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american republicMy good friend, Bruce Frohnen, poses a question (“An isolated, but not Pacifist, query“) that I take the liberty to reformulate as follows: Aren’t the American people — whom I had held up as our best hope for putting an end to mindless imperialism (“Nisbet, War, and the American Republic“) — really to blame for the mess we are in today? After all, we are a republic in which, off at the end, the people rule. If our rulers get out of line it’s up to the people to set matters straight through elections.

His question is, I confess at once, a critical one. I want to attempt an answer by way of pointing to certain mitigating factors that bear directly on the culpability of the people and even raise the crucial question of whether they can exercise control.

(a) One of the virtues of our system, at least as it was originally “sold,” is that there are safeguards against precipitous, oppressive actions. If we are to take Madison at his word, the main safeguards are not institutional in nature. Rather, as we can see from Federalist essays nos. 10 and 51, the major barrier is the multiplicity and diversity of interests found in the extended republic. It was anticipated that the process of majority formation among these diverse and multiple interests would be difficult and time consuming, particularly with respect to progress toward convergence on any unjust or oppressive measure. A second safeguard was the belief on Madison’s part at least, that the voters would choose “fit characters” –virtuous, civic-minded individuals — to represent them. The extended republic, he maintained, at a minimum offered a wider choice of fit characters from which to choose and he thought the people would take advantage of this. To be sure, Madison and others looked upon the Senate as an institution that could delay oppressive or ill-conceived measures that might come to it from the House, hopefully providing enough time for the people to regain their good senses.

There are at least two significant things to note about this approach. First, it conforms with Schumpeter’s understanding of democratic government; that is, the main function of elections is not to decide matters of policy, but rather to select those, the representatives, who will. This, I believe, was the way the Framers wanted it. At least I think it clear that they did not anticipate a continuous parade of popular majorities from issue to issue dictating to their representatives. Nor has our system operated in this fashion. V.O. Key (one of the more sensible “behaviorists”) in his extensive study of public opinion found that seldom could it be regarded as “decisive,” i.e., as demanding a specific policy or course of action by government.


A second point is that the presumed benefits of the system are “one-way” benefits. By this I mean the built-in safeguards relate to the processes of enacting of laws; they serve to slow the process down and to provide the opportunity for deliberation before final action is taken. By the same token, as Madison acknowledges in Federalist no. 63, if an unjust or ill-conceived measure does somehow make it through the hurdles of the extended republic, it will also take some time to correct the situation. I think in this regard matters have turned out to be worse than Madison envisioned. One, for instance, would be hard pressed to identify the repeal of any program or policy that confers benefits or privileges on certain sectors of the population, no matter how wasteful, worthless, and inefficient they may prove to be. Such measures by their mere passage frequently create interests that are not easily overcome. (Think, e.g., English as a second language programs, Department of Education.)

(b) How does this bear upon Bruce Frohnen’s query? The safeguards more or less built in our system are inoperative when it come our interventionist policies that have proved so catastrophic. Presidents can make lasting commitments almost on the spur of the moment; they can readily position themselves in ways I indicated in my prior post to unilaterally commit this nation to war, even to the extent of launching a preventive war. The deliberative processes for these commitments are, to say the least, quite different from those associated with domestic legislation. Moreover, the people, subject as they are to lies, distortions, and deceptions, are hardly in any position to exercise control. But this is not all. Once the deed is done, once the president acts, other intimidating forces come into play, not the least of these being the Neanderthal patriots.

But the question then becomes, why can’t the people, once they clear their heads, exercise their sovereign prerogatives? To begin with, to do so they must face up to the hurdles of the extended republic that I noted above. This by itself will be difficult, but our leaders, those who have committed the nation to war, aren’t going to be very helpful in this process. In fact, they will constitute an additional obstacle that must be dealt with. Partisan considerations will come into play, wherein the president’s party can be expected to support his policies. (What is astonishing to me is that with few exceptions the Republicans in Congress followed Bush II right off the cliff.) Moreover, among other things, there is a momentum to war that is also extremely difficult to overcome. The Democrats encountered this when they took control of Congress thinking they were going to wind down the Iraq War.

In sum, it is extremely difficult for ordinary citizens to get a clear picture of what is going, and even if they do, they still have enormous obstacles to overcome in order to exercise any control.

Other factors come into play. Our politicians play their roles against the backdrop of politically apathetic and ignorant public. I mean no criticism in this: most people have other interests and pursuits. For this reason, though, it takes a good deal to arouse the public. Couple this with the fact that the costs of our interventions are not widely felt in the population, being largely confined to member in the voluntary military and their families, and it is not difficult to account for the lack of popular intervention and control today. What is more, our media sanitizes the war; we don’t see the carnage, misery, and destruction. (Wikileak scares the hell out of the establishment.)

(c) What conclusions or observations seem to be called for. Here are a few. First, recall the key role representatives or “fit characters” were to play in our system? Well, forget about that. They should be our first line of defense. Instead, they are a problem. Second, we would do well to devise some safeguards that would control our presidents, not only with regard to their war-making powers but also in those areas where they claim unilateral powers. And don’t be deceived by Professor Yoo about the Founders’ conception of presidential powers. Third, with Professor Birzer (“Westward, the Loss of the Republic”), I am concerned whether we can rightfully be called a republic. As far as I can see, the increasing incapacity of our national government to govern is probably due to the republic being far too extensive with too many divergent interests. In modern times we have never really faced up to one of the questions uppermost in the minds of the Anti-Federalists: How extensive can a republic be and still be a republic? This leads to my final observation by way of addressing Professor Frohnen’s question. We should cut the people some slack. It is highly questionable for reasons I have set forth whether they can exercise sovereign power. This is an additional and weighty reason for questioning whether we are still a republic. It may well be that, upon reflection, what I regarded previously to be our last and best hope is really a lost hope. Thanks, Bruce.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Brilliant, George. You have reminded me, in this post, of the important work you've done (alone and with Willmoore Kendall) on American politics. I think, though, that you remain too easy on the American people (you are not pessimistic enough–surprise!). Yes, it is true that Presidents have seized power, and it is difficult for the people to "take it back." But the decline of our constitutional morality, as you have termed it, is in large measure caused by a people that demands too much loot and protection from government and too little virtue from the governors. In the end, rule by consent means people end up with the government they deserve, or at least that is naturally produced by their own demands. Wow, now I'm depressed. Thanks, George.

  2. It's interesting reading this right after reading Mr. Frohnen's fine essay in First Things.

    While it's true that under almost any kind of regime (except perhaps one so totalitarian, and so efficient, it might well have both the will and the way to machine-gun all its citizens, a la maybe North Korea) one can blame "the people" for tolerating the kind of regime they labor under. And while it's also true that to a goodly degree the American people can be blamed for what besets them now in our government, there's something else at work too I think.

    That is, one thing I think (understandably) overlooked in Mr. Frohnen's fine essay on the Supreme Court is how the *function* of the Court has come to be misplaced—in my opinion at least. For a long time now not just observers but the Court itself to a significant degree has viewed the central role of the Court as supposedly protecting individual rights. And, not surprisingly, that's become the popular understanding too in large if not overwhelming measure.

    However, it seems to me an even more … supreme role for the Court was probably to at the very least make sure that the rest of government ran the way the Framers intended. In a way … saying that in Marbury v. Madison Justice Marshall was straining after a gnat talking about having the power to strike down mere laws, when it might have been observed that it may well have been entirely reasonable on the part of the Founders to perceive that the *only* reason to create the Court wasn't so much to "balance" the other two branches but to keep them strictly within their constitutional roles and keep them strictly accountable and responsive to the democratic system the Founders had otherwise created.

    Of course the Court was mostly constitutionally moribund for most of its early life, but it seems to me when it did speak constitutionally it spoke of big big institutional things.

    Now, however, it has so maneuvered itself so that it and the rest of the federal judiciary will spill untold gallons of ink every session about whether a cop, for instance, can search a glove compartment in this, that or the other situation, but will react in horror to the idea of ruling on really fundamental things. For instance, to take perhaps the most fundamental, I don't think anyone disagrees that the Court would probably almost never agree to really rule on what constitutes a "declaration of war" under the Constitution even, or whether we are really validly at a war under the document. "The 'Political Question Doctrine!'" it would no doubt scream, dumping the challenge and anxious to go back to parsing whether a jail cell kept at 69 degrees instead of 70 is "cruel and unusual" punishment.

    As a result and at least to my mind this has left the other two branches to run in a veritable open field when it comes to devising ways to aggrandize power, and yet avoid responsibility. And yet the political and not the judicial process is really where the fount of our fortunes are forged or lost.

    Seems to me the problem is that the Framers were simply wrong in believing that if they gave lifetime tenure to judges the judiciary would really be separate from the rest of the Leviathan. Clearly they don't feel that way. Better perhaps to have had fixed, rotating term limits on justices, and prohibiting them from ever serving in any other branch of the gov't thereafter.

    Just my two cents….

  3. Excellent post. Some thoughts:

    These checks themselves have been dismantled by the same people – You cite the Senate before the 17th amendment made it a different creature. And around that time it was believed by the people that a constitutional amendment was required to ban alcohol.

    Also the costs have been postponed into a future (though not that far away) economic cataclysm. We issue debt to pay contractors instead of having more soldiers since that would require conscription. It also applies to the corrupt laws and subsidies. Right now it is a swarm of mosquitoes, no one of which is irritation enough to drain the swamp. But that cannot continue.

    Yet Madison and company were prophetic – the constitution only works for a moral people, and in our sloth, gluttony, greed, and pride, we deserve the government we have. There is apathy, but those who do vote (particularly in the primary where it can make a difference) usually are looking for someone who promises not liberty or even wise governance, but to game the system to cheat in their favor.

    And it is not so much policy as vision, or perhaps there is a better word. Whether the government will be small and precise using a scalpel to calibrate law, or become invasive and expansive and use a machete is not policy per-se.

    Government has become the idol where we sacrifice liberty and treasure, and it is supposed to satisfy whatever our whimsical desires ask of it. A vending machine. If it could actually do that, it would be good for it to be really big. The problem is it cannot – the sacrifices are made, but the deus ex vending machina fails to deliver. Or will break from debt collapse or hyperinflation.

    But if you go back to Wilson, it was a time of progress – Freud (mis) understanding the mind, Henry Ford and the card, Marconi's wireless, Edison and Tesla… They thought man could solve everything. Yes it was an error, but not one easily refuted. Nor is it quickly and obviously exposed (the USSR took a long time to collapse).

    And this is where the true conservatism lies – that there are principles in the nature of man that argue for small government – even a very corrupt small and remote government will be less evil than a slightly corrupt but large and invasive one because of its limited effects. A 50% corrupt government affecting 2% o f my life is better than a 4% corrupt one affecting 50%. Although I would agree with the Libertarians on fundamental principles to keep government small, the practical reasons are from the (paleo-)conservative side.

    But it is hard to convince people that those who have good intentions and say they are working to help are eventually going to end up doing evil, or that government is an intrinsically evil means which cannot be used to promote good ends. At least until something blows up. It takes a few generations to forget, and usually another new era where it seems we can solve everything…

  4. Mr. Carey,

    Yours are significant comments, well expressed. Yes, the USA is too big to be either efficient or truly representative. Many people, right and left, now refer to the overgrown, out-of-control system that governs us as an empire. The people are being bled by an unresponsive, alien, all-controlling bureaucracy, and they've had enough.

    If conservatism recognizes that unchanging truths about mankind must be reflected in our political and social systems, then, like the Founders, it's time we recognized that the present system must be junked as the millstone that it is, and that smaller, more human-scaled political organizations must replace it.

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