Why the Founding Fathers Wouldn’t Recognize the American Democracy Today
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
[This story was originally published in The Policy on July 21, 2016.]
Factions, political impotence, oligarchy, and the loss of the "common good."
For these two weeks in late July, the Republicans and Democrats hold their conventions as a celebration of American democracy and to coronate their respective nominees for that democracy’s highest office, a quadrennial tradition held dear to the collective heart of the people.
However, as tonight concludes one of these two supposed “celebrations,” there lies a bitter taste in many mouths. The 2016 Republican National Convention has been one of scandal, controversy, division, and “unforced errors.”
The vitriol with which many speakers and attendants in Cleveland have attacked the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is frightening, as she has been mentioned more often than the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Chants have continuously rung out on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena to “lock her up,” as signs that read “Hillary for Prison” are held high.
Many former opponents of Trump, including other primary contenders and conservative pundits in the media, quickly forgot their previous statements condemning the modern-day American Caesar and began singing his praises from the mountaintops. Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Newt Gingrich, and other Republican noblemen took to the RNC stage to throw their support behind Trump.
Rumors have circulated that Donald Trump, Jr. offered to make Ohio Governor John Kasich “the most powerful Vice President in history,” with full latitude on domestic and foreign policy, while Trump, the presidential hopeful, would focus exclusively on “making America great again,” his campaign slogan which, to this point, has not been supported with many concrete policy solutions.
Further, there are numerous anecdotes of state delegates who refuse to toe the party line being physically intimidated, silenced, disrespected, and excluded. The video below, posted on Facebook but originally broadcast live on C-SPAN, shows a woman holding a sign that reads, “No Racism, No Hate,” while onlookers around her repeatedly try to grab the sign out of her hand. Eventually, three suited men, two carrying American flags and all with clearly visible earpieces, surround the woman and cover her with the flags in order to hide her demonstration from view.
Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents; they are part of a broader narrative sweeping the core of American politics, one that the Founding Fathers would not recognize as stemming from their work over two centuries ago.
Let’s not exaggerate historical facts, however, as the Republicans have seen fit to do repeatedly; this narrative is not new for the 2016 election. It is becoming increasing clearer, though, as November creeps ever closer and more is revealed through the election process, that the current state of American politics is one of which the likes of Washington, Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton would not be proud.
American politics has always been founded upon and progressed through discourse of opposing viewpoints. The Founders themselves argued tirelessly over the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the core documents guiding our American democratic experiment. There were always contending ideas for how our government should be organized, and these have continued throughout our history.
However, these arguments were always based on a difference of ideas, of vision. Both sides had the common good in mind, and both recognized that trait in the other side, even if they disagreed on how to best serve it.
As we saw in Cleveland and throughout the previous eight years of political deadlock and polarization, the two parties face each other with very little common ground, each vilifying the other as blind to fact, irresponsible, corrupt, and dangerous, to the point of hatred and isolation in two distinctive and opposing camps. It’s reminiscent of the two scenes in Pocahontas where both the Native Americans and Englishmen paint each other as “savages.”
Looking through the eight years under President Obama, the Republicans in Congress took every opportunity to stonewall any possible legislative achievement for the Democrats and tried sixty times to repeal its hallmark law, the Affordable Care Act, just because they didn’t want their opponents to be able to run on it in the future. They’ve held the government hostage during two debt-ceiling crises, a debilitating budget sequestration, and even shut it down over the federal budget.
Congressional inaction is not new, albeit it more pronounced and drastic in recent memory. However, a trend is apparent that common ground between the two parties was never found, not because it’s not there, but because it was never sought out. President Obama did originally come into office seeking to work with Republicans, but then eventually gave up as it became clear that the Republicans’ top priority was to “deny President Obama a second term,” no matter the cost.
The sheer amount of demonization through misinformation and emotional appeals to the lesser angels of the American people has poisoned the well of American politics, more so than ever before. And it’s not just the Republicans, either. The Democratic National Convention next week will most likely cast Hillary Clinton, its presumptive nominee, as the responsible choice in November and Trump as a demagogue at the head of a party off the tracks which threatens the future of American democracy.
Many voters on both sides of the aisle are not too pleased with the options the two parties have produced; both Clinton and Trump have net negative favorability ratings that are at historic highs, as shown in the snapshot of a CBS News/New York Times poll. They’re almost as bad as Congress’s approval ratings, which currently stand at about 14 percent. Many see going to the voting booth as a decision between two evils rather than two visions for the future common good of our nation.
This is clearly not the representative democracy that the Founders envisioned at the birth of our country. Many in the political arena today use the supposed “Founder’s intentions” and the Constitution as the end-all-be-all of how our government should function; however, there’s hardly any reference in these circles to the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, invaluable time capsules left to us by our forefathers outlining the reasoning behind their actions and the contentious debates they had over them. Surely these essays should be useful in characterizing how the Founders wanted our political system to look and run.
Throughout these documents lie warnings of factious politicians and a shift away from human reason, virtue, and respect in politics as the opposite of the original intentions of our democratic system. They show a defiant commitment to arguing the ideas before them rather than “winning” through the political destruction of their opponents. The arguments each side put forward for their ideas were not “vote for us because we’re not them,” which, in many voters’ minds, is the standard modus operandi today.
Let’s take a look at some excerpts from these documents and see if they would recognize the political system we have today.
In Federalist No. 10, arguably the most famous of the Federalist Papers, James Madison warned of the dangers of factions, which he defined as:
“a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community.”
Looking at the GOP through this lens seems to fit the bill: as Senator McConnell said, they put wall-to-wall obstructionism in Congress over pragmatically finding compromise to better serve the greater common good, and their platform in 2016 includes policy solutions (although few and far between, to be honest) that fails to recognize the full rights of immigrants, Muslims, and members of the LGBTQ community. Trump has built his campaign around “making America great again” and getting rid of those who he deems to be wrong or un-American.
Madison argued that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” There are a multitude of different methods, he observes, by which faction can arise in a people:
“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for preeminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.”
However, Madison didn’t leave it there, stating that a responsible government must recognize this fact and work to mediate the two sides into one cohesive whole:
“The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.”
We’ve seen this compromise and mediation, admittedly to varying degrees, throughout American history; our democratic system has worked, up to this point, to keep factions in check. And, when one grows to be too domineering in its own right, there are supposed to be checks in the system to stem its rise for the good of the country:
“If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution.”
The hostile takeover of the Republican Party by an insurgent this year did not receive such checks, as the regular vote in the primaries failed to provide any roadblocks against Trump’s path to the nomination. And the Constitution has been the light seemingly guiding much of the rhetoric coming from the political right, even as it obstructed the functions of government and now has nominated a man who has wholeheartedly disregarded portions of the document in his speeches and his “positions.”
The Federalists argued for one collective Union rather than thirteen confederated states, as the greater the number of voters was supposed to defend against such insurgencies:
“…as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens…it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages (sic) of the people being more free, will be more likely to center in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.”
Trump supporters have been unabashed in their disregard for the gigantic amount of baggage and scandal that he carries with him, just as those in the Clinton camp wave away talk of her character through things such as Benghazi, Whitewater, and her private email server. Clearly, the “suffrages of the people” this year did not produce the type of candidates the Founders had originally envisioned to be competing for the highest office in our federal system.
They also underestimated the national appeal of a candidate like Trump:
“The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.”
The Founders also envisioned a less stratified and unequal country and political system than what we see today.
Federalist No. 57, also written by Madison, was titled “The Alleged Tendency of the New Plan [read: the Constitution] to Elevate the Few at the Expense of the Many.” It mostly focused on arguments for and against the structure of the House of Representatives, but it provides some insight into the type of political representation the Founders wanted for the American people:
“Whilst the objection itself is levelled (sic) against a pretended oligarchy, the principle of it strikes at the very root of republican government. The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”
As if we needed to look any further than the millionaires in Congress, the vast amount of lobbying firms throwing enormous amounts of money around, the Citizens United era, and the predominate representation of only three law schools on the Supreme Court for evidence that the United States is beholden to the rich elite, a study was released in 2014 that provided solid scientific evidence to back up the claim:
“Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
And, as for the wisest and most virtuous rulers, there are numerous examples to the contrary, including both Trump and Clinton.
What did the Founders have to say about the urge to move towards an oligarchy in America? Madison wrote the following:
“If it be asked, what is to restrain the House of Representatives [and, by extension, the federal government] from making legal discriminations (sic) in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society? I answer: the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly script which actuates the people of America, a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it. If this spirit shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature, as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate anything but liberty…Duty, gratitude, interest, ambition itself, are the chords by which [elected officials] will be bound to fidelity and sympathy with the great mass of the people.”
Anti-Federalist No. 3 also warned against this tendency:
“Where the government is lodged in the body of the people…they can never be corrupted; for no prince, or people, can have resources enough to corrupt the majority of a nation; and if they could, the play is not worth the candle. The facility of corruption is increased in proportion as power tends by representation or delegation, to a concentration in the hands of a few…”
The majority of our nation, unfortunately, has become corrupted, as we’ve come to disregard the repeated warnings of those to whom we owe our political system as we complacently accept that against which they warned us, two hundred years before us.
We accept that the rancorous rhetoric of our day is normal; that the space between Democrats and Republicans is expansive and intractable, impossible to bridge; that we deserve to simply between the “lesser of two evils” cycle after tiresome cycle; that political impotence is a permissible tactic; that money and power are inherently interwoven together; that debate over the issues and specifics of a proposed policy and compromise is to be weak, out of step, submissive.
If the Founders could see what we’ve done to their creation, a pioneering work of intentionality, diligence, and compromise, they wouldn’t recognize it as their ideological offspring. It’s the illegitimate child, unfamiliar to its parents.