“In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason.” – James Madison, co-author, The Constitution and The Federalist Papers
In 1786, a Massachusetts tax protest revealed our central government lacked authority when it took a private state militia to put an end to Shays’ Rebellion. This demonstrated the need for reforming our central government. James Madison and George Washington reacted by scheduling a meeting with founders to update the Articles of Confederation. They mutually realized updating the Articles would not be easy and called the colonies to send delegates to Philadelphia Hall to deliberate the rewriting of the Articles. And this was the defining moment that would change the course of history.
James Madison, a lawyer and a philosopher, was our most theoretical founder and is the primary author of our Constitution. He spent years analyzing past democracies in order to gain the insight to write a document that would protect the independent states and create a central government. He studied the past democracies of Rome and Athens to draft a constitution that sheltered us from the fate that brought down past republics. He concluded: the recurring theme that destroyed every past democracy was that each “succumbed to demagoguery from misfits, and crumbled from mob rule.”
Madison learned that ambitious politicians persuaded Athenians to protest debt and rebel against law and order. He said “renegade assemblymen” encouraged mob violence and forced Solon to cancel debt and debase the currency. Shays’ Rebellion convinced him America would fall prey to mob rule if it had a government similar to Athens. He told other founders: “When a band of debtors can force the abolition of debt, and equal division of property, a mob can destroy the government by populist rage.” If Madison’s view of history is discriminative, America is proving history does repeat itself.
Madison’s ideal government was a representative republic rather than a pure democracy to protect us from mob rule. By keeping the “mischief of factions” from distorting public policy, he believed that a conclave of enlightened delegates, chosen by the people, would serve us best. Since these wise and patriotic men would be our voice, this would prevent “misfits” from disrupting the governing of our nation. The people would therefore carefully choose who would work in their best interests.
During the first Congress, the devices our founders created to prevent coalitions of majorities from disrupting government didn’t work. Their greatest failure was not anticipating the development of political parties. By the early 1800s, the Electoral College became a rubber stamp for candidates that political parties wanted; not the people. Politicians undermined true Constitutional objectives with populist reforms. These included the direct election of senators, the popular-ballot initiative, direct primaries and party caucuses dictating law that favored their party but violated the rights of others.
Madison feared that Congress would be the most dangerous branch of the federal government.
Since Congress wrote the republic’s laws, it could easily over-power the other branches if citizens did not prudently manage those they elected. But by the 20th Century, not only did Madison’s worst nightmare come true, the Supreme Court had become politically divided too. The court struck down federal laws only twice in its first six decades. Since then they’ve nullified more than 250 laws. The Supreme Court is no longer the guardian of the Constitution. It’s known as ‘the court of last resort.”
If we consider today’s dysfunctional Congress, with a House filled with combative socialists and leftist progressives, is there any hope of returning to Madison’s majority rule for the people rather than political passion? Don’t hold your breath.
Avenging political self-sorting has produced voters and politicians who support the party line at all costs. The defining congressional achievements of Barack Obama’s Obamacare and Donald Trump’s tax cuts were passed with nary a vote from the minority parties.
“People are tired of seeing politicians as all talk and no action.” – Donald Trump
Perhaps it is an irony that James Madison once said: “For the people to rule wisely, they must be free to think and speak without fear of reprisal.” The Internet has allowed geographically dispersed citizens to isolate themselves into “parallel factions” and communicate with like-minded proletariats. This enables them to contravene political demagoguery and support mutinous politicians who share their dissenting beliefs. The once “information highway” that educated people on everything from A to Z has turned into a forum that spreads misinformation and fosters turbulent political partisanship.
The passions of split-second-decision hyper-partisanship and mob rule that Madison feared from direct democracy is exponentially greater today than ever in our history. Agitated groups of political bird dogs praise the actions of renegade members of Congress on a national social stage. And this encourages those hell-bent on destroying every rule of law and order in our Constitution to spout ludicrously nonsensical rhetoric.
“The core structure within America and the entire Department of Homeland Security are huge threats to American civil liberties.” – Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
A recent Emerson law study examined the impact of social media on democracy. They noted the most salient problem with these sites is the “clickbait” postings. Sensational captions are used to lure users to open up headlines that have nothing to do with the content of the article in question. Over 90 percent of these “got yas” are never read past the headlines. But the damage has been done as Facebook addicts share them along with their conspicuous comments. These rumors quickly turn into social media fact. This “mischief of factions” has made Madison’s greatest nightmare a reality.
Federalism continues to be the most robust equalizer in Madison’s democratic equation. It steadily promotes ideological diversity; both good and bad. Currently, the combination of low voter turnout and political extremism has favored very liberal candidates. Those who “say the most un-American things” and are least qualified for public service end up as candidates by default. The safe districts created by geographic political self-sorting allow these extremists to easily win the general election.
“Democratic socialists have begun a political revolution to transform America.”– Bernie Sanders
Madison wrote, “We need a plan of education that embraces every citizen.” The only way to return to Madison’s ideal republic is to fix public education. Madison identified constitutional education as the most important element in maintaining true republicanism. He told us when past republics quit teaching citizens about the “dangerous encroachments on public liberty by ambitious politicians,” the people allowed politicians to run government instead of them. And that’s what caused it to fail.
The future of America depends on public education. If we do not return to teaching our youth about the dangers of political radicalism and the merits of republicanism, the efforts of Madison and other founders that gave us the liberties we enjoy today will become lost chapters in history. Our republic is at a dangerous crossroads. If we don’t make the right turn, James Madison’s greatest nightmare will forever haunt us.
“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” – James Madison
William Haupt III is a contributing columnist for The Center Square. He is a retired professional journalist, author, and citizen legislator in California for over 40 years. He got his start working to approve California Proposition 13.