Our nation’s Founders understood a singular truth about human nature. No single person — or group of persons — could be fully trusted with power. As John Adams noted, “My opinion is, and always has been, that absolute power intoxicates alike despots, monarchs, aristocrats, and democrats.” Indeed, distrust of democracy helped animate the Founders’ push for a republic. James Madison, writing in Federalist No. 10, stated his concerns bluntly:
Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
In other words, there is nothing magical or inherently virtuous about the “will of the people.” The people are just as capable of error, just as capable of becoming tyrants, as any tin-pot dictator.
Thus, the Founders gave us a republic, if — as Ben Franklin is alleged to have admonished — we can keep it. Every branch of government checks the other. The people check the government. The Constitution is supreme over all, protecting our core civil liberties from the will of the majority and from the abuse of the rulers. At its heart, the entire system depends on the understanding that no person is above the law.
But no government — no matter how wisely constructed — can long survive in the absence of at least some degree of human courage and conviction. People who abuse power can be stopped only by other people who have the authority and responsibility to defend our liberties and our way of life. And, yes, sometimes that means standing in front of democracy to preserve the principles of the republic.
In 2012, Chief Justice John Roberts had the opportunity to do just that. He faced an extraordinary federal power-grab — with the national government for the first time in American history requiring individuals to purchase a consumer product. The stakes were undeniably high. The most consequential social program since the Great Society was hanging in the balance, and if Roberts helped strike it down, he’d not only affect tens of millions of citizens, it was possible that he could turn a presidential election.
He punted to the people. He was unwilling to undo the work of their elected representatives.
In 2016, FBI director James Comey faced a different choice, but one with similarly high stakes. Evaluating the actions of the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States, he could have applied the plain language of the governing statute to her reckless treatment of classified information. But if he had, in all likelihood, he would have upended the Democratic primary, and he might also have turned the presidential election itself.
He punted to the people, laying out the case for accountability without holding Clinton herself accountable.
#share#I thought of these actions — or failures to act — as the Republican delegates faced their own fateful decision at the GOP convention. Would they hand the Party of Lincoln to a man who makes a mockery of the party’s founding principles as well as the character of its founder? Would they fulfill their intended roles as actual leaders of one of America’s two great political parties — as guardians not only of its electoral prospects but also of its values and ideals?
They punted to a plurality of the people.
Not everyone, of course. There was some brave dissent, and to the extent the party survives as a viable (and valuable) American political force, it will rebuild around those dissidents. Yet as I watched men and women chanting for Donald Trump, I thought of the second part of that John Adams quote, in which he diagnoses what happens when democracies start to fail, when the people start to reject the world they made. They turn to a savior:
They soon cry, “This will not do; we have gone too far! We are all in the wrong! We are none of us safe! We must unite in some clever fellow, who can protect us all, — Caesar, Bonaparte, who you will! Though we distrust, hate, and abhor them all; yet we must submit to one or another of them, stand by him, cry him up to the skies, and swear that he is the greatest, best, and finest man that ever lived!”
In other words, when the guardrails crumble, the call for the strong man echoes the loudest. Make America Safe Again. Make America Work Again. Make America Great Again. Get on the Trump Train, citizens. Daddy’s home.