Can We Overcome Ourselves?

​The main textbook I assign in my Intro American Politics course is titled Keeping the Republic. Perhaps you’ll recognize the title’s significance, but over the years, no student ever has. It’s a reference to Ben Franklin’s famous response to a question at the Founding about what kind of government the framers had created, a monarchy or a republic? His answer: “A republic, if you can keep it.” In the wake of the nastiest campaign in decades, one that underscored the deep chasm between Americans on many issues, it’s worth asking Franklin’s implied question: “Can we keep it?”

 The framers’ fundamental distrust of democracy was undergirded by a long philosophical tradition warning of democracy’s inherent dangers like majority tyranny, and the fact that democratic governments are prone to instability and failure. As John Adams baldly put it, “There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” Taking these learned insights and warnings to heart, our constitution writers created a system in which consent of the people is needed to form a government, but in which popular control of governing and policymaking is largely removed and insulated from the people’s frequently over-heated passions.    

 ​In various ways, though, America has continued to lurch toward a much more democratic political system than the framers imagined. Direct election of U.S. Senators, massive expansion of voting rights, and adoptions at the state and local level of direct democracy mechanisms like the initiative and referendum, have combined to not only bring the people closer to governing decisions, but have also raised expectations about what government can and should do. Standing in the way of these enhanced expectations, however, remain the structural barriers to full-throated democracy that are set forth in the Constitution, e.g., separation of powers, the Electoral College, and a bicameral legislature. Add to these design factors the emergence, and oft-deleterious influence, of political parties and interest groups (“factions” in the words of Madison), and we are left with a government that is much more paralyzed than even the framers probably would have preferred.  

 For some time now the people have latched their democratic aspirations to the Presidency. “Hope and/or change” have been consistent themes in modern presidential elections. But, while executive power has expanded tremendously over time, our President is not a monarch and “hope and change” frequently are dashed on the rocks of our republic’s inertial design of checks and balances.

 ​The framers were mostly pessimistic about our ability to overcome ourselves; if humans were angels there would be no need for government, they believed. Historical evidence on this, however, is actually better. Despite the above-noted challenges, our political history has been a steady “three steps forward, two steps backward” march toward a more inclusive and just society, with government policies adopted to meet our seemingly intractable challenges along the way. Keeping the republic requires that we continue putting our shoulders to the never-ending task of creating a more perfect union.

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