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Is Democracy Killing Democracy?

The founding fathers saw this coming, but the walls they erected to contain the mob may no longer hold.

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Illustration by Mark Nerys  

The tea-party movement takes its name from the mob of angry people in Boston who, in 1773, committed a zany criminal stunt as a protest against taxes and the distant, out-of-touch government that imposed them. Two years later, the revolution was under way and—voilà!—democracy was born out of a wild moment of populist insurrection.

Except not, because in 1787 several dozen coolheaded members of the American Establishment had to meet and debate and horse-trade for four months to do the real work of creating an apparatus to make self-government practicable—that is, to write the Constitution. And what those thoughtful, educated, well-off, well-regarded gentlemen did was invent a democracy sufficiently undemocratic to function and endure. They wanted a government run by an American elite like themselves, as James Madison wrote, “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” They wanted to make sure the mass of ordinary citizens, too easily “stimulated by some irregular passion … or misled by the artful misrepresentations” and thus prone to hysteria—like, say, the rabble who’d run amok in Boston Harbor—be kept in check. That’s why they created a Senate and a Supreme Court and didn’t allow voters to elect senators or presidents directly. By the people and for the people, definitely; of the people, not so much.

So now we have a country absolutely teeming with irregular passions and artful misrepresentations, whipped up to an unprecedented pitch and volume by the fundamentally new means of 24/7 cable and the hyperdemocratic web. And instead of a calm club of like-minded wise men (and women) in Washington compromising and legislating, we have a Republican Establishment almost entirely unwilling to defy or at least gracefully ignore its angriest, most intemperate and frenzied faction—the way Reagan did with his right wing in the eighties and the way Obama is doing with his unhappy left wing now. Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and their compatriots are ideologues who default to uncivil, unbudging, sky-is-falling recalcitrance, as Keith Olbermann does on the left. Fine; in free-speech America, that’s the way we roll. But the tea-party citizens are under the misapprehension that democratic governing is supposed to be the same as democratic discourse, that elected officials are virtuous to the extent that they too default to unbudging, sky-is-falling recalcitrance and refusal. And the elected officials, as never before, are indulging that populist fantasy.

Just as the founders feared, American democracy has gotten way too democratic.

This new la-la-la-la-la-la refusenik approach to politics is especially wrong in the Senate, which was created to be the “temperate and respectable body of citizens” that could, owing to its more gentlemanly size and longer terms, ride above populist political hysteria. And it’s ironic that the most effective tool on behalf of tea-party purity, the cloture-proof filibuster, is a crudely undemocratic maneuver, permitting a minority of 41 to defeat a majority of 59. (How fitting that “filibuster” and “tea party” both derive from maritime criminality—to filibuster is to freeboot, or hijack debate like a pirate.) Senate filibusters used to be rare, a monkey wrench used only in cases of emergency, meant to allow debate to continue unimpeded and to protect minority opinion from being ignored. In the sixties, the decade of civil rights and the Great Society and Vietnam, there were never more than seven filibusters during one Senate term; in 2007–2008, scores of Republican filibuster threats resulted in cloture motions. The Democrats aren’t innocent in this downward spiral of truculence: Under Bush, they regularly filibustered to stop the confirmation of judicial nominees.

On health care, even though the Senate bill isn’t remotely radical, the Republicans’ refusal to play along at least follows the contours of principle. But on the issue supposedly animating the post-Bush GOP and the tea-partiers, the massive deficit, a bi-partisan Senate bill to establish a bi-partisan commission to rein in future budgets was just defeated with 23 of 40 Republicans voting no—including a half-dozen of the bill’s original co-sponsors.

The framers worried about democratic government working in a country as large as this one, and it’s possible that we’ve finally reached the unmanageable tipping point they feared: Maybe our republic’s constitutional operating system simply can’t scale up to deal satisfactorily with a heterogeneous population of 310 million. When the Constitution was written and the Senate created, there were around 4 million people in America, or about one senator for every 150,000 people. For Congress to be as representative as it was in 1789, we’d need to elect 2,000 senators and 5,000 House members. And so I wonder, as I watch Senate leaders irresponsibly playing to the noisiest, angriest parts of the peanut gallery, if the current, possibly suicidal spectacle of anti-government “populism” in Washington isn’t connected to our bloated people-to-Congresspeople ratios. As the institution grows ever more unrepresentative, more numerically elite, members of Congress may feel irresistible pressure to act like wild and crazy small-d democrats.


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