Methods to balance democracy and authority were among the first debates of American politics. James Madison proposed a system of modest popular participation alongside a clearly defined ruling class. The numerous obstacles to popular participation in the modern American government reflect Madison’s fear of pure democracy. This passage deliberates the nature of democracy and authority to understand these mechanisms and assess their moral validity.
As they constructed the United States, the founding revolutionaries sought to balance authority and democracy – a delicate challenge that continues to define American politics. The consolidation of political power enabled monarchial administrations of the past centuries to undermine and exploit populations without oversight or repercussion. Therefore, the rebels crafted American ideology in the acknowledgment that absolute authority is unsustainable. However, many were equally skeptical of a radical distribution of power. Prominent intellectuals such as James Madison believed that any purely democratic society would self-destruct due to the supposed ignorance, disorganization, and greediness of the population – if not the inherent “mob rule” dynamic of democracy. The numerous obstacles to popular participation in the modern American government reflect the skepticism of Madison and other Federalist founders.
The consensus to create a republic rather than a democracy foremost established the American acceptance of partial authority. Republicanism allows select citizens to choose the leaders who rule on their behalf. In contrast, democracy enables individuals to represent themselves in any decision-making process they choose to participate in. Pure democracy strives for an extreme decentralization of power across all individuals in society, deeply conflicting with an economic system that consolidates wealth through undemocratic institutions. Therefore, the founders would have surely been libertarian socialists if they radically adhered to the principles of democracy and decentralization.
Although few at the time endorsed such an extreme notion of democracy, there existed a democratic spectrum among prominent revolutionaries. Anti-Federalists such as Thomas Jefferson held far more democratic views than Federalists such as James Madison. Primarily small farmers, shopkeepers, and laborers, the Anti-Federalists rejected the authoritarian proposals of the Constitution. They sought fewer restraints on popular participation through frequent elections, small districts, short term-limits, and state autonomy. In contrast, Federalists such as Madison and Alexander Hamilton (primarily wealthy elites) believed in a powerful central government with plentiful obstacles to popular participation, as established in the Constitution. Although many disagreements surrounded the theoretical structure of American democracy, most Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed that direct democracy is dangerous and that the electorate requires representatives to rule on their behalf. They also agreed on the continued disenfranchisement of marginalized groups that composed most of the population – women, Native Americans, African Americans, and white men without property.
James Madison, as written in the Federalist Paper No. 10, believed that the inevitable tendency of the public to break into multiple factions is a threat to the security of democracy. He feared that direct democracy would result in “mob rule,” where the majority faction consolidates power and decision-making. For this reason, Madison believed that power and democracy must be delicately managed through deliberate blockages to popular control. Federalist Paper No. 10 cited the dilemmas of factionalism and mob rule to declare that democracy is only viable if regulated through a republic. Therefore, the public may choose leaders to rule on their behalf, but they may not represent themselves personally in decision-making processes. Madison also believed that democracy counters stability since it is quicker to make decisions without dissent or discussion. Although all intellectuals faced the democratic dilemma of instability, Madison and the Federalists prioritized security – as reflected in their positions towards a central government and single head of the executive branch. Madison’s radical Federalist contemporary, Alexander Hamilton, proposed lifetime terms for the President and Senate. Federalists believed that modest checks and balances could maintain the legitimacy of an authoritarian government, even if decision making was consolidated onto elected officials and voting rights onto an acute electorate.
Under the Constitution, the federal government increased in size and created safeguards to protect against both popular participation and absolutism. Congress, for example, was divided into two houses; a weaker chamber composed of elected representatives (the House of Representatives) and a more powerful unelected branch composed of more static elites (the Senate). The House of Representatives is the more dynamic chamber that reflects the latest interests from more precise constituencies. Members of the House have always been voted on directly. However, 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 the House reflects popular democratic impulses, these passions are intended to cool (or deradicalize) in what George Washington famously dubbed the “Senatorial saucer.” This serves as a blockade to popular reform by requiring the compliance of an elite, unelected, and more powerful chamber to conduct significant change. Barriers to democracy are reflected in other workings of the Constitution as well, such as lifetime term limits for Supreme Court justices and the creation of an Electoral College opposed to direct elections for Presidents. Perhaps most importantly, women, Native Americans, African Americans, and white men without property remained politically invisible – disenfranchising most of the population.
The debate surrounding the Constitution is rooted in a deeper perception of class and elitism. While Anti-Federalists trusted the common decency of the population, Federalists such as Madison claimed that elites such as himself are most fit to govern. Federalists typically distrusted and looked down upon the lower classes, while Anti-Federalists believed that the elites are corrupt and only seek more power. Self-interest played a role. As an elite member of society, Madison himself had much to lose from a power structure of popular control. If the American government was structured with direct democracy, the elite class could easily find themselves without their wealth, privilege, and slaves. Furthermore, lower-class Americans would have directly benefitted from a more democratic society as they could have furthered the re-distribution of wealth and power. Madison’s argument against democracy cited the prospect of a single faction ruling the decision-making process. However, utilizing an authoritarian structure with countless blockades to popular control, the Federalists merely founded a system in which power and decision-making consolidate onto white, male, landowners. This is precisely the demographic that Madison sought to protect from the lower-class “mobs,” and keep in power using countless obstacles to popular participation. Madison’s fear of factionalism was instantly realized, with his own faction monopolizing decision-making for almost three hundred years. The difference is that white, male, landowners merely compose a minority of society.
Democracy is a spectrum, with the most democratic end inhibiting popular control of all economic and governmental functions, and the other side being a centralized authority which occasionally grants its citizens certain voting privileges. The framers sought a 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 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. Authority is inherently corrupt, though necessary for stability. The challenge is utilizing these evil institutions in ways that 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.