Over at the other site at which I blog—Josh Mercer’s wonderfully edited and directed Catholic Vote—Joseph Bottum has a nice and brief post on the current implosive whirligig in Wisconsin. Ok, quick caveat—it’s happening in Madison which is certainly not the same thing as Wisconsin. It would be like stating that what happens in Austin is the same as what happens in all of Texas. In Texas, these would be fightin’ words [right, Winston?].
But, back to Wisconsin. . . .
This Is What Democracy Looks Like, say the signs, and this line seems to be the favorite in the sweepstakes for most ubiquitous slogan in the Wisconsin protests. (A nice timeline of which just appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal). Can I just say—you know, just to get it off my chest before the irritation makes me explode—that this isn’t what democracy looks like? I mean, not just the obvious point, which has been made innumerable times, that the protests and the flight of the Democratic state senators look like efforts to be anti-democratic, to undo an election.
I can certainly understand Mr. Bottum’s frustrations. And, by the way [a second caveat in one blog—now I know how my students must feel while listening to my lectures and me going off on every little tangent produced by my little brain!], while Mr. Bottum is always worth reading, the picture accompanying his post makes a trip over to the Catholic Vote post alone worth it.
Anyway, before I digress too much about those funky-looking humans in Wisconsin, let me just offer a very Kirkian response to Bottum’s post.
What’s happening is Wisconsin is, in fact, the very essence of democracy; it is democracy in a nutshell. Indeed, Madison, Wisconsin, looks very much like Greece and France in the past several months.
The United States of America, it’s worth being reminded, is not and never has been a democracy. It has been, since ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, a republic.
Our republic—deeply influenced by and rooted in the vast and meaningful expanse of the western tradition—incorporates the best of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. But, the democratic, it must be remembered, is only one small part of the larger republic. Our only direct votes come in our elections of representatives (originally, our only vote was for one of many representatives and not for our senators) and senators (only since the early 20th century). We have no direct say in who holds the presidency or in who sits on the supreme court.
At the very opening of the constitutional convention, Representative Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts stated rather bluntly:
The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue; but are the dupes of pretended patriots. [Gerry, May 31, 1787]
That same day, Representative Edmund Randolph of Virginia,
observed that the general object was to provide a cure for the evils under which the U.S. laboured; that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy. [Randolph, May 31, 1787]
Though not in attendance at the convention, the most prolific writer among the founders, John Adams, offered the following in the same year.
Where the people have a voice, and there is no balance, there will be everlasting fluctuations, revolutions and horrors, until a standing army, with a general at its head, commands the peace, or the necessity of an equilibrium is made appear to all, and is adopted by all. . . . My opinion is, and always has been, that absolute power intoxicates alike despots, monarchs, aristocrats, and democrats, and jacobins. [quoted in Kirk’s Conservative Mind, 1st Ed., pp. 94-95]
And, one of my favorite quotes, this one from another Massachusetts man, Fisher Ames, a generation later:
Our disease is democracy. It is not the skin that festers–our very bones are carious, and their marrow blackens with gangrene. Which rogues shall be first, is of no moment–our republicanism must die, and I am sorry for it. But why should we care what sexton happens to be in office at our funeral? Nevertheless, though I indulge no hopes, I derive much entertainment from the squabbles in Madam Liberty’s family. After so many liberties have been taken with her, I presume she is not longer a miss and a virgin, though she may still be a goddess. [quoted in Kirk, Conservative Mind, 1st ed., pg. 74]
And, from my beloved Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence: “A mere democracy is but a mob,” he told Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831.
Carroll’s words should be taken at face value. “A mere democracy is but a mob.”
None of the founders opposed having a democratic element within the American republic. Without such an element—again, as found, originally, in the ability and right of each citizen to cast one vote for one single member of the lower house of Congress—the republic would not really qualify as a republic. To deny this aspect of government would be to invite revolt and revolution, for the passions of the people would have no outlet legally or constitutionally.
From Plato forward, great western thinkers have seen a republic as a reflection of the three faculties of knowing of the human person: the intellect of the mind (the monarchy or executive); the reason or imagination of the soul (the aristocracy); and the passions of the heart or stomach (the democracy).
Just as we would have no children if we were ruled only by the rationality of the mind, we would have only chaos should we “know” solely through our lust for procreation.
A man ruled by either unadulterated intellect or unadulterated passion lacks free will; he is either an automaton or an animal, a god or a beast.
Only the reason of the soul—that aristocratic link, as Cicero understood, between (potentially) all men and the God—allows us to balance the rationality of the mind and the passions of the stomach or heart (or, elsewhere, as the case might very well be).
In the minds of the founders, democracy has a place in a constitutional republic. But, it has only a place, and certainly not the place of primacy. Just as our soul must balance our rationality and our passions, so the Supreme Court (and, originally, the Senate) must balance our House of Representatives and our Presidency.
I apologize that much of this post probably reads like Civics 101, but “democracy” is neither the same as “rule by the people” or as freedom, liberty, or goodness.
Democracy is the lowest—the passionate and animalistic—part of governance, and it should remain as such should the by now abused integrity of Madam Liberty survive into the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
[photo taken—hopefully with permission—from