democracy’s worst proclivities remain untamed

William Voegeli in the  2/21 National Review, The Sense of the Senate:

The case for not only putting up with but admiring the Senate rests on the belief that democracy’s worst proclivities are permanent threats, not archaic ones tamed long ago.  As the political scientist Harvey Mansfield wrote in 1988, “Good democrats…think that good government as a standard is above democracy; it is what democracy aims at, for example, the ends stated in the preamble to the Constitution.  They must not think that government is automatically good merely by being democratic, as this belief can make them both fanatic in their zeal for democracy and complacent as to its behaviors.”

The resiliency of the American experiment has disposed us to believe that democracy is the default option fr organizing a nation’s politics, rendering the problems of establishing and maintaining democratic government modest and manageable.  As a result, 21st-century Americans need not have read John Dewey to hold the truth to be self evident that “the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy.”  Convince them the Senate is resolutely anti-democratic, and you convince them it’s an institution impossible to support, respect, or even take seriously.

The success of our Constitution, then, has estranged us from its authors’ apprehension that the perpetuation of democracy requires overcoming not only democracy’s enemies and obstacles, but also its temptations and weaknesses.  As James Madison argued, “liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power.”  Because the Philadelphia convention designed and subsequent generations of Americans implemented an effective “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government,” Madison wrote in Federalist 10, it is easy to suppose that those diseases, like the bubonic plague, are threats only to ancient or primitive peoples.  We can confidently go on curing the ailments of democracy with more democracy, until every hundred days is just like the First Hundred Days.  The de facto parliamentary system that results will jettison the constitutional relics subverting our will, and we will enjoy a government that is “strong, prompt, wieldy, and efficient,” as Woodrow Wilson wrote approvingly.

The case for not only putting up with but admiring the Senate rests on the belief that democracy’s worst proclivities are permanent threats, not archaic ones tamed long ago.  As the political scientist Harvey Mansfield wrote in 1988, “Good democrats…think that good government as a standard is above democracy; it is what democracy aims at, for example, the ends stated in the preamble to the Constitution.  They must not think that government is automatically good merely by being democratic, as this belief can make them both fanatic in their zeal for democracy and complacent as to its behaviors.”

The disease most incident to popular government, which militates against democracy’s resulting in good government, is what Madison called majority faction.  When a minority of the population is “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community, ” normal democratic processes – popular elections – will suffice to prevent that minority from carrying out its dangerous plans.  When a majority is united and actuated in this way, however, the working of democracy won’t constrain it.  Worse still, democratic processes will, as a practical mater, facilitate a majority a faction’s blunders and depredations, while validating them as moral ones.

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