The Second American Revolution: Chapter Two ~ Tracing the problem back to its roots

by faithgibson on December 10, 2017

Linked Index to all “Second Revolution” posts and stand-alone essays in this series

Part One ~ Chapter 2

Tracing the problem back to its roots:
The 1787 Constitutional Convention, our Founders & the Federalists Papers


As discussed in Chapter 1, the root of our constitutional problem is not what the Constitution says, but what it does not say: Our Constitution does not identify any lawful mechanism that would provide ordinary citizens with an effective, corrective and timely influence over our elected and appointed officials and ultimately, the workings of our central government in Washington, DC.

This constitutional silence — what the Constitution didn’t say and why – can be traced back to a series of decisions made by the Framers of our Constitution while they were debating what was to become the most important historical document in America.

Based on essays published by the Founding Fathers and information provided by the 85 Federalists Papers (published 1787-88), it’s clear that the US Constitution was purposefully configured so that ordinary citizens would have no direct role and no personal control over the central government, which is now in Washington, DC.

That concept is so contrary to how we think about our democratic history that it seems unbelievable at first, but it does explain the frustration many of us experience with the federal government.

However, the Framers of our Constitution did not do this just to make our lives more difficult. They had every good reason to believe the decisions they made would ultimately protect our democratic republic from the dismal fate of all previous experiments in self-governance.

Up to this point in history, all ancient democracies and democratic republics were short-lived and ended badly. Thus the Framers had no historical template or time-tested principles that would have allowed them to create a successful model of self-governance right out of the box.

In 1787 our democratic republic was an untested beta-model. If it had been developed in the 18th century version of Silicon Valley (instead of the shadow of Valley Forge) it would be the equivalent of first cell phone ever made, which was the size of a brick, weighed more than a pound, had a battery life of about 20 minutes, a range of a couple of miles; anyone talking on such a device looked as silly as the TV spy on “Get Smart” as he talked to the CIA on a shoe phone.

The Founding Fathers knew the task before them was Herculean and that it was unlikely they could avoid all the problems that sabotaged the previous democracies. But their biggest concern was an inherent flaw in the democratic ideal that is rarely was mentioned outside of history books: The democratic process itself can be used to achieve undemocratic goals.

Sad but true.

It turns out that democratic institutions can be gamed in a variety of ways, but as already discussed briefly in the “Overview“, what concerned our Founding Fathers most was the dangers posed by factions of like-minded individuals that form naturally in any large population. If groups that shared a common goal coalesce into some version of a mob, they can easily overpower the democratic process.

To guard against danger posed by factions and the problems of a population (i.e. ordinary people) that our Founding Fathers personally defined as mostly uneducated and unreliable, our Constitution was configured to keep this ‘uninformed masses’ from having any legal mechanism – either as individuals or citizen groups – from exerting a sustained & effective influence over the workings of the central government in Washington, DC.

Several of the following statements from the authors of the Federalist papers were included in the Overview, but it will be helpful to review of them.

James Madison described by the vision for our new democratic republic as shared by our Founding Fathers to be:

“… a new conception of representative government removed from the populace”.

Madison further elaborated on this Republican vision, saying:

“… the new American constitution aims … at one large mass republic in which the people can never assemble to govern directly and in which the majority can never unite”.

[ “The Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution”, Lecture notes 7 & 8 by Professor Prangle]

Both Madison and Alexander Hamilton identified this ‘superior’ model of democracy as:

“… a national republic whose government is far removed from the direct control of the people .… by putting the levers of governmental power in the hands of a tiny minority of representatives elected by the rest”

In Federalist 35 and 36, Hamilton described the preferred character of this tiny minority of elite representatives as:

“The new elite will be dominated by the members of the learned professionals” (e.g., lawyers) … {that} feel a neutrality to the rivalships among the different branches of industry.”

Unlike the historical republics of ancient Greece and Rome, the ruling elite in this new Republican vision for America was expected to be much more sympathetic to money-making and material acquisitiveness:

“The virtuous [i.e. the electeds elites] in the new Republican vision are expected to be more sympathetic to commerce and commercialism than … the elite envisaged in classical republicanism.”

While the Found did this for the best of reasons in 1787, it’s clear that they are no longer applicable to the 21st century America. What started out as a ‘solution’ in 1787, has become a gigantic problem in the modern era.

Why the Framers left ‘We The People’ out in the cold 

Obviously, the goals of our Constitutional framers were logical and honorable. Their actions were specifically motivated by a communal desire to avoid two specific and historic threats to democratic governments that resulted in the universal failure of all previous democracies and democratic republics.

As the most ‘learned men’ of their era, the majority of the Founders were schooled in the ancient history of democratic and republic governments that arose during the Greco-Roman period (900-300 BCE). Many of our Founders had studied both Greek and Latin and could read the historical accounts in their original language, thus becoming well versed in this arcane story as we can only dimly image today.

The Ancients in distant lands who first dabbled in democratic forms of government 2,500 years ago were totally unaware that there was an inherent, built-in flaw in the democratic process. This was revealed as political factions in these nascent democracies quickly and unexpectedly figured out how to exploit this inherent weakness later to be pointed out by Hamilton and many others.

Factions, or in more modern jargon, special interest groups, allowed energized (or in the language of that era “passionate” or in today parlance “fanatical”) political groups to become disproportionally influential and take over the democratic process and declared their leader to the new king and the government to be under his autocratic control.

Smart as our Funders were, there was no way to eliminate this corrupting influence, either by designing a fool-proof system or developing a scheme that could reliably correct for them afterward.

Given the magnitude of the problem and scarcity of solutions, our Founding Fathers immediately rejected the possibility of a direct democracy — citizens directly voting on each law or public policy — as an unstable form and one that is impractical and unsustainable in a big country such as the US. So instead they choose a “democratic republic” as the more reliable model for the United States.

However, our Founder also understood that democratic republics were also vulnerable to that same pesky flaws, particularly the ability of popular ‘factions’ to join together at any time to form a ‘voting block’ capable of up-ending the government, and types of problems that could plague to a republican form of government.

How these pieces can come together & topple any democratic government

As already identified, the first issue is the inherent constitutional flaw itself – that the democratic process itself can be used to achieve an undemocratic purpose.

The second issue is the inherent perverseness of human nature that repeatedly manifests as the willingness of human beings to go to any extreme to serve their own self-interests, even when that behavior ultimately “kills the goose that lays the Golden Eggs” and triggers catastrophic consequences.

The propensity of the human species to sometimes abuse power, act in ways that are both self-centered and short-sighted, and promote their own special interests even when doing so is extremely harmful, is timeless and universal. These human flaws are the very reason WHY human societies need ethical governments – to keep the temporarily stronger from over-powering the temporarily weaker.

But it turns out that democratic governments are not the final solution we hoped them to be. Instead, they provide the circumstance for the natural flaw in democracy and the natural perverseness of the human species to be simultaneously exercised by elected and appointed officials. This marriage made in hell greatly magnifies the harm that can be visited on the entire country.

The Ancients referred to this propensity to work against one’s own best interests or the public good as the result of “passions”, that is, an emotional impetus that blinds us to the consequences of our behavior.

James Madison lamented that even an enlightened statesmen can:

“ … rarely prevail over the immediate interest [that] one party find[s] in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.”

The weakness in the democratic process becomes a fatal flaw when members of a faction or special interest group exploit their political power to disable the democratic process. Every previous democracy (i.e. rule by the many) in the ancient world was eventually disbanded or became despotic. These noble ‘experiments in self-government’ either became an oligarchy (rule by the rich), a military dictatorship (rule by the army), an aristocracy (rule by the few) or a monarchy (rule by one).

Madison’s claimed that “…majority factions (more than 50% voting block) is the overriding danger in republics”. He continued by saying:

“all earlier democratic republics have self-destructed because the majority coalesced into a single party led by demagogues that proceeded to oppress minorities and plunge … society into class warfare.”

The Founders realized that the inherent problems with democracy arose from the very factions (i.e. divergent groups) found in any sizable collection of people, as the ‘like-minded’ and those who share a special interest naturally come together in groups. This is an important facet of any democratic society.

Synoptic:

Unfortunately, the deleterious effect of factions in a direct democracy (where every male citizen voted on every issue) or in a democratic republic (where representatives elected by the people do the voting) it only takes one relatively large, or well-funded, emotionally-driven or fanatical special interest group, or even a number of smaller groups drawn together by a shared interest (often economic or ethnic), to aggregate together into an undemocratic voting block that becomes so large as to create a statistical majority. In both instances, the outcome is the same – transient and unelected power that could and often did, topple a democratic republican government.

Link to Part One ~ Chapter Three   or read this “Aside”  on lobbying before you go on.

Happy Birthday on December 9th to my long-time family friend, Linda ^O^

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