism bill passed, and - wait! We've completely forgotten to solicit the distinctive intellectual contribution of Nevada to the topic of combating Islamicist extremism! Well, back to the drawing board for this proposed law!" "When considering the moral ramifications of partial-birth abortion, we must not forget to ask ourselves: What does New Mexico think?" The merits or demerits of most legislation spring from pre-rational beliefs, empirical facts, and political science - not from the place that the given legislators call home.

Admittedly, some laws will affect different states and regions in different ways. But we already have a mechanism for addressing those concerns. It's called "The House of Representatives." Politicians elected from small localities tend to the parochial concerns, while The Great Men of America ponder the Big Issues in the Senate. Such is the division of labor that the Founders envisioned. The Senate was meant to be a democratized, purified House of Lords - not another congeries of glad-handing vote-whores. But under the status quo, Senators differ from Congressmen only in the length of their terms, the scope of their legislative powers, and the size of their egos. As the distinctive qualities of the states erode, the purpose of the Senate grows ever more obscure.

The very idea of "regional differences" has largely degenerated into a set of code words for bringing home the pork. It's no secret that many Senators owe their career longevity to their ability to send heaps of government swag to the home state. But does the greedy accumulation of federal handouts reflect a benevolent desire to help the citizens of one's home state - or a cold-blooded effort to buy votes? If the Senate exists to vindicate the swine-flavored interests of smaller states, the apotheosis of Senatorial perfection is Robert Byrd. And if Robert Byrd is the answer, the question must be pretty awful.

It's true that living in one state for a long time will give a candidate valuable insight into the specific problems and challenges that a state faces. A candidate who lacks such insight will do what every politician in America does when confronted with problems outside his ken: hire bright staffers. The question that confronts us in contemporary American democracy is not if a clever twenty-four year old with a bright shiny new master's degree will compose our legislation, but rather: which one. I am confident that Alan Keyes will appoint twenty-four year olds of whom I will approve. Thus, I'd vote for him in any state.

The best improvement that we could make to the Senate is an improvement that Keyes himself has advocated: the abolition of the 17th Amendment, which permits the direct election of Senators in their respective states. Prior to the passage of the 17th Amendment, state legislatures selected and elected Senators. Thus, the best Americans from all walks of life could be elevated to the Senate, rather than the best politicians. And they could be elevated irrespective of their home of origin. America's dynastic political families - the Bushes and Kennedys and Gores and Tafts - could farm out their promising scions to interested states without the tired pretence that said scions actually live in the targeted states. Gifted citizens with no taste for politicking - champions of academia, captains of industry, outstanding generals (hi, Colin!) and scientific geniuses - could assume a public office commensurate with their dignity and abilities. The involvement of state legislators in national-level decisions will compel national politicians to take state politicians seriously - and vice versa. And should the citizens of a state dislike their senator, they can vote out the old state legislature and elect a new one. The democratic choices of free people will weed out incompetent politicians, carpetbaggers and non-carpetbaggers alike.

Believe it or not, I write these words as an unabashed fan of federalism and the Electoral College. As "laboratories of democracy" and as bulwarks against the tyranny of the majority, states are an indispensable part of the success of the American system of governance. But we can acknowledge the importance of the states without making the unwarranted assertion that one's state citizenship conveys some unique ability to reason intelligently about national legislation.

If you were to pick the one hundred people you would most want to see in the Senate, would they hail from all fifty states? Probably not. So why should you support a system that sells America short? We should strive for a Senate that attracts the best people to solve the hardest problems, irrespective of where they live. And if "attracting the best people" means transporting Alan Keyes across state lines with intent to engage in political prostitution for moral purposes, than that's an act that this Mann is happy to accept.


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