“American democracy is cracking,” warns Washington Post Chief Correspondent Dan Balz in a recent column that presents some ideas to repair it. His suggestions include, among other things, proportional representation, diminishing the power of the Senate, and eliminating the Electoral College. What these three suggestions have in common is a desire to remove any intermediary institutions between the will of the people and government action — otherwise known as “direct” democracy.
These proposals are not new. Indeed, even the framers of the Constitution were familiar with them. But the reasons why such suggestions would significantly erode the republican government envisioned by our Founding Fathers are not new either.
Given Biden’s low approval ratings — especially in important swing states with critical Electoral College votes — as well as broader Democrat fears of a Republican takeover of the Senate, we will likely hear a renewed chorus of voices calling for direct democracy. After all, masses of individuals are much easier to manipulate than smaller families, communities, or even states. Conservatives would do well to arm themselves with the best arguments against such initiatives.
Founders Worked to Curb Direct Democracy
The framers of our Constitution felt quite strongly that direct democracy was something to avoid. In Federalist 10, for example, the Father of the Constitution James Madison warned of “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority” on a government, or what has come to be called the “tyranny of the majority,” in which a majority of the population exerts great coercive power over minority factions.
Again in Federalist 51, Madison wrote: “[I]n the federal republic of the United States … all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”
Our second president, John Adams, called a unicameral legislative body — in which each member is accountable to his constituents — a “tyranny of the majority.” Adams, reflecting the opinion of that founding generation, argued for “a mixed government, consisting of three branches.” The framers took various steps to disburse power among the federal government, dividing it into three competing branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.
But the founders’ dispersion of governing power also goes beyond the three branches. The 10th Amendment reads: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In other words, unless the Constitution expressly grants certain powers to the federal government, those powers exist in the states or, even more decentralized, in local communities of Americans.
Later Generations Understood the Threat
A generation after that founding generation, visiting French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville authored an extended survey of American politics and culture, Democracy in America. Tocqueville perceived that the American political system was created to resist the tyranny of the majority, “which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence.” Thus, Tocqueville writes:
When a man or a party suffers from an injustice in the United States, to whom do you want them to appeal? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? It represents the majority and blindly obeys it. To the executive power? It is named by the majority and serves it as a passive instrument.
In other words, the executive branch, even with its disbursed powers, can be influenced by this tyrannical tendency to reflect the opinions of the majority of the people against minority interests at the state or community level.
It was thus only through the states and local bases of power and voluntary associations that this tyrannical tendency could be avoided.
A century after Tocqueville’s warnings, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis discussed another way to understand our nation’s default desire to resist direct democracy. Brandeis was one of the first to describe the states as “laboratories of democracy.” In his New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann opinion, he explained how “a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
State and local autonomy served as a means of testing laws and policies to evaluate their effectiveness before implementing across a diverse nation of states, localities, and subcultures. If something works at the micro level, other localities or states — and even potentially the federal government — can appreciate and adopt it.
Constant Temptation of Direct Democracy
Yet such a deliberative process of testing is slow and uneven. And we Americans are often eager for speedy solutions. Political theorists, journalists, and ordinary citizens throughout American history have been frustrated by the Constitution’s manifold methods of distributing power to deter the tyranny of the majority. If a majority of the nation’s populace wants something, they posit, why shouldn’t they be able to get it? After all, as the journalist H.L. Mencken wryly commented, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Such demands especially increase at times of heightened political gridlock in which the country obviously has a particular problem or set of problems but constitutionally mandated laws and procedures thwart attempts to resolve them. When we are all vexed with our politicians for failing to act in what we believe to be the interests of the nation (and its voters), it’s easy to be sympathetic to that line of thinking.
Yet we must beware of this temptation, which reflects what conservative political theorist Russell Kirk calls a manifestation of vox populi, vox dei — the voice of the people is the voice of God. In other words, as long as they constitute a majority, whatever the people want becomes the law of the land.
Direct democracy thus not only represents a threat to freedom, but it is a political order that rejects hierarchies both natural and spiritual. Although these hierarchies are sometimes abused, they serve as a cautionary brake upon the whims of the masses, which — as many revolutions have demonstrated — can be quite violent and destructive. Just look at the French or Russian Revolutions, which ended up terrorizing those they claimed to represent. Millions of dead across the world reveal the problem with direct democracy.
This is the reason for state representation rather than proportional representation in the lower House, a Senate consisting of equal representation by state, the filibuster, the Electoral College, and powers relegated to the states vis-a-vis the 10th Amendment. All of it is an attempt to slow the destructive force of vox populi, vox dei.
As that great French observer of American politics Alexis de Tocqueville observed: “If ever freedom is lost in America, that will be due to the … majority driving minorities to desperation…”
Let’s do everything we can to avoid that scenario.