The Last, Lost Empire: 3rd Edition 2012
by Ted Becker
The Populist and Progressive Amendments
Women’s Right to Vote
Women should be kept barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen and not take men’s jobs. That was the commonly accepted view of most male voters in the United States for most of its history.
The struggle for women’s rights (including the right to vote) began formally at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Although the Wyoming legislature gave the women of that “territory” the right to vote in 1869, the issue of women voting in national elections finally became an actual political party platform in 1892 when the Populist Party included it. “The Women’s Suffrage Movement,” in which many women were imprisoned during public demonstrations and marches took a long and hard road before it finally succeeded.
Here is a short YouTube video from a 2005 HBO movie called “Iron Jawed Angels” that gives a dramatic view of how women braved male scorn and violence in the early 1900s to march for a Constitutional Amendment to give them the legal right to vote.
However, it was not until 1919 that it became part of the United States Constitution when the State of Tennessee was the final state to ratify it. That’s 71 years in the making.
Citizens, Not States, Elect U.S. Senators
Another plank in the platform of the Populist Party in 1892 was that the U.S. Constitution be changed to permit citizens of each state to vote directly for their two U.S. Senators. You see, the original constitution didn’t want the American people to do that.
Instead, in the original oligarchic constitution, U.S. Senators were appointed by their state legislatures (the locally elected elite). This made the U.S. Senate an extension of the state oligarchies instead of representatives of the people of that state. But it took more than a score of years before this voting right for the people of each state was obtained via a constitutional amendment, the 17th, passed by Congress in 1913 and ratified by the sufficient number of states in 1913.
But like any other part of the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights, even winning a constitutional amendment doesn’t mean that those in favor of returning to pure oligarchy will rest. They continue, even on such a pro-democracy issue as having the right to personally vote for the U.S. Senators who represent your state in Washington, D.C.
For example, The Tea Party, in 2010, had many candidates run on the plank of “Repeal the 17th Amendment!!” Why? They argued that voting for U.S. senators was a matter of “State’s rights”….yes, the very same issue that lay behind the U.S. Civil War and that was used, thanks to another abominable U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1896 (Plessy v. Ferguson), that established an official racial Apartheid in America for over 60 years.
Some people who ran against the Tea Party in 2010 butted heads with them over this particular issue. Here is a political ad for a Virginia seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that argues against this repeal movement.
So, you see? The U.S. Constitution has remained a battlefield of democracy vs. oligarchy ever since it was ratified—with the constitutional amendment process as one of the great weapons. So, even if one side wins despite great odds, the other side never rests. As that great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” And as regards the constitutional amendment wars: It is NEVER over. Here’s another illustration of that.
National Income Tax
Another key item in the Populist Party agenda in 1892 was to levy a permanent national income tax. This was not an entirely new idea, since a progressive income tax had been levied by the U.S. government during the Civil War. Although the Populists did not win that presidential election, the next Congress passed another, non-war, permanent income tax law.
The general idea behind that was to tax those making a substantial amount of income and to make the percentage of the tax grow in proportion to the greater the income one enjoyed. Thus, this populist notion was to make it a “graduated” income tax designed to fall most heavily upon those who could most afford to pay it.
The U.S. Supreme Court, as it usually does, was quick to the rescue of that tiny segment of the population and declared this law to be unconstitutional in 1895. This setback did not end the public quest for such a tax on the richest of Americans. In fact, popular pressure for this way to raise money to support a much stronger federal government quickly mounted.
Theodore Roosevelt, a champion of American populism even after he declined to run for re-election to the presidency in 1908 (which he probably would have won in a landslide), came back onto the American political scene and headed the Progressive Party of 1912 (known as “The Bull Moose Party”). Its platform included a national income tax—along with many other ideas adopted from the old Populist Party. His notions about making America a “pure democracy” and being against “The Robber Barons” and corporate monopolies garnered him a 27.4% of the vote and 66 electoral votes as well.
Many historians credit him with reviving this new democratic, anti-oligarchy spirit and helping pass a number of “progressive” laws through Congress. Surely, such a huge outpouring of popular support for so much of his new party’s program was in large part responsible for the passage of the 16th amendment to the U.S. Constitution—the very next year…in 1913…in which the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of any “direct tax” on citizens was annulled.
It may have taken over 20 years for this amendment to finally become the law of the land, but it has been a major source of funding for the political/economic growth of the United States of America. It surely has provided the financial wherewithal for the U.S.A to become the leading global power in the world today.
It has also been a source, at times, of redistributing wealth from the richest to the working and middle classes of the U.S.A. The “marginal rates” on the wealthiest have varied from the original 7% to a whopping 90% in the post-World War II era. It was as high as 70% when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980—but soon dropped to about where it is now, around the mid 30% range.
Take a look at this video graphic on how the number of “brackets” (levels of income and the percentage of taxable income each level has to pay) has changed over time as well as the top rates. If you pay close attention, (it’s only about 5 minutes long but is a bit tedious) it is very revealing. Note that during The Great Depression, and in times of war, the rates on the rich go sky high. Those are times when the wealthy need to ante up.
However, that is hardly the case in 2012—an era with corporate rule of American government evident in this and many other ways. Now, despite endless wars all over the world, and with the richest Americans hoarding unprecedented amounts of America’s total wealth, the tax rates are relatively low on them and the number of brackets in the income tax code extremely small.
Also, here is an article with a graph from Visualizing Economics that explains it at a glance and in a short statement. Still, you have to spend some time observing, examining and analyzing it to get the full and true picture. Thus, this is yet another example of how even when there is a successful constitutional amendment movement, and a new amendment takes effect that is designed to help democratize the system and its policies, that the struggle takes place in the implementation…and who comes out ahead changes from time to time.
So, where are we now? Is there also a movement to repeal the 16th amendment?
This one has been brewing for some time now. Even though the Income tax amendment was passed nearly a century ago, the forces of the rich and privileged are busy at work trying to undo it. With the repeal of the Prohibition amendment as their guide and inspiration, they have been busily at work on trying to do away with the income tax, trying to get the American people to hate the Internal Revenue Service and to feel that this is a U.S. government conspiracy to pilfer their bank accounts.
Yet, despite their continual efforts, this particular repeal movement has gained traction only at the margins of American party politics…and does not seem to be a real threat at the moment since even the U.S. Supreme Court has pretty much scoffed at the idea that the U.S. income tax amendment was not properly ratified.
On the other hand, more pro-democracy movements to amend the U.S. constitution seem to be taking root on a number of fronts, given several informal but radical changes to the American system of government. As has happened so often in the past, these changes have been sparked somewhat by some recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Moreover, as has also been the case in the past, as we have seen, these decisions have had the unintended consequence of giving life to deeply rooted anti-oligarchy sentiments which trace their roots to the Declaration of Independence, the Anti-federalists, and the first three Democratic Amendment movements.
Next comes Part 4, which will show how this new movement is taking hold. Part 5 will present our futuristic view of about a dozen new amendments that need to be made to the U.S. Constitution that would truly make America that beacon of true democracy, on a hill, shining so brightly that it would illuminate the imaginations of people around the globe.