The View From 1776

A Federal Republic, Not a Democracy

The founders were crystal-clear about it: a pure democracy is the least stable and worst imaginable form of government.

During most of the past century, novelists, historians, and academics pursued a deep love affair with the secular materialism of the French Revolution.  Historians like Vernon L. Parrington and Charles A. Beard wrote volumes promoting the idea that the true spirit of America was a relentless drive to eliminate private property rights and to empower the masses through a process that the Socialist Party terms social democracy.

The Federalist essays, written by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison to urge ratification of the Constitution, expressed exactly the opposite principle.  The writers of the Constitution recognized that, in a pure democracy, the masses could too easily fall under the sway of a demagogue who might employ government power to seize private property and use it to buy their support with welfare-state hand-outs. 

A reliance on the people as a whole, they wrote, is the basic source of authority for our Federal government, but experience has taught mankind the need for auxiliary precautions.  Chief among those precautions were the numerous checks and balances built into the Constitution.  Among the most fundamental was the graduated levels of representation in the political process.  Local town governments elected representatives to state legislative assemblies. Those assemblies originally elected United States Senators.  State legislatures selected Federal electors who elected the president and the Vice President.

The point was to prevent unwise and hasty political action by damping the effects of mass opinion.

What we have witnessed in the 20th century is a continual unravelling of those auxiliary precautions and the subordination of political judgment to daily, even hourly, public opinion polls.  Given the manipulative power of mass media, and its dominance by liberal-socialist interests, our government has come to resemble a Paris street mob storming the Bastille more than a rational and wise decision-making process.

My friend Emil Pavone, in the following reply to one of his correspondents, deals with this problem.


No doubt you’re correct when you write:?

“. . .?democracies ? usually lack leadership that will make tough choices until the pain level becomes so high that they have no choice but to do the “right” thing ? it is the critical flaw in a democracy—that populist self interest too often trumps good governance.”?

Yet the question remains, is there anything that can be done to solve the problem without diminishing the essence of democratic government???Our Founders certainly recognized the main threats to a “government of the people,” and created an apparatus that seals off the most likely avenues of abuse.? They provided us with representative government whose republican format puts a layer of thought between the populace and the enaction of legislation.? They separated responsibility for writing the laws from their execution and interpretation.? And they essentially agreed that legislature and executive would abide by rulings of the judiciary even when it limits legislative and executive powers, thus making the judiciary, in a sense, “first among equals.”? But they did not foresee that one day every citizen would be enfranchised regardless of qualifications, and that legislators would be so richly rewarded.? Therefore, they did not recognize the potential for corruption ever present in an uninformed, uncritical electorate and a professional political class.
So, what can be done about it?? As I see it, the only possible solution lies in modification of the one-man, one-vote concept. The idea that the least informed members of society should cast ballots of equal weight to those of the best informed is, on its face, illogical.? Yet this is the situation as it currently exists.? It explains how legislators buy votes, how our country’s huge political class came into being, and why it is almost impossible to dismiss them from office once ensconced.? Bear in mind that when we talk of the political class, it includes not only federal officeholders, their staffs and support groups; but all similar individuals at the state, county and local levels of government.? ( ?Including Florida?s four Pinellas County Commissioners and three staff members soon to be junketing in Hawaii at our expense, according to yesterday?s newspaper.)

Consider then, would modification of the one-man, one-vote principle do more harm than good?  Must every possible cure be worse than the disease?  I think not, depending on the cure, of course, but I haven?t discovered any forum where such a prospect is under discussion by thoughtful, open-minded individuals.  If one exists, and someone would direct me to it, I would be grateful.

Historically, if I?m not mistaken, the franchise, even when it was said to be ?universal,? excluded various members of society; notably, women, slaves, Indians and unpropertied persons.  Women were considered incapable, either intellectually or emotionally, of casting a ballot intelligently.  Slaves and Indians, by their status, were not regarded as entitled to a voice in the community.  And unpropertied persons, being judged to have no real stake in the community, were considered unentitled to any say in its management.  Those parameters worked for a long time; many would say very well.  But we now live in a different age.  Few Americans would deny women the vote today, there are no slaves, and Indians share citizenship.  Would a property ownership qualification be acceptable today?  I think not, but that doesn?t mean there can be no acceptable standard for limitation ? or enhancement ? of the franchise.  Could it not be based on demonstrable knowledge of our history, institutions, principles, precepts and values? 

Let?s say every citizen continues to be entitled to one vote, simply by virtue of citizenship.  Would our society be bettered by increasing the weights of votes cast by those who have qualified as having increased levels of knowledge concerning our history, institutions, principles, precepts and values?  Thus, at various levels of demonstrated knowledge, might one?s vote carry a weight 20, 30 40, or even 100 percent greater than that of the citizen who has not demonstrated equivalent qualification?  How would such a system be developed?  How would it be administered? How would it be executed? These are merely technical questions that obviously can be answered. 

But are thoughtful Americans ready to consider such an approach?  And if they are, and if they agree that it should be adopted, how can they override a threatened political class?

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