Thursday, September 20, 2012

Democracy in the US Constitution


Republicanism in the US Constitution

"We base all our experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government." – James Madison

Even before the constitution was created, one of the most striking features of colonial politics was that in almost every colony, the people had some democratic input in how they were governed. This was noteworthy because for the most part, Europeans hadn’t paid this idea anything more than lip service since the Ancient Greeks and Romans; most monarchs and leaders cited their lineage or divine right to rule for legitimacy as opposed to any official show of popular support. Indeed, “taxation without representation” had been the rallying cry against the British crown. A great challenge facing the framers of the Federal government, therefore, was determining how to incorporate representation into the new system. How much representation should the people have? How direct should this input be?

The political norms of the day were very different from the political norms of our day, and as such so were the debates on this issue. Today, debates on this subject usually are between a fully inclusive direct democracy on one hand, and an indirect republican system on the other. This summer, I arguedthat an indirectly representative republic was superior to a directdemocracy. This was primarily because the people are highly fallible, meaning that they too need a check on their power (just like the people they elect). As I wrote in the above entry, “too many people are too ignorant, too preoccupied, too intolerant, too fickle, and too apathetic to be entrusted with complete, direct, and immediate control over how the government should operate.” Did the framers agree with me?

Having just shed the tyranny of an unelected monarch, most of the framers deeply distrusted the idea of giving the people no input at all (with Hamilton, who disdained the uneducated masses, admired the British Crown, and argued for a monarch with lifetime terms who could appoint Congressmen himself, once again as the strong outlier). But they were also highly wary of giving the people too much power – indeed, far more wary than I am. This was primarily due to the context of the times. No level of democratic input in a nation as large and diverse as the colonies had never really been tried before. Many were skeptical that so many diverse peoples from faraway localities could function together peacefully in one democracy. Granting power to the people was seen as a novel and dangerous concept, an “experiment” as Madison called it, and one which the framers were hesitant to overdo.

But beyond the simple problem of overcoming social norms, the wisest of the framers expressed many of the same logical concerns with direct democracy that exist today. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison discussed the problem of faction, and explained how he’d devised mechanisms within the new government to mitigate this problem by checking factions against one another. This was accomplished partially by keeping the people’s representation indirect. In all three branches, the people voted on those who would make decisions for them, rather than on the policies themselves. Furthermore, there were checks on just who they were allowed to select. In the executive branch, the Electoral College served as a check on the power of the strong states, and a defense of the people in the smaller states. In the legislative branch, the people voted directly for the House of Representatives, but the Senators were selected by the state legislatures (although this has since been amended to make them direct too). And in the Judicial Branch, the judges were to be appointed by those elected by the people in the other branches. Additionally, all three branches had age requirements, further limiting the options available at the people’s disposal. In each arm of the federal government, the people got a say. But in each arm, this say was indirect, because middle-men representatives of the people’s input made the actual decisions.

That the framers chose to include some democratic input was revolutionary, progressive beyond their times, and commendable; it does not mean that it was or is a good idea to have majority rule decide everything. And once again, the framers were in nearly unanimous agreement with me on the need to check popular input. Observe:

"The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratic council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor." -- John Adams, Letter to Thomas Jefferson [November 13, 1815]

"The majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society."
-- Thomas Jefferson

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!” – Benjamin Franklin

“A republic, if you can keep it.” – Benjamin Franklin (when asked what type of government the convention had formed).

So or the most part, the Framers agreed with me here too. They distrusted direct democracy to handle many national matters. They knew that the opinions of the populace were often fickle, radical, overly emotional, irrational, shortsighted, uninformed, and too easily swayed by misinformation. Modern polling proves that this is still the case today by highlighting the ignorance, contradictions, and indifference most American citizens; how much more of a problem would this have been in the 18th century, then, when the people were largely uneducated? The framers recognized that 51% agreement is far too low of a bar to justify the use of force. They worried openly about the possibility of a “tyranny of the majority”, in which the most powerful factions took away minority rights. For this reason, they intentionally implemented a constitutional republic, rather than a democracy. Each of the three branches has some democratic input; this is just. But they also intentionally made that input indirect; this is prudent. They placed checks on the power of the people just as they placed checks on the representatives they elect, and they were right to do so.

Obviously, the framers were not sufficiently progressive to extend the vote to anyone beyond land-owning white males. But I’m not grading the framers alone; I’m grading the US constitution as it stands today, amendments included. And with those amendments considered, the underlying truth is that our nation is clearly a democratic republic, rather than a pure democracy.

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