One of the most encouraging outcomes of the elections this week occurred in Missouri, where a dead guy was elected to the Senate. Talk about sending a message to the political class! Given the choice between a live politician and a dead one, voters from an important Midwestern state chose the latter. We can only hope that the deceased former governor, Mel Carnahan, will be allowed to be interred in his Senate office in Washington and do nothing, which is what we expect dead people to do.
This result highlights a glaring problem with our democracy. Except in some precincts in Chicago and Miami Beach, dead people are underrepresented in Congress. (Sen. Strom Thurmond, who died in 1983 at a "Hands Across America" rally, is the exception.) And yet, the ruling elites usually refuse to allow the dead to run against them. While they claim that the Constitution forbids this, the real reason has now been made obvious. They know that if the dead were given their proper representation in government, their own political power would diminish. Certainly, we would have been spared the exasperating debate earlier this year about repealing the death tax.
The Constitution is pretty clear on who is eligible to run for the Senate. It only requires that a senator be a "person," a "citizen of the United States," and when elected, "an inhabitant of the state for which he shall be chosen." It doesn't deal with petty distinctions such as whether the "person" is living or dead, rightly leaving this question up to the states to decide.
In making this decision, the wisdom of the Framers is manifest. Since dead representatives are not able to benefit from campaign contributions, the seductive powers of the Washington-area's interns, or of any kind of honest or dishonest graft, they would be less likely to support the expansion of government beyond its Constitutionally approved powers. No more taxpayer dollars as payback for political support. The very existence of dead people on the ballots would keep the living politicians honest, if only because the shame of losing to a dead opponent is too great, as anyone who saw the teary-eyed concession speech of the living Sen. John Ashcroft in Missouri after losing to the dead Carnahan. The Framers knew that some states might need this check on their living representatives could allow dead citizens to run.
By allowing the dead the ability to serve in elected office, many crises in American history could have been averted. The country could have been spared the agony of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson if an assassinated Lincoln could have finished his second term in office. A dead John F. Kennedy would have lost much of his sex appeal, removing the possibility of sex-related scandal or blackmail. It is possible that the young Bill Clinton would never have wanted to shake his limp hand and become president himself someday. If a dead Sen. Robert Kennedy had been allowed to run against a living Dick Nixon in 1968, RFK could have won, and the country could have avoided the ugly specter of Watergate.
Though we can never know how our world might be different today if the dead were allowed to run for elective office, it is obvious that we need more dead men on ballots. If Alabama ran George Wallace for the Senate in 2002, its incumbent living senators might learn how popular they really are. Gov. Tommy Thompson might be popular in Wisconsin, but he has never had to risk his political future by running against LaFollette. And would life in Louisiana really be much different today if Huey Long had been continuously elected to the governor's office in Baton Rouge? I wonder.
The Carnahan election adds new meaning to Chesterton’s aphorism, "Tradition is the democracy of the dead." There has never been an instance in which a dead man has violated the Constitution, created a scandal, or lied about his achievements. In short, we need to elect more dead men to elective office. So, while the rest of the country is counting and recounting votes in Florida for two living candidates, let's run a true reform candidate next time so we won't be limited to the Gores and Bushes of the future. Sonny Bono in 2004! It's enough to scare Hillary Clinton from public life.
November 10, 2000
Chris Westley teaches economics at Jacksonville State University.