Liberal Anti-Democracy, Chapter 3:
The Anti-Political US Constitution
Of the things for which I summoned the people to assemble,
was there one I compassed not? . . .
This is how the people will best follow their leaders:
If they are neither unleashed nor restrained too much. — Solon, circa sixth century BC
The people’s strength, on the other hand, acts only when concentrated. When it is spread around it evaporates and is lost, like gunpowder scattered on the ground, which doesn’t explode but only catches fire grain by grain. — Jean-Jacques Rousseau
A despot may otherwise constrain his slaves with iron chains; but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas… On the soft fibers of the brain is founded the unshakeable base of the soundest of Empires. — Michel Foucault
Elections, a trap for idiots. — Jean-Paul Sartre
“It has been said,” writes Philip B. Kurland, “that the Age of Enlightenment might more properly be called the Age of Constitutions.” And as John Adams famously proclaimed, the liberal constitution was designed to represent “an Empire of Laws, and not of men.” “[T]he very definition of a republic,” wrote John Adams, is “a government, in which all men, rich and poor, magistrates and subjects, officers and people, masters and servants, the first citizen and the last, are equally subject to the laws.” John Adams remarked of the British constitution that “liberty is its end, its use, its designation, drift, and scope, as much as grinding corn is the use of a mill . . . or life and health the designation of the human body.” Montesquieu praised the English liberal constitutional model as a system “dedicated above all to political liberty,” and living proof that “a government may be so constituted, as no man shall be compelled to do things to which the law does not oblige him, nor forced to abstain from things which the law permits.”
Liberal constitutionalism emerged as a hostile reaction to the exercise of political power that might interfere with the private rights of individuals. It was never democratic. As the British historian Christopher Hill remarked, whereas
Locke talked ambiguously of government deriving from and being responsible to ‘the people’ . . . it was perfectly clear that by ‘the people’ he meant the propertied class. Their control of society had been established against monarchical absolutism [and] against the lower orders by the defeat of the radicals during the interregnum . . .
Whereas liberal revolutionaries freed the aristocracy and property owners from the feudal obligations they owed to the monarchy and granted them greater security in their property from political expropriation, it also freed the property classes to conduct a more direct and callous exploitation of the lower orders of society. There is an implicit irony in that Locke, the great liberal philosopher who justified the revolution against the crown in 1688, was himself an imperial bureaucrat who helped design the colonial system, a landed proprietor in South Carolina, and a major investor in the Atlantic slave trade that ferried slaves to plantations throughout the Americas. As Ishay Landa writes:
Still less can one discern an ardent populist commitment in someone endorsing child labor starting with the age of three and who, for all his “toleration” in matters religious wished to criminalize beggars and vagabonds, advocating penal severity exceeding that of the absolutist monarchs.
István Mészáros continues:
[W]hile the brutal laws of Henry VIII and Edward VI . . . wanted to slice off only ‘half the ear’ of the second offenders, [Locke] suggests an improvement on such laws by solemnly recommending the loss of both ears, to be administered already to first offenders. These are his words: ‘That whoever shall counterfeit a pass shall lose his ears for the forgery the first time that he is found guilty thereof, and the second time that he shall be transported to the plantations . . . as in case of felony.’
While seventeenth-century Parliamentarians explicitly rejected democracy during the Putney Debates and their brutal suppression of radical political movements such as the Levellers during the English Civil War, the absence of more explicitly antidemocratic invectives in the rhetoric of early-liberal political philosophy is only because democracy was simply not a concern for early liberal political philosophers. The primary threat which they identified to the security of their property was the monarchy. This was to change by the eighteenth century, however, as new political tendencies were beginning to transform society. “You are mistaken, when you confine arbitrary government to a monarchy,” argued Alexander Hamilton in 1775. “It is not the supreme power being placed in one, instead of many, that discriminates an arbitrary from a free government.” Rather, with the threat of monarchist despotism fading into the past, American Founding Fathers like James Madison anticipated in 1787 that as America would grow and expand, so too would “the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings.” For Madison,
[t]he future lay closer at hand than some suspected, [with] “symptoms of a leveling spirit” already being discernible perhaps no farther away than western Massachusetts. To guard against this spirit and yet to do so in a manner compatible with republican principles was the great and urgent problem facing those “framing a system which we wish to last for ages.”
Even though the American Revolution was fought against the British crown, it differed in many ways from the English Revolution against Charles I that had transpired a decade earlier. Whereas seventeenth-century English liberals were focused on the monarchy and restraining royal prerogative, by the late eighteenth century the monarchy was no longer the most relevant source of arbitrary oppressive political power. By then, the focus was shifting towards the threat posed by impending democratic majorities that might seek to use their newfound political rights to expropriate and distribute the property of the wealthy. Whereas democracy had not been a focus of earlier generations of liberals, by the eighteenth century the idea of democracy and political representation was becoming a major feature in the discourse of the American Founding Fathers. Men like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were looking forward, not to the monarchist tyranny of yesteryear, but instead to incipient mass democratic movements, which they believed had become the greatest threat to the private rights and privileges of the upper classes.
Contrary to popular belief, the American Founding Fathers harbored a deep-seated hostility towards the common masses. Men like Alexander Hamilton and Robert Morris were monarchists. John Adams denounced democracies as “bloody and cruel,” predicting that democracy must always “degenerate into anarchy.” John Marshall declared that “between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.” Benjamin Rush called democracy “the devil’s own government.” During the mass mobilization to ratify the Constitution, a pamphlet circulating in 1788 declared that, according to “the unanimous voice of historians,” Rome had collapsed due to the “encroachments of the people upon the authority of the senate.” Numerous others warned that democracy is always accompanied with “innumerable evils,” “frequent convulsions,” and “capricious measures.” On its whole, liberalism was an inherently anti-democratic and aristocratic movement which could be summarized in the declaration of John Randolph Roanoke: “I am an aristocrat: I love liberty, I hate equality.”
Liberalism was a reaction against all political forms that might threaten the security of their private property. Consequently, it was every bit as hostile towards democracy as it was towards absolutist monarchy. In fact, many liberal aristocrats in America longed for a return to the English monarchy after the Revolution, because they believed that their rights would be safer under the crown than under a popular democratic state. John Adams argued against early American populists, declaring that rather than “the best keepers of their own liberties,” the people are actually “the worst conceivable; they are no keepers at all.” While Adams admitted that popular sovereignty was “the only moral foundation of government,” he nevertheless urged the Founding Fathers to oppose emergent tendencies towards popular government that might “confound and destroy all distinctions and prostrate all ranks to one common level.”
The anonymous writer Agrippa argued that it was in “a government by ourselves” that the most acute risks to property rights existed. He argued that barriers were needed “to secure the minority against the usurpation and tyranny of the majority . . . [and] the sober and industrious part of the community . . . from the rapacity and violence of the vicious and idle.” The author writing under the penname Maryland Farmer concurred, arguing that additional protections for individual rights were necessary because of the likely conflict between the property rights of the wealthy and “the apparent interests of the majority,” lest “the individual . . . be lost.” James Madison himself even stated in explicit terms that “democracies have been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property.” He anticipated a coming struggle arising out of the “conflicting feelings of the Class with, and the Class without property.” If the Founding Fathers were to “extend It [political rights] equally to all,” Madison feared, then “the rights of property or the claims of justice may be overruled by a majority without property.”
The American Founding Fathers feared that ordinary Americans would be antagonistic towards the economic interests of the upper classes, and consequently saw democracy as incompatible with their market-oriented vision of American society. John Adams believed that “those who own this country ought to govern it.” James Madison believed the purpose of government is to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Consequently, one of the primary concerns facing the American Founding Fathers when drafting the Constitution was the problem “of protecting the rights of property against the spirit of democracy.”
“[T]o satisfy the public mind that their liberties will be perpetual, and this without endangering any part of the constitution,” the American Constitution was deliberately designed to defend “from the acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.” So, in the same manner that past generations of liberals had envisioned that Parliament could serve as a check on the tyranny of the monarchy, the American Founding Fathers envisioned that the principles of parliamentary sovereignty might also serve as “a control upon the people” as well. This was to be accomplished through the principle of representative government.
In the Federalist 63, James Madison outlined the fundamental theory of representative government as envisioned in the American Constitution:
[I[t is clear that the principle of representation was neither unknown to the ancients nor wholly overlooked in their political constitutions. The true distinction between these and the American governments, lies IN THE TOTAL EXCLUSION OF THE PEOPLE, IN THEIR COLLECTIVE CAPACITY, from any share in the LATTER, and not in the TOTAL EXCLUSION OF THE REPRESENTATIVES OF THE PEOPLE from the administration of the FORMER. The distinction, however, thus qualified, must be admitted to leave a most advantageous superiority in favor of the United States.
Representative government is considered democratic today, but this was not the case for the American Founding Fathers. Prior to the nineteenth century, elections were not considered democratic; rather, for essentially the entire history of political philosophy elections had been regarded not only as something distinct, but as something incompatible with democracy.
“What I mean is that it is regarded as democratic that magistracies be assigned by lot, as oligarchic that they should be elective, as democratic that they should not depend on property qualification, and as oligarchic that they should,” writes Aristotle in the Politics. Democracy presupposes the fundamental political equality of citizens, and requires, as Josiah Ober explains, that there is “no entrenched governing elite.”
Consequently, “there were no elected representatives” within the context of ancient Athenian democracy. Instead, the sortition — i.e., the random selection of officials from a pool of eligible candidates — was employed to select officials and magistrates, with the idea being that the random selection of officials by lot equally distributed the odds of being selected as an official of the state. The Greeks contrasted the lot with election, which “did so unequally,” conferring unique advantages and privileges on citizens with greater recognition, fame, social connections, and wealth.
“Selection by lot is in the nature of democracy, selection by choice is in the nature of aristocracy,” writes Montesquieu. “The lot is a way of selecting that offends no one; it leaves to each citizen a reasonable expectation of serving his country.” For this reason, the ancient Greeks recognized that “in its purest form, democracy is not compatible with representation,” because representation is incompatible with the idea of equality between citizens. Elections violated the fundamental premise of equality and seemed to promote the existence of a functionally privileged caste of wealthy elites. For this reason, Josiah Ober explains that elections were regarded with suspicion by ancient Greek democrats, for whom “elections were considered potentially undemocratic.”
The word “election” comes to us from the word eligere, which is Latin for “to choose.” This is also the Latin root of the English word “elite.” As Richard M. Weaver remarks, “an election is after all a highly undemocratic proceeding; the very term means discrimination.” As Bernard Manin explains, prior to the nineteenth century elections were universally considered by such additional figures as Machiavelli and Guicciardini to be “intrinsically aristocratic . . . [an] effect [which was not] derived from the circumstances and conditions in which the elective method was employed . . . [but rather] resulted from the very nature of election.” Namely, to win elections candidates “need to make themselves known . . . And there is every reason to suppose that the cost of such an undertaking is not negligible . . . the advantage of the affluent classes of society . . . [is consequently the] most obvious and most immediate” quality of elections. This elitist characteristic of elections, or the existence of the sortition as a democratic alternative, was known to modern liberal political theorists. They simply embraced the practice of election precisely for its aristocratic qualities. As Alain de Benoist summarizes, liberal constitutional theorists recognized election
not as a system incompatible with the notion of an elite, but rather as a particularly safe tool for identifying and promoting an elite . . . election was devised as a means of placing in government persons who enjoyed the confidence of their fellow citizens . . . the successful candidates were individuals who inspired the trust of their constituents as a result of their network of local connections, their social prominence, or by the deference they provoked.
For Giovanni Sartori, the electoral method of government should therefore not be described as “democracy” at all, but rather “as an elective polyarchy in which power belongs to those who acquire it via the majority of votes after a competition between rival minorities.”
The American Constitution is antithetical to the idea of democracy as “the people rule.” As Alain de Benoist clarifies, there is a distinct difference “between voting which decides and voting which appoints (those who decide).” Representation “implies the delegation of sovereignty, which strictly speaking — as Rousseau had realized — is tantamount to abdication by the people.” Within “liberal representative democracy,” where the people are not allowed to influence policy directly, “the electorate legitimizes a genuine power which lies exclusively in the hands of representatives . . . the people are not governing through representatives: [they are] electing representatives who govern by themselves.” As Joseph Schumpeter explained, representative democracy does
not mean and cannot mean that the people actually rule in any obvious sense of the terms ‘people’ and ‘rule.’ Democracy means only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them. But since they might decide this also in entirely undemocratic ways, we have had to narrow our definition by adding a further criterion identifying the democratic method, viz., free competition among would-be leaders for the vote of the electorate.
“Election is not democratic,” notes Bernard Manin, “because the governed are unable to compel those who govern to implement the policy for which they elected them.”
Elections as a concept have nothing at all to do with democracy. The explicitly anti-democratic features of elections were embraced by the liberal founders of modern constitutional states not as a defect or a bug, but as the central merit of electoral government. Electoral governments were designed with the explicit intention that “representatives would and should be distinguished citizens, socially different from those who elected them,” and in fact “be socially superior to those who elect them.” Professor Bernard Manin calls this characteristic of representative government the “principle of distinction.” Throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wealthy property owners and other economic elites who had typically enjoyed eminence in society by virtue of their superior wealth and status were threatened by the emerging political consciousness and independence of ordinary citizens who were taken by the concept of “popular sovereignty,” which the German historian Leopold von Ranke correctly recognized as “the most powerful conception of the age.” Threatened by the growing political consciousness of the working masses, these eighteenth-century political elites turned to elections and the principle of distinction as a bulwark against the rising tides of democracy.
From seventeenth-century Republican attacks against monarchist prerogative to the writings of Thomas Jefferson, the phrase “natural aristocracy” or “aristocracy of talent” was used to describe this electoral elite, which many believed would be superior to the elite promoted by hereditary succession and monarchical appointments. “May we not even say that that form of government is best,” wrote Jefferson, “which provides most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi [i.e., natural aristocracy] into the offices of government?” James Harrington, who supported Parliament in the English Civil Wars against the Stuart monarchy, and whose writings inspired elements of the American Constitution, criticized the sortition as a selection method because it deprived ancient Athenians of “the natural and necessary use of an aristocracy.” Our system of electoral government does not trace to any democratic precedent; instead, it is founded on an anti-democratic impulse by a generation of liberal aristocrats who regarded elections as anti-democratic — and praised the practice for this quality.
The Founding Fathers were primarily motivated by private class interests. However, they disguised arguments advancing these private class interests under pretensions towards a value-neutral and objective epistemology. For eighteenth-century liberal aristocrats, words like “wise” and “virtuous” were synonyms for what Alexander Hamilton called “gentlemen of fortune and abilities,” and their attitudes towards the lower orders of society were tinged with class prejudices. Rather than acknowledging that the agricultural majority possessed unique economic interests, American elites characterized the working classes as stupid, short-sighted, fickle, and untrustworthy.
The Federalist writer Caesar argued that the people are “very ill qualified to judge for themselves what government will best suit their peculiar situations.” Jefferson believed that “a choice by the people themselves is not generally distinguished for its wisdom. The first secretion from them is usually crude and heterogeneous.” Speaking of America’s agricultural majority, Alexander Hamilton argued that “their habits in life have not been such as to give them those acquired endowments, without which in a deliberative assembly the greatest natural abilities are for the most part useless.” John Adams argued that it would always be necessary in a republican system to “temper their authority in legislation with the maturer counsels of the one and the few.” James Madison simply believed that “the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.”
Every participant at the constitutional convention firmly believed that “property was . . . one of the most important rights, and its protection a principal object of government.” Consequently, as Bernard Manin explains, they believed that it was “necessary to take specific precautions to ensure that representatives would particularly take to heart the rights and interests of property.” As opposed to a democratic state based on universal suffrage, their ideal system was a plutocratic class system such as in England, where political rights were a function of property. They believed that it was very important “that representatives should be property owners, and consequently of higher social rank than those who elected them.” Fearing the agricultural majority, Gouverneur Morris wanted political rights to be restricted to landowners, as this “would help secure ‘the main object of Society,’” this being the right of private property.
A wave of democratization had swept through America following the Revolution in 1776, however, as many states had removed property qualifications for political rights to mobilize the masses in the war against England. American citizens enjoyed historically unprecedented political privileges in those years, so when American elites attempted to install the Constitution a decade after the war, they were forced to confront the fact that most Americans would not consent to formally disenfranchising themselves. Madison himself believed that “the freeholders of the Country would be the safest depositories of Republican liberty” and favored introducing property qualifications such as those that existed in England, but he realized that such a measure was not realistic, because it would “depend much on the probable reception such a change would meet in the States where the right was now exercised by every description of people.” The problem that the Founding Fathers faced in the post-revolutionary years was that many states would not “readily subscribe to the national constitution, if it should subject them to be disenfranchised.” As George Mason lamented, “eight or nine states have extended the right of suffrage beyond the freeholders, what will the people there say, if they should be disenfranchised?” As Alexander Hamilton admitted,
the people will not bear such innovations. The states will revolt at such encroachments. Supposing such an establishment to be useful, we must not venture on it. We must follow the example of Solon who gave the Athenians not the best Government he could devise but the best they would receive.
Consequently, as Adams explained, the first order of business facing the American Founding Fathers was “to depute power from the many to a few of the most wise and good.” The way that they believed they could effectuate this transference of power from the masses to a wise liberal elite was through elections. While they found popular participation in politics undesirable overall, elections presented an effective vehicle whereby American elites could pay token tribute to the concept of popular sovereignty while filtering out its negative aspects and preserving the fundamental trappings of plutocratic rule. As James Madison believed, the “process of elections . . . will most certainly extract from the mass of the Society the purest and noblest characters which it contains.” As James Otis believed, elections would elevate “persons of the first reputation among their countrymen” and “collect the wisdom of the State,” which they believed resided exclusively in the wealthy. The Founding Fathers wanted government officials to be wealthy, or sympathetic to the class interests of the wealthy. And while they could not ensure this through legal property qualifications, they found that the same could effectively be accomplished through federal elections.
In the Anglosphere, it was understood by members of the legislature that elections tended to be extremely expensive undertakings requiring the financial and organizational support of other affluent citizens. Bernard Manin demonstrates how in eighteenth-century England, “[m]embers [of parliament] themselves complained in their private correspondence and in parliamentary debate that elections were too expensive.” Many of the Founders were themselves Members of Congress, and like their British counterparts, they understood this all too well.
Consequently, Madison tried to assure his contemporaries that they need not necessarily fear mass-suffrage democracy, because an electoral system of government would be subject to the “ordinary influence possessed by property and the superior information incident to its holders.” Elections in “large [electoral] districts,” argued Madison, “are manifestly favorable to the election of persons . . . [with a] probable attachment to the rights of property” — i.e., persons who are wealthy and famous — “over competitors depending on the personal solicitations practicable on a contracted theatre” — i.e., local politicians with direct and personal connections to their community. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney agreed, arguing that once “’the sphere of election is enlarged,’ . . . the wealthier candidate, with his more extensive reputation and wider sphere of influence (especially his network of customers, debtors, partners, employees, tenants, and suppliers), would start with a tremendous advantage over his rival . . . ‘who probably would not be known.’”
The creation of the American Federal government therefore reflected the retreat of American elites from formal and legal aristocratic privileges to a subtler form of plutocracy. Even though America did not have legal political restrictions based on wealth, a system of federal elections would nevertheless promote a hierarchical class system based on wealth. Elections could be expected to lead to the “elevation of a leadership class” composed of what Alexander Hamilton described as “fit characters” who would have at heart the interests of “commerce [and] finance . . . [T]he representative body, with too few exceptions to have any influence on the spirit of the government, will be composed of landholders, merchants, and men of the learned professions.” As Madison explained, “the countenance of the government . . . [will appear] more democratic; but the soul that animates it will become more oligarchic.”
As Gordon Wood explains, “the Constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period.” When it was written, the people only figured into the document as “Electors.” By strictly confining the participation of the masses to this indirect role, the Constitution would therefore privilege wealthy individuals and “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” by raising the ante for participation to such a degree that it would effectively exclude ordinary citizens from meaningful political participation.
Additionally, the Founding Fathers wished for the American political class to be as independent of the influence of their lower-class constituents as possible. In this regard, the historian Woody Holton notes that some of “the heftiest restraints the Framers placed on popular power were also the least visible . . . [and] frustrated the Constitution’s critics by accomplishing several crucial reforms through simple acts of omission.” Prior to the American Revolution, “freeholders in many North American jurisdictions had enjoyed the right of instructing their representatives on how to vote” in their state assemblies. These rights, which were “extensive . . . during the colonial period,” were also carried over into the new state constitutions during “the first decade of independence” after the Revolution. On top of this right of instruction, under the Articles of Confederation “members of the lower house of the federal legislature [were also] ‘subject to recall,’” which gave their constituents the ability to hold their representatives accountable and immediately depose them if they broke election promises while in office.
These rights were discussed in the Constitutional Convention when it considered the Bill of Rights. However, the attendees of the convention decided not to include these rights in the final text, as they were of the mind that instructions from constituents should never “have . . . legally binding force.” Rather than “an instrument of his constituents’ will,” as we have come to see it today, the Founders believed that the elected representative should “instead [be] an independent thinker who ought to execute justice as he himself defines it,” regardless of the preferences of his constituents. Consequently, when the Constitution was introduced it conveniently omitted these rights which had once been commonplace components of representative government in English colonies.
As Professor Bernard Manin observes, “programs and promises have a particular status in representative governments: they are not legally binding.” Politicians make various promises to their constituents during election campaigns. However, they are not obligated to act on these promises: “Once persons are elected, it is they who decide on public policy.” In the decades following the American Revolution, this principle that is the foundation of modern representative government was solidified into what the British constitutional theorist Edmund Burke called the “trustee model of representation.” “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment,” argued Burke. In a reversal of the popular belief that politicians betray their constituents by breaking election promises, Burke argued that the politician actually “betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices [his vote] to your opinion.” As Burke explained to a constituent following an election, “You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament.”
Additionally, James Madison argued that the “enlargement of the elections districts . . . and an extension of its period of service” — i.e., long term limits from two to four years — would be “favorable to the rights of landed and other property,” because this would reduce the incentive that politicians would have to pander to their constituents, making them less accountable to voters. As Alexander Hamilton argued in the Federalist No. 71, “[w]hen occasions present themselves, in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations,” long term limits would provide politicians with “time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.” “[T]he more distant in time . . . the next election” happens to be naturally “encourage[es] politicians ‘to be the guardians of those interests [and] to withstand the temporary delusion’” of popular sentiment.
This principle has characterized how every successive generation of liberal statesmen and intellectuals have viewed representative government. Jeremy Bentham urged that “voters should only be allowed to influence their representatives by their right not to reelect them,” and “expressly rejected the practice of instructions.” As Lord Henry Brougham urged in 1811, “the people ought not to decide directly and finally on any public measures except the choice of their representatives.” “The electors,” argued the Baronet Sir George Cornewall Lewis in 1877, “cannot by their votes decide directly and finally on any public measure: their power is confined to the choice of those who are to decide.” As A. V. Dicey remarked in 1915, “the underlying principle of all modern constitutionalism . . . [is] obedience to the will of the nation as expressed through parliament.”
However, the greatest limit on democratic politics was to be Madison’s theory of pluralism and interest-group based politics, which would be achieved through the federal legislature’s pluralistic nature. Constitutional architects like Madison and Pinckney understood that democracy was the most favorable to small states, as large populations cannot organize without great difficulty across large geographic spaces. The Founders consequently sought to interrupt the emerging political consciousness of the masses by channeling political action into elections held within enormous Congressional districts that were orders of magnitude larger than any which had existed in colonial times. Federalism would be innately unsuitable for democratic political action, because the naturally “extensive territory” would guarantee that the “number of its citizens will not permit them all to be assembled at one time, and in one place,” ensuring that the “multitude will be less imperious.” Additionally, if elections were to be held in very large electoral districts, even if “a majority of United States citizens share[d] the same grievances . . . they would rarely be able ‘to discover their own strength . . . [or] act in unison with each other.’”
Large electoral districts would frustrate popular democratic political organization because ordinary citizens could not take time away from their farms to travel long distances and influence these centers of power, and because it would divide the electorate between regional interests. Concurring with Madison, Hamilton noted that a federal legislature would “divide the community into so great a number of interests & parties, that . . . they may not be apt to unite in the pursuit” of any policy objective. This would prevent effective majorities from forming “a concert of views, in any partial scheme of elections,” “mak[ing] it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.” Weeks before publishing the Federalist 10, Madison explained his theory underlying the Constitution in a private letter to Jefferson: “Divide et impera, the reprobated axiom of tyranny, is under certain qualifications, the only policy, by which a republic can be administered on just principles.” Divide et impera is Latin for divide and conquer.
For Madison, the pluralistic nature of a large, heterogeneous federal legislature composed of representatives from around the country and representing diverse and conflicting economic interests was effectively an anti-democratic barrier against organized popular political action that might threaten the wealth and privileges of the wealthy upper classes. However, it also seemed liable to make the federal legislature entirely incoherent and dysfunctional. In 1787, the anti-Federalist Revolutionary War veteran George Clinton warned:
Whoever seriously considers the immense extent of territory comprehended within the limits of the United States, with the variety of its climates, productions, and commerce, the difference of extent, and number of inhabitants in all; the dissimilitude of interest, morals, and policies, in almost every one, will receive it as an intuitive truth, that a consolidated republican form of government therein, can never form a perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to you and your posterity, for to these objects it must be directed: this unkindred legislature therefore, composed of interests opposite and dissimilar in their nature, will in its exercise, emphatically be, like a house divided against itself.
“The principles of republican government embedded in the American Constitution,” writes Marc Landy, “represent an effort by the framers to ensure that the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would not be trampled by majorities.” While they could not explicitly disenfranchise the American agricultural majority (attendees of the Constitutional Convention considered this as an option), the Founders believed that they could nevertheless diminish the power of the masses through representative government.
Representative government would, in the words of James Madison, “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens,” this being the elite plutocratic leadership class with a “probable attachment to the rights of property” that would be elevated through elections. This would keep the state in control of financial elites and ensure that all majority opinion would be carefully sanitized through elite institutional filters that could block any legislative proposals that contradicted their interests. Additionally, the pluralistic nature of the legislature contained an internal system of checks and balances designed, in the words of Sheldon Wolin, not “to encourage citizen action but to prevent arbitrary power, especially the form of power represented by the will of the majority.”
As a pluralistic body composed of hundreds of different representatives from various regions throughout the country, the federal legislature could be expected to remain divided between competing interest groups. Under the Constitutional model of government, “for majority sentiment (or any sentiment) to be translated into law, legislation must successfully pass through committees and sub-committees of both the House and Senate, receive majority votes on the floor of both houses of Congress, and be signed by the president.” Sheldon Wolin continues:
While they recognized the ‘people’ as a political presence, they proceeded to dilute the potential of democratic power by constraints intended to filter out any grand schemes. An elaborate system of checks and balances, separation of powers, an Electoral College to select the president, and, later, judicial review, were designed to make it next to impossible for popular majorities to institute policies actually in the interests of the majority. Only the House of Representatives was to be directly elected by eligible voters; the Senate was to be indirectly elected by the various state legislatures. And it was hoped that the Electoral College would play an active role in the selection of presidents and not merely register popular votes. The framers of the Constitution were the first founders of modern managed democracy.
The inefficient and divided composition of the federal legislature would make it highly insulated against majoritarian political action. It would likely only ever pass bills that enjoyed the support of a very wide and powerful network of economic interests with vast organizational capacities, capable of employing lawyers and lobbying numerous institutions at the successive stages of a bill. Reflecting on the American system of government 200 years after the Founding Fathers put their system into practice, the political scientist Sheldon Wolin remarked: “the true significance of near gridlock is not that it paralyzes governmental action but that it prevents majority rule.”
Liberal constitutional government is not democratic. It is an anti-political liberal system designed explicitly to frustrate mass democratic political action. It is a massive constitutional collective action problem designed to depoliticize the masses and render cooperative mass political action impossible. Representative government is not meant to represent or fulfill the will of the people, but to keep that people fractured, divided, and incapable of interfering with the rights of private market actors and corporations. It is designed to render them incapable of effectuating political action that transcends the logic of our individualistic rights-based liberal institutional political order.
Representative government was designed to thwart the will of the people.
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