America Is Living James Madison’s Nightmare –The Atlantic


This article chronicles the ills faced by the American political system. There are a number of interesting points worth thinking about. To begin with, it positions itself clearly on the side of representative democracy instead of direct democracy.

• “Madison’s reading convinced him that direct democracies—such as the assembly in Athens, where 6,000 citizens were required for a quorum—unleashed populist passions that overcame the cool, deliberative reason prized above all by Enlightenment thinkers. “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason,”
• “The Framers designed the American constitutional system not as a direct democracy but as a representative republic, where enlightened delegates of the people would serve the public good. They also built into the Constitution a series of cooling mechanisms intended to inhibit the formulation of passionate factions, to ensure that reasonable majorities would prevail.”
• “The people would directly elect the members of the House of Representatives, but the popular passions of the House would cool in the “Senatorial saucer,” as George Washington purportedly called it: The Senate would comprise natural aristocrats chosen by state legislators rather than elected by the people. And rather than directly electing the chief executive, the people would vote for wise electors—that is, propertied white men—who would ultimately choose a president of the highest character and most discerning judgment.””

Please note: the points above cover both the best and the worst of characteristics of representative democracy. It prevents mob rule, but only by allowing a privileged group (white landed men) to act as a buffer between the will of the people and policy.

The author describes the current state of American Politics as a “Madisonian Nightmare”:

• “The polarization of Congress, reflecting an electorate that has not been this divided since about the time of the Civil War, has led to ideological warfare between parties that directly channels the passions of their most extreme constituents and donors—precisely the type of factionalism the Founders abhorred.”
• “Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have accelerated public discourse to warp speed, creating virtual versions of the mob. Inflammatory posts based on passion travel farther and faster than arguments based on reason. Rather than encouraging deliberation, mass media undermine it by creating bubbles and echo chambers in which citizens see only those opinions they already embrace.””

Quite correctly, the author points out that the problems started before Donald Trump and his twitter revolution.
• “The executive branch, meanwhile, has been transformed by the spectacle of tweeting presidents, though the presidency had broken from its constitutional restraints long before the advent of social media. During the election of 1912, the progressive populists Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson insisted that the president derived his authority directly from the people. Since then, the office has moved in precisely the direction the Founders had hoped to avoid: Presidents now make emotional appeals, communicate directly with voters, and pander to the mob.”

This trend has been exacerbated by:
Mass Political Parties: “Whatever benefits the parties offered in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, have long since disappeared. The moderating effects of parties were undermined by a series of populist reforms, including the direct election of senators, the popular-ballot initiative, and direct primaries in presidential elections, which became widespread in the 1970s.”

The Imperial Presidency: “Madison feared that Congress would be the most dangerous branch of the federal government, sucking power into its “impetuous vortex.” But today he would shudder at the power of the executive branch. The rise of what the presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called the “imperial presidency” has unbalanced the equilibrium among the three branches. Modern presidents rule by executive order rather than consulting with Congress. They direct a massive administrative state, with jurisdiction over everything from environmental policy to the regulation of the airwaves. Trump’s populist promise—“I alone can fix it”—is only the most dramatic in a long history of hyperbolic promises, made by presidents from Wilson to Obama, in order to mobilize their most ideologically extreme voters.”

Media polarization: “which has allowed geographically dispersed citizens to isolate themselves into virtual factions, communicating only with like-minded individuals and reinforcing shared beliefs. Far from being a conduit for considered opinions by an educated elite, social-media platforms spread misinformation and inflame partisan differences. Indeed, people on Facebook and Twitter are more likely to share inflammatory posts that appeal to emotion than intricate arguments based on reason.”

Ideological Polarization: “At the moment, the combination of low voter turnout and ideological extremism has tended to favor very liberal or very conservative candidates in primaries. Thanks to safe districts created by geographic self-sorting and partisan gerrymandering, many of these extremists go on to win the general election. Today, all congressional Republicans fall to the right of the most conservative Democrat, and all congressional Democrats fall to the left of the most liberal Republican. In the 1960s, at times, 50 percent of the lawmakers overlapped ideologically.”

This article describes a set of institutions that had been weakened by years of dysfunctional politics. One point may be missing though. The representative architecture of the US political system that Madison cherished may have also played a role in the alienation and radicalization of the American public. After all, it’s the elite buffer that has been the target of much of the populist anger on both the left and the right. To many Americans, the Madison’s “cooling saucer” has been nothing but a swamp.

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