Both Sides Now: Too Much Democracy, or Too Little?

Our nation was founded on a central desire for democracy. Nonetheless, some of the Founders worried from the beginning that too much democracy could be as bad as no democracy at all. A push and pull between the yearning for majority rule and a fear that popular whims could overwhelm our system continues today. This week, we examine two recent articles with differing opinions on who controls American politics — an angry mob or elites — and what shade of democratic government is right for our future.

Too Much Democracy

In “America is Living James Madison’s Nightmare,” Jeffrey Rosen argues that American politics has been overtaken by mob rule. He invokes the fourth American president, James Madison, who felt strongly that our new nation should improve upon earlier versions of democracy by building institutions that would foster deliberation, calm, and reason. Unfortunately, these institutions never functioned as well as Madison hoped, writes Rosen. One example is the Electoral College, which, “envisioned as a group of independent sages, became little more than a rubber stamp for the presidential nominees of the newly emergent political parties.” Political parties, which Rosen credits with uniting diverse constituencies in the 19th century, later became forces of intense partisanship that inflame public discourse.

In Rosen’s assessment, we see the mob reflected in our elected officials, whether through our staunchly divided modern Congress or “pandering” presidents who make “emotional appeals” directly to voters. Their heated language is then amplified by a polarized media and on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where people are more likely to share inflammatory posts than reasoned arguments.

Other innovations in favor of the majority further accelerated mob rule, says Rosen. The direct election of senators, the ballot initiative process, and direct presidential primaries — all favor popular passions over thoughtful deliberation.

Where does this leave us? Beholden to “impetuous majorities,” says Rosen. In other words, our efforts to give ordinary people a louder voice in the public process has made our nation ungovernable. Intervention by wiser, cooler heads could help, and we should start by limiting the influence of social networks and improving civic education.

Not Enough Democracy

In “The Threat to Democracy Isn’t Coming from Its People,” Jamelle Bouie writes that the notion of “too much democracy” is unfounded. The U.S. isn’t being held hostage by a populist majority; in fact, it was a minority of voters that elected our current president and have a stranglehold on our most pressing public policy matters.

Bouie notes that President Trump lost the popular vote, with 53 percent of voters rejecting him at the ballot box. And while large majorities of voters support policies like comprehensive immigration reform and universal background checks for gun purchases, a minority of opponents to those solutions has kept them from being enacted.

Further, writes Bouie, the notion that political parties ever managed to unite people is fiction. American politics in the 19th century frequently inspired violence, and not just during elections — in 1856, a member of the House of Representatives entered the Senate chamber and beat Senator Charles Sumner unconscious over a disagreement about slavery. That’s not exactly finding common ground.

What’s actually at stake, says Bouie, is the declining influence of elites. A focus on measures like limiting social networks and improving civic education implies that Americans need direction from “wealthy citizens with a vested interest in defending existing institutions” rather than institutions that uphold what the majority wants. By this token, we need more democracy, not less, and more people engaged in the process.

To Learn More:

New York Times: Ballot Initiatives at the Local Level (June 18, 2013)

National Constitution Center: The controversy over the direct election of Senators by Jonathan Stahl (April 8, 2016)

The Economist: Against the tyranny of the majority (August 4, 2018)

Vox: The tyranny of the majority isn’t a problem in America today. Tyranny of the minority is. by Dylan Matthews (September 12, 2018)