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Ron Paul and the Tea Parties: States' Rights and the 17th Amendment

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It was just over one year ago. March 15, 2009. Liberals and progressives were still crowing about the election of Barack Obama and a Democratic House and Senate. The conservative movement, many told us, was dead. Friends of mine who should have known better were speculating that the demographic shift in voting patterns would soon force Republicans to move in a more centrist direction. Republicans would need more than white votes in the South if they hoped to win any future national elections, some said. The Tea Party movement had not yet been fully born. And the Conservative Political Action Committee, CPAC, was holding one of its annual confabs at the Omni Shoreham hotel in the Washington, D.C. area.

John Tate, president of the Campaign for Liberty, came to the platform and introduced Dr. Ron Paul, his "friend" and the "honorary chairman" of his organization. Paul, a Republican congressman from Texas who was in 1988 the Libertarian Party's candidate for president, began lecturing the CPAC crowd on what it took to be a true conservative. Defend the constitution, he instructed, and oppose the Federal Reserve System. Live by the rule of law, he said, and if you don't like parts of the constitution, well you just need to amend it. In fact, he said, "I would like to remove two of them. The 16th and 17th" amendments.

The Sixteenth Amendment created the income tax, and opposition to the income tax is as American as apple pie. Proposing the removal of the Seventeenth Amendment is an acquired taste, however, shared by relatively few people. After all, that particular part of the constitution, ratified by the states in 1913, enabled voters to directly elect U.S. senators. Prior to its adoption, senators were elected by state legislatures to six-year terms in D.C.

Once the Seventeenth Amendment passed, the constitution became inherently more democratic. Removing it, per Ron Paul, has to be considered anti-democratic; on a par with, say, eliminating the Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920, which was supposed to guarantee all women the right to vote. Or with ignoring the Fourteenth Amendment.

Now the views of Ron Paul would not be important if he was just one of 435 congressman, and a member of the minority party to boot. He could just be considered another crank to be ignored. After all, he once served as a contributing editor to the John Birch Society's monthly magazine, The New American. And Paul's crusade against the Federal Reserve has established him as a figure on the furthest edges of the far right.

Yet, it was Paul's bid for president in the Republican primaries that became the basis of the Campaign for Liberty organization, which has a much broader purview. And there are some who believe that Paul and his electioneering operation became a basis for the first stirrings of the Tea Party movement. Consider in this regard, what the American Free Press weekly tabloid opined in its March 1, 2010 issue: "The Tea Parties were actually born during the presidential campaign of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas in 2007 and 2008. For all intents and purposes, the Tea Parties and the Ron Paul revolution were one and the same."

The American Free Press should not be counted as one of the bastions of historical accuracy. It is the lineal descendant of The Spotlight tabloid, published by the now defunct Liberty Lobby organization. And Spotlight and Liberty Lobby and their founder Willis Carto were known for advancing the notion that Hitler's Holocaust was a hoax perpetrated by "the Jews."

It is true, nevertheless, that the Campaign for Liberty was the structure upon which many early Tea Party events hung their hat, particularly during the spring and summer of 2009. And Ron Paul's views carry more weight than those of ordinary backbench Republicans.

Now the Campaign for Liberty's "Statement of Principles" does not contain any mention of the Seventeenth Amendment. But its repeal is much discussed and advocated by the Ron Paul rank and file -- including those active in the Tea Parties. In these quarters, revocation of the seventeenth amendment is necessary to (re)establish their version of "states' rights" and the Tenth Amendment.

Invoking opposition to the federal government and supporting states rights has, of course, been central to Tea Parties protests since the beginning. Indeed, Tea Party candidate for Texas governor Debra Medina, who also serves on the Campaign for Liberty's board of directors, included "respect for the 10th amendment and Texas sovereignty" as one of her main platform planks. "We must use the tools of nullification and interposition," she argued, reiterating the pre-Civil War claims of John C. Calhoun.

Calhoun's contentious vision of state sovereignty and secession were settled by the Civil War and ever since the cry of states' rights has been part of the defense of slavery and Jim Crow. Its not too different this time around with Ron Paul and the Tea Parties.