It is hard not to lose faith in our capacity for self-government at times like these. When the mob makes the worst kind of headlines and hack politicians spew falsehoods and cynical arguments to appease its unfounded grievances, one cannot help but question whether we’re up to the task. But it’s worth remembering that American self-government is designed to prevent the whims and ignorance of the mob from carrying the day.
Perhaps the violent outburst on January 6 — and those still to come — will remind us of the wisdom that the Founders held dear centuries ago: We are a republic, not a direct democracy, and we’d best act like it.
We’ve all seen the disconcerting videos of deluded Americans verbally accosting politicians in public. Prior to the violence at the Capitol, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah was deemed a “traitor” by soon-to-be insurrectionists at the airport and on the plane en route to Washington. After the riot was over and Congress had certified Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, politicians such as Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Representative Lou Correa (D., Calif.) were angrily confronted by Trump loyalists as they made their way home from D.C. “No it’s not a democracy! This is a republic! This is a republic!” one man screamed at Correa, apparently unaware of the irony.
As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, a republic is a form of government “in which the scheme of representation takes place.” Madison recounted how flawed “popular government” had proven historically: “The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” In lamenting the historic inability of popular governments to “break and control the violence of faction,” Madison held forth a republican form of representative government as a way to square the circle: Without rebuking the basic logic of popular sovereignty, a republic could introduce a bit of reasoned reflection into the governing process, mitigating the dangerous popular passions that dominate purely democratic systems.
For Madison, wedding the republican form of government to the nation’s extensive slice of physical territory was the antidote to the well-known vices of direct democracy. While there would still be a danger of representatives of “factious tempers” and “sinister designs” leading their constituents astray, the hope was that “the delegation of the government . . . to a small number of citizens elected by the rest” would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
Madison and his fellow Founders gifted us this republic, but we will fail to heed Ben Franklin’s charge to “keep it” if our representatives persist in treating it like a pure democracy. Those entrusted with great political power cannot act as mere vessels of public opinion; they are tasked with leadership, with refining the views of their constituents.
Voters have lives to lead, jobs to keep, and families to feed. They are not meant to live and breathe politics. So it makes sense that their opinions on public affairs — while often quite reasonable at heart — may be rather rough around the edges and misguided in certain important respects. The role of the elected representative is to harmonize the interests and passions of his constituents with the dictates of reason and the common good. This requires a certain independence of mind and spirit, as well as a hefty dose of prudence. In the famous words of Edmund Burke: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
A republic cannot persist if our elected representatives fail to summon the requisite reason and courage to exercise judgment. The violence at the Capitol was a wake-up call: It’s time we stopped forsaking the virtues of republicanism for the vices of direct democracy.