If there was one idea shared by just about every author of the Constitution, it was the one articulated by James Madison at the convention on June 26, 1787.
The mass of the people would be susceptible to “fickleness and passion,” he warned. They would suffer from “want of information as to their true interest.” Those who must “labour under all the hardships of life” would “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings.” Over time, as the population expanded and crowded into cities, the risk would only worsen that “the major interest might under sudden impulses be tempted to commit injustice on the minority.”
To protect property from the people—and ultimately, the people from themselves—the Framers would have to erect “a necessary fence” against “impetuous councils.” A Senate to counterbalance the House of Representatives, selected from a more elite few and serving for longer terms, would be one such fence. The indirect election of the president through an Electoral College would be another. A federal judiciary confirmed by the Senate and serving for life would provide one more. And so on through the constitutional design.
The system of government in the United States has evolved in many important ways since 1787. But the mistrust of unpropertied majorities—especially urban unpropertied majorities—persists. In no other comparably developed society is voting as difficult; in no peer society are votes weighted as unequally; in no peer society is there a legislative chamber where 41 percent of the lawmakers can routinely outvote 59 percent, as happens in the U.S. Senate.
This system is justified today with the same arguments as when it was established a quarter millennium ago. “We’re not a democracy,” tweeted Senator Mike Lee of Utah in October. Lee explained his meaning in a second tweet that crammed Madisonian theory into fewer than 280 characters. “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and [prosperity] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
American anti-majoritarians have always promised that minority privilege will deliver positive results: stability, sobriety, the security of the public debt, and tranquil and peaceful presidential elections. But again and again, those promises have proved the exact opposite of reality. In practice, the privileged minority has shown itself to be unstable and unsober. [Continue reading…]