Reflect on, don't fetishize, the past [Commentary]

Around the holidays, I usually write a year-end review column. Highlights and lowlights from Maryland or American politics and culture — that sort of thing.

But this year, as we pass from 2013 into 2014, I want to try something a little different. Let's time travel back 100 years, to New Year's Day 1914.

Some American conservatives will be cheered by the very idea; they seem particularly fond of pre-New Deal governing arrangements. The United States hadn't yet fought two major wars, organized the Bretton Woods Conference that led to creation of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, helped organize the United Nations, fought the Spanish influenza that killed more Americans in one year than both of those wars combined or passed the forerunner versions of what eventually blossomed into Social Security and Medicare. The U.S. government would accomplish all of this in just the next 35 years.

In 1914, the federal income tax — instituted a year earlier with the ratification of the 16th Amendment — was still in its infancy. When the income tax began, the first $3,000 for individuals and $4,000 for married couples ($52,100 and $69,500 in today's inflation-adjusted dollars), were completely exempt from income taxes. That said, you can bet that wealthy Americans today who complain about punitive tax rates do not want to get in our time machine, because the share of income held today by the top 1 percent is actually higher than it was in 1914 — at the height of the robber baron era, no less!

Woodrow Wilson was in the Oval Office 100 years ago, and he would change the nature of the presidency in many ways. Newt Gingrich has pointed specifically to Wilson's administration as one of the key hinges of history upon which the balance of power between Congress and the presidency began to shift from the former to the latter. The former House speaker believes in the legislative-centric view of American governance forcefully articulated in the 1950s and 1960s by political theorists Willmoore Kendall and James Buchanan.

Mr. Wilson's political impact, though significant, was not that drastic by 1914. And the American presidency would soon turn back toward its sleepier, 19th century roots with the election of Warren Harding and, most especially, the Oval Office stewardship of Ronald Reagan's favorite president, Calvin Coolidge, who is the subject of a flattering new biography by Amity Schlaes, a favorite author of conservatives.

But the major structural-electoral change of 1914 arrived that November, when the first wave of U.S. senators would be chosen by popular vote. Courtesy of the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913 just two months after the income tax amendment, no longer would state elites select senators, as they had since the founding.

A century later, some conservatives and Republican politicians are calling for the 17th Amendment to be reversed, ending popular voting for U.S. senators. To them, the American people just can't be trusted to pick their leaders.

Notable tea party-affiliated candidates or officials have proclaimed their support for repealing the 17th Amendment, including defeated 2012 Republican Senate candidates Pete Hoekstra, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, and failed 2010 tea party-backed Republican Joe Miller of Alaska. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah described the 17th Amendment as a mistake. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry has expressed support for repeal, as have two Republicans now running for lieutenant governor.

Admittedly, I don't take very seriously the attempts to eliminate popular voting for U.S. senators. Holding aside the quirky 27th Amendment — it was proposed in 1789 as one of the original 12 bill of rights, but not ratified until 1992 — the country last adopted a constitutional amendment in the usual, propose-then-quickly-ratify way in 1971. In polarized blue/red America, it's almost impossible to get the necessary three quarters of the states for ratification to agree on anything.

Reflecting upon the past can be a useful thought experiment. Fetishizing the past — and presuming that somehow our country was better when it was simpler or less democratic — is dangerous business. On New Year's Day, as ever, it's best to turn our sights in the only direction that matters: toward the future.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is Twitter: @schaller67.

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