If you want to annoy a conservative pedant, describe the United States as a “democracy.” Tut-tut: Not a democracy, a republic.
The distinction is important, not least because the best features of the American system of government — the Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court, the pre–17th Amendment Senate, the filibuster, the congressional committee system — are not only undemocratic but, to varying degrees, antidemocratic. It does not matter a whit whether 1 percent of the voting public or 99.9 percent of the voting public supports freedom of the press or due-process requirements: These protections are built into the Constitution because they are unpopular, not in spite of it.
The antidemocratic features of the American order are linked to the Founding Fathers’ belief that the fundamental rights of men come not from states — even representative states — but from God, and hence are unalienable. And unalienable means unalienable: by one man, by a dozen men, by a million, by a majority, by a supermajority, by a unanimous vote. This arrangement constituted, at the time, a rather extreme expression of ideological liberalism, which was foisted upon the people by — oh, pardon me for noticing! — the elites. Mr. Jefferson’s hifalutin francophilia and Mr. Madison’s Princeton-cultivated dread of popular passions shaped our founding documents, not the earthy wisdom of the Pennsylvania farmer, however hard-won.
Madison’s favored adjective for destructive democratic enthusiasms was “spiteful,” and it was with political spite in mind that he sought to limit the opportunities for mob-ocracy. This was why he sought to give the federal government “compleat authority” in inherently national questions, such as trade and immigration, lest the states “harrass each other with rival and spiteful measures dictated by mistaken views of interest.” But the states are not the only entities that seek to harass and disadvantage one another through fights over trade policy and immigration, which of course brings us to our current political moment.
Political parties are mentioned nowhere in the Constitution, but for most of our history they played an essential role in moderating those spiteful popular passions that so worried Madison and other founders, including John Adams, who described “democracy” as a system that soon “murders itself.” In our modern political discourse, we hear a great deal of lamentation about deals made in “smoke-filled rooms,” but in fact that horse-trading led to some pretty good outcomes. Vicious demagogues such as Donald Trump and loopy fanatics such as Bernie Sanders were kept from the levers of power with a surprisingly high degree of success. Sure, you got the Corrupt Bargain and Teapot Dome, but you didn’t have unfunded welfare liabilities equal to the value of literally (literally, Mr. Vice President!) all the money in the world.
The difference between the American system and European parliamentary systems, it has been remarked, is that we form our coalitions before elections, while the Europeans form their coalitions after elections. The parties — and the dreaded “establishments” that ran them — helped make that happen. There is, after all, no deep reason why the gay-marriage voters and the Teamsters ought to be in the same party, but the Democrats found ways to make them work together. Likewise the free-trade voters and the immigration reformers on the right.
#share#It is a little ironic that at the very moment when railing against the “establishment” of either party is so very fashionable, the parties are in fact shells of what they once were. To the extent that there is a Republican-party establishment, it plainly does not have the power to, e.g., call down anathema upon a potential Republican-party presidential nominee. The day before yesterday, Marco Rubio was the anti-establishment, tea-party insurgent; today he is the establishment, if the doggie-treat salesmen on the radio are to be believed. If that leads you to believe that the word “establishment” does not actually mean anything, you are correct.
It was democracy that did the parties in, of course. One of the harebrained progressive reforms foisted upon our republic is the so-called open primary, which amounts to something close to the abolition of political parties as such. If anybody can vote in the Republican primary — Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green, independent, etc. — then membership in the party does not mean very much, and, hence, the party itself does not mean very much. Instead of two main political parties, we have two available channels for the communication of populist spite; the parties themselves are mere conveniences for political entrepreneurs and demagogues. Trump might as easily have run as a Democrat — he is a longtime supporter of Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, and he raves about the wonderful things the butchers at Planned Parenthood do — but the opening was more attractive on the R side.
The Progressives weren’t monsters, and they did not intend to unleash demagoguery on the republic. But they did.
The Progressives weren’t monsters, and they did not intend to unleash demagoguery on the republic. But they did. They believed that a stronger central state could be tamed by making it more democratic, and hence more accountable. The same line of thinking was applied to the parties: Not only would open primaries make the parties more accountable, but they would make them more moderate, too, as though moderation for its own sake were worthwhile. There’s a bit of irony in that: The open-primary system was pushed by, among others, the Republican-party establishment in the Northeast, as a way of bringing in more voters to dilute the influence of ascendant conservatives. Changes in the media, new communication technology, the rise of the ever-more-imperial presidency, and the increasing subjugation of the states to Mr. Madison’s beloved central power have combined to make our national institutions much more democratic, in the worst sense of that word, and hence more vulnerable to demagoguery, with the results that we see before us.
The political parties are not public agencies. We have constitutional guarantees of freedom of association, and the parties ought to be able to simply reject a candidate. They might not be able to simply select a nominee, but they could exercise, with complete propriety, a veto power. Under such a system, Trump would be free to run for president in any manner he saw fit, but not under the Republican banner, unless the Republican party itself consented. As it stands, the parties supply enormous quantities of infrastructure that can be hijacked by practically anybody, including a batty real-estate heir with a seven-word vocabulary who doesn’t know how a bill becomes a law.
If the alternative to vicious demagoguery is back-room deals negotiated by party insiders, then bring on the back-room deals.