GNot a day goes by lately without some politician, pundit, or other panjandrum calling out a political enemy, or some idea they don’t like, as “a threat to our democracy.” We also see an intensifying fever on the Left to abolish key institutions of our constitutional order—for example, the Electoral College, and the representational structure of the Senate—on the grounds that they are not “democratic” enough.
Meanwhile, others, including the young-adult website Vox, advocate giving children the vote. Why? Because democracy, apparently, is now understood to be such a good thing in and of itself that more of it can only be better. Is your society falling apart? Is factional strife tearing your nation to pieces? Is myopic political unwisdom leading to one ruinous unintended consequence after another? The answer, always, seems to be: more democracy!
It was not always so. Once upon a time, not so long ago, democracy was not an end in itself; it was simply one of many possible means to a much higher aim: good government. It was well understood, moreover, that democracy, over the course of thousands of years, had a track record that was anything but encouraging. Clearly, despite its natural appeal, democracy had dangerous liabilities—and it had inevitably, throughout the centuries, descended into bitter faction, mob rule, and tyranny. As far back as the third century B.C., the Greek historian Polybius had identified a cycle by which this happens—and at the time of the American founding, two thousand years later, it had happened reliably ever since.
Democracy, then, is nothing more than one form of government: one of the possible engineering solutions by which political arrangements can be constructed. (Think of bridges: arch, suspension, cantilever, and truss designs all work fine; the choice of which to build is just a question of terrain, available materials, cost, navigation, and so on.) Now, however, democracy has become something much more than this in the popular imagination—and the understanding that forms of government are not ends in themselves, but are merely possible solutions to a higher-level problem, seems to have been almost completely forgotten.
The democratic form of government now enjoys sacred status, while all others, in the minds of most Westerners, have been harshly and irrevocably deprecated. It is as if we had decided that the box-girder bridge is now the only sort of bridge any decent person should ever consider building, and that we should, moreover, build as many of them as we possibly can.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about all of this is that, under any system of government, sovereignty lies somewhere. (It’s like the bubble under the contact-paper: you can move it around, but it’s always there.) In a monarchy, it lies with the king. A democracy, on the other hand, is just an inverted monarchy: the people are sovereign. The inversion is obvious if you look at the behavior of politicians and courtiers seeking access to the source of power: under monarchies, they flatter and cosset the king, while in democracies they court and fawn over the people. It’s all the same game, though: to gain personal power, cozy up to the sovereign.
There are important differences, nevertheless: unlike the unitary nature of monarchy, in which the sovereignty rests with a single will, the sovereign of a democracy is a diffuse mass, subject to faction and internal strife. Where is the “will” of a congeries of millions of individual citizens?
The American founders, who knew their ancient and modern history, understood all of this. They had no reverence for democracy itself, and were keenly aware of its inherent liabilities—but the natural-law premises of their political philosophy offered no basis for vesting sovereignty, merely by birth, in any individual. (As Jefferson wrote at the end of his life, it wasn’t as if some men are born “booted and spurred”, and others “with saddles on their backs”.) Somehow, the people had to find a way to govern themselves, without collapsing into faction, mob rule, and tyranny.
The framers, then, as they gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to produce a new Constitution, had before them a specification: stable self-government by the consent of the people. To construct it, they had a toolbox containing all the forms of government that had so far been attempted. Finally, they had a specific stock of material to build with: the historically particular people who had settled themselves in the 13 colonies. The problem of the founding, in other words, was an engineering problem. And it was as engineers that they set about designing a solution.
Engineers know several important things. First, they know that there is rarely a perfect solution to any problem. They know also that everything is a tradeoff, and that good solutions are often hybrids of various techniques. They know, moreover, that every type of construction material has its own strengths and weaknesses. And all good engineers know in their bones that the real world, unlike the laboratory, is infinitely mischievous, and will find unforeseen ways to test—and even to break—your design.
The questions facing the Constitutional Convention were stubborn and difficult. Could they design a framework of government that would break Polybius’ great cycle? Was it possible to create some sort of hybrid system that would be stable enough to avoid both mob rule and tyranny? How was it possible to satisfy the natural-law requirements of consent and self-government, which implied democracy, while avoiding the pitfalls of the divided will of the people, and protecting the natural rights of the minority against the predation of the majority? How could the “general will” of the people express itself in the making and execution of law and policy, without being paralyzed by the antagonisms of faction, or rendered hopelessly incoherent and inefficient by the diffusion of a multitude of opinions? How could they knit together thirteen independent nations—for that is what the colonies in effect had become at that point—into a unified whole, despite their broadly divergent cultures, interests, and folkways?
This and much more confronted the delegates to Philadelphia in the sweltering summer of 1787. What emerged from their deliberations was a hybrid design, full of trade offs and compromises. A pure democracy obviously would not do; it would immediately become, in a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch.” This problem affected not only numerical minorities in the population, but also the states themselves: small states would quickly be overwhelmed by big ones. Monarchy wouldn’t do: a key specification for the new government was that sovereignty must rest, somehow, with the people. The new federal government needed to have enough power to carry out its mandates, and to present the new, stitched-together Union to the rest of the world as a coherent whole that other nations could do business with in confidence, while reserving for the individual states all powers that were not clearly required for managing the common interests of the collective.
The constitution that emerged at Philadelphia made a careful and complex balance of all of these competing requirements. Knowing that sovereignty is a zero-sum affair, the framers divided powers into what were intended to be non-overlapping parts, with all powers reserved to the states other than those they had explicitly delegated to the new republic. Because the new arrangement was both a compact between the states and an establishment of the people themselves, both were to be represented in separate and distinct ways.
Because raw democracy was dangerously volatile, and a poor guarantor of natural rights, it had to be leashed and brought to heel. Of the three branches of government, only one half of a single branch—the House of Representatives—was to be directly appointed by popular vote. Because the more populous states could easily overwhelm the smaller ones, the states themselves were to be represented as coequal individuals in the Senate. The president, too, in order to execute the nation’s laws in such a way as to protect the interests of all the members of this new compact, had to be above the fray. So the Electoral College ensured that the individual states, and not just the great clusters of the population, would have their say in his election.
The Constitution itself, meanwhile, needed to be defended from the changing passions of the masses. If it were subject to casual revision by popular whim, it could be of no enduring value. The amendment process, therefore, was made so difficult that any change would have to represent the overwhelming majority of the popular sentiment. The framers made certain here, too, that not just the federal legislature, but a large majority of the states themselves, would have to approve any changes.
Finally, after the great ratification debates of 1787 and 1788, it became clear that, even with all the protections written into the original Constitution, certain fundamental rights had to be put beyond the reach of the shifting moods of popular majorities. These protections were enumerated in the first ten amendments: the Bill of Rights.
This Constitution, then, like all engineered solutions to complex, real-world problems, is a “best effort” construction that sought to address requirements and stubborn realities that often pulled in opposite directions. The final result was not exactly what any of the delegates wanted; indeed three of them, George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, refused to sign it. What it most certainly was not, however, was an instrument of democracy. Had it made pure democracy its priority, it is safe to say the United States of America would have torn itself to pieces, and long ago ceased to exist.
Instead, it was an attempt to design a system whereby a particular sort of people—a proudly self-reliant, moral, and industrious polity, steeped in centuries of British common law, European philosophy, and Judeo-Christian ethical and religious tradition—could govern themselves under ordered liberty, so as to preserve and protect their inalienable natural rights. The form they settled on was that of a confederation of states under a limited, representative republic, granting strictly enumerated powers to a central authority. Democracy was nothing more than one part of that design—a part the structural role of which was itself carefully limited.
Yet here we are, nearly two-and-a-half centuries later. Something has gone terribly wrong. The great edifice that the framers erected in Philadelphia seems on the verge of collapse. All around us we hear that the design itself is to blame: that the problem with the Constitution is that it isn’t democratic enough. The great challenges that faced the delegates in 1787, and the lessons of history and enduring truths of human nature that informed their deliberations, are now understood only by a few—but what everyone now seems to know with unreflective certainty is that democracy itself is sacred: no longer a means, but an end.
What we seem to forget is a thing that the founders knew all too well: that anything we build is only as sturdy as the material out of which it is constructed. The durability of the nation depends upon the quality of its people.
Ask anyone you know why democracy is the only acceptable form of government, and they will be quick to explain: it’s because other forms provide no remedy for corrupt or tyrannical rulers. But as we have seen, in the inverted monarchy we call democracy, the king’s sovereignty rests, instead, with the people. What remedy, then, do democratic systems provide for a corrupt and tyrannical people? What bulwark do we have against that?
The answer is: nothing—nothing at all—but the Constitution. It is only words on paper, but for 242 years it nevertheless has been the bedrock of our public liberty. Beneath it, there is only the abyss.
In these darkening times, then, we should remember the words of Patrick Henry:
“Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel.”