Among the first debates of the new republic was how to balance democracy and authority; a challenge that continues to shape American politics today. James Madison, fearing an “excess of democracy”, proposed a system of modest popular participation alongside a clearly defined ruling class.
When constructing the new republic, the founders faced a dilemma. On one hand, they knew that the centralization of authority would result in a self-serving tyranny; therefore, power must be distributed among an electorate. On the other hand, if the nation were entirely democratic, it could self-destruct due to the supposed ignorance, disorganization, and greediness of the population, if not the inherent “mob rule” dynamic of democracy. James Madison, as written in the Federalist Papers (specially No. 10), believed that the general public would be unable to effectively communicate, bargain, and decide if they were collectively responsible for every decision. Therefore, the Federalists believed the people require responsible (elected and unelected) representatives to rule on their behalf. Likewise, he believed that the nation needs a strong federal structure to unite the states and strategically distribute national power. After the government (then working under the Articles of Confederation) was proven hardly strong enough to suppress a populist revolt in Massachusetts (Shays Rebellion, 1787), the framers realized that too much democracy and too little authority would result in instability; prompting them to organize a constitutional convention.
Although Madison endorsed in the fundamental principles of democracy, he still believed that the people were naturally too impulsive and divisive to prosper in a pure democracy. Under the new Constitution, the federal government increased in size and created safeguards to protect against an excess of democracy, as well as the threat of autocracy. Congress, for example, was divided among two houses; a weaker chamber composed of elected representatives (the House of Representatives), and a stronger unelected branch composed of more static elites (the Senate). The House of Representatives is intended to be the more dynamic chamber that reflects the latest interests from more precise constituencies, as reflected in the shortened term limits and increased number of Representatives. Members of the House have always been voted in directly, though they have shorter terms (2 compared to 6 years) and much smaller constituencies compared to Senators, who were chosen by state legislatures until 1913. As democratic passions are reflected in the House, popular impulses are intended to cool in what George Washington famously dubbed the “Senatorial saucer.” Longer term limits for Senators enables more stability in the Senate, opposed to the ever-changing House of Representatives. Roadblocks to impulsive popular movements are further reflected in the staggered term limits of Senators. While Representatives are considered for reelection every two years, only about a third of Senators are up for reelection during any election. These mechanisms are intended to avoid rapid ideological turnovers in the Senate and encourage Senators to administer measures over a longer period of time.
Blockades to pure democracy are reflected in other workings of the new government as well, such as lifetime term limits for Supreme Court justices and the creation of an Electoral College opposed to direct elections for Presidents. The power of enforcing voting requirements was left to the states; ultimately allowing them to decide their respective electorates. By utilizing the distribution of power among two levels and three branches, Madison believed that a system of powerful government could still avoid tyranny, even if power remained distributed among an acute electorate and decision making was consolidated onto elected officials.
Democracy is a spectrum, with the most democratic end inhibiting popular control of all economic and governmental functions, and the other end being a centralized authority which occasionally grants it’s citizens certain voting privileges. The framers were tasked with finding the middle ground between these extremes, and they were guided by the vision of reflecting popular will through a republican government. The American federal government has undergone a significant democratization over the past three centuries, including the direct election of Senators and the enfranchisement of women and African Americans. However, the primary challenge of American politics continues to be maintaining the delicate balance between popular control and bureaucratic stability. The challenge is utilizing these evil institutions in ways which best the general population; starting with the decentralization of governmental power and partial embracing of democratic principles.
Madison, James. “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection”. Vol. 10, The Independent Journal, 1787.
Story, Joseph, and Edmund H. Bennett. Commentaries on the Constitution of the Un. States: with a Prelim. Review of the Constitut. History of the Colonies and States, Bef. the Adoption of the Constitution. Vol. 1, Hiliard, Gray, and Company, 1833.