How Would America’s Founders Tackle 2016’s Populism?

How Would America’s Founders Tackle 2016’s Populism?

The Antifederalist Brutus could stand on the debate stage today with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, denouncing the leadership in Washington.
Paul Bartow
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The pundit who best explains the rise of anti-establishment populism in the twenty-first century is Brutus, the Antifederalist opponent of the U.S. Constitution. Today’s rampant anti-establishment populism stems from the belief that the political ruling class is ambitiously self-interested and disconnected from the American mainstream. This failure of confidence in the representatives was foretold in Brutus’ fourth essay to the people of New York, and was a driving reason behind his counsel against ratification.

Brutus adhered to English Whig ideology. Among its central tenets was the belief that representatives should mirror the people they serve. Representative government was deeply personal. These elected officials should be familiar with the circumstances surrounding their districts, and personally acquainted with the people they serve.

This would enable them to convince the electorate of the necessity of certain public policies, while increasing political participation, fostering civic virtue, and giving people a tangible stake in the direction of the government. Politicians would “mix with the people and explain to them the motives which induced the adoption of any measure, point out its utility, and remove objections or silence unreasonable clamours against it.”

The Rise of Anonymous Politicians

Antifederalists today are ridiculed for their tirades against aristocracy, but their most pertinent contributions today are precisely in the realm of this issue. Brutus and others believed that the Senate as proposed by the Constitutional Convention was dangerous because it would concentrate influence in the wealthy elite, who would perpetuate their political privilege.

These arguments should sound familiar. Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, and a host of other candidates for the presidency have based their appeal upon this very line of attack against “the Washington cartel.” The Antifederalist solution to the problem of political aristocracy was rotation in office. The idea was that representatives would do their civic duty, enact policies, and then return to live in the communities from which they came and live with the consequences of those policies. The disconnect today giving rise to anti-establishment populists stems from fact that today’s politicians “consist of men whose names they have never heard, and whose talents and regard for the public good, they are total strangers to.”

Opponents of the Constitution like Brutus also saw a danger inherent in the House of Representatives; namely, that the proposed allocation of 65 representatives was far too small to truly represent the interests of 13 colonies. Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution provided for one representative per every 30,000 inhabitants, and even James Madison wanted that amount doubled.

At the heart of Brutus’ objection was the belief that the country could not grow, both geographically and demographically, while remaining truly republican. The representatives needed to have an intimate knowledge of the people. This owed to the belief that effective government relies upon the confidence of the governed. In essay four, Brutus wrote:

A [further] objection against the feebleness of the representation is, that it will not possess the confidence of the people. The execution of the laws in a free government must rest on this confidence, and this must be founded on the good opinion they entertain of the framers of the laws…but it is impossible the people of the United States should have sufficient knowledge of their representatives, when the numbers are so few.

A Bigger Voting Pool Did Not Constrain Factions

This ran directly counter to Madison’s suggestion in Federalist 10 to “extend the sphere,” which would increase the number of factions but not allow any to gain a national majority. Traditional wisdom from political thinkers such as Montesquieu held that republics needed to be small, homogenous nations. In Brutus’ view, the legislature would need to become unwieldy and excessively large, or Congress must restrict the size of the house and thus dilute true republican representation.

Antifederalists may have had a moment of clairvoyance—the competing factions across a diverse country did unite in our time—against the political establishment. Brutus could stand on the debate stage today with Sanders and Trump and not be out of place denouncing the leadership in Washington. Take this quote: “Being so far removed from the people, their station will be elevated and important, and they will be considered as ambitious and designing. They will not be viewed by the people as part of themselves, but as a body distinct from them, and having separate interests to pursue; the consequence will be, that a perpetual jealousy will exist in the minds of the people against them.”

That jealousy is precisely what we are seeing today. It has some unfortunate side effects, while most of its prescribed treatments are worse than the disease. Because of ineffective political participation, Americans across party lines are striving to start a political revolution and turn the system on its head.

The current core problem with American politics is not Washington’s unresponsiveness to the will of the voters. Voters don’t feel a deep, personal connection to their elected officials. Politicians are perceived as a distant ruling elite inside the Beltway who become career politicians, do not partake actively in the life of their communities, and fail to return to live in their place of origin under the policies they enact.

Antifederalists accurately foretold this new political aristocracy, the twenty-first-century establishment, and the fractured relationship between the representatives and the governed. Instead of turning to anti-establishment populism, what Americans should be debating is how to restore responsible, locally based representation to national politics. We can learn much from Brutus and the Antifederalists.

Paul Bartow is a history Ph.D. student at the University of South Carolina studying Colonial and Revolutionary America. Previously, he worked at the American Enterprise Institute and is a graduate of Wheaton College. Follow him on Twitter @Paul_Bartow. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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