“The People,” Alexander Hamilton once remarked, “are a great beast.” His classically educated contemporaries did not regard sentiments like these as normative judgments but as statements of fact. What today comes off as sneering elitist contempt for the public was once viewed as a proper fear of collective tyranny. The government the Founders formed, the Constitution they ratified, and the codes of conduct they endorsed are thus replete with counter-majoritarian checks on the will of the demos.
The Founding generation’s restraints on the popular will have eroded over time, but their ideals have remained largely intact. Among the values we’ve preserved is an egalitarian understanding that the people are sovereign—the ultimate arbiters of political contests—but “the people themselves” do not govern. Throughout the Federalist Papers, the Constitution’s framers warn of the reptilian nature of people in a crowd. They are prone to “the tyranny of their own passions” and possessed of an “incapacity for regular deliberation.” As James Madison warned, even if every Athenian were as wise as Socrates, “every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
This is wise counsel, but an increasingly broad coalition of youngish technocrats on the left has no use for it. These influencers and the politicians for whom they provide intellectual ballast are increasingly comfortable endorsing the most unenlightened forms of direct democracy.
Democratic politicians and their allies in media have attacked the legitimacy of the Electoral College. As of this spring, 11 states have adopted nonbinding resolutions that would apportion their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the so-called national popular vote. Similarly, the activist left has become convinced that the United States Senate must be either purged of its essential characteristic—its unresponsiveness to population changes—or it must be abolished altogether. The Supreme Court, too, must be “packed” with activist judges who will not just rubber-stamp liberal policy preferences but with an aim toward ending the practice of judicial review. Why? Because, as Vox.com’s Dylann Matthews submitted, the judicial practice of verifying the constitutionality of legislative provisions is “really, truly bad for” Democrats.
This naked power hunger is framed as advocacy in our best interests. After all, this anti-majoritarianism presages a “legitimacy crisis.” Vox.com’s Ezra Klein warned that the prospect of a Democratic victory in the non-existent national “popular vote” that does not deliver a House majority to them would sap faith in the American constitutional order. The fact that both George W. Bush and Donald Trump lost the national popular vote but were nevertheless allowed to execute the duties of the office to which they were elected constitutes a failure of democracy, GQ’s Julia Ioffe lamented. In the eyes of Think Progress’s Ian Millhiser, the upper chamber of Congress is facing a “legitimacy crisis” because it is not as responsive to the public as the House of Representatives.
Ioffe and Klein’s fear for the legitimacy of the United States government would be more easily attributable to good faith if they didn’t include the confirmation of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court as contributing factors. These justices were confirmed following a change of the upper chamber’s rules that made the body more responsive to the concerns of a simple majority—changes that Democratic Senator Harry Reid inaugurated and for which Klein lobbied.
Civic participation is a virtue. Liberals who are mindful of efforts to disenfranchise prospective voters are possessed a full understanding of the darker chapters in American history. Their intentions are noble. But a sentiment that makes a talisman of voting for its own sake has its weaknesses. Making a fetish of direct democracy has led some on the left to embrace shameful moral equivalencies.
The Nation’s John Nichols recently marveled over the supposed fact that 70 percent of the Iranian public turned out to vote in 2017, sending the alleged “worldly” and “moderate” Hassan Rouhani to the presidency. “Iran just taught the U.S. a lesson in democracy,” Georgetown University law professor Arjun Sethi insisted. Azita Raji, Barack Obama’s former ambassador to Sweden, agreed, praising Iranian democracy as a model for Americans in particular. If these and other liberals were not embarrassed by such expressions of blind partisanship at the time, the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters by Rouhani’s “worldly” government should by now be sufficiently humiliating.
All civically minded Americans are right to express apprehension over the public’s declining faith in American governing institutions. That phenomenon is real and terribly worrying. But efforts to dilute counter-majoritarian checks on U.S. governance often seem to spring from a place of ignorance, not enlightenment. The American conception of liberty is bound up in non-events that are difficult to measure. Legislation not passed, public sector activity that did not occur, voters so satisfied with the enduring civic consensus that they did not show up at the polls; American democracy confounds those who would quantify it. American counter-majoritarianism is baked into the national DNA, and that presents an insurmountable obstacle to technocrats who would remake the country in their own images. In the meantime, insufferable as the burden may be, they have to keep trying to convince you that they’re right.