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This is not a “representative democracy”

November 19, 2013

A recent discussion on Facebook (of course) led me to try to explain what the Framers intended our Congress to be. It’s really pretty simple – but it was not a direct “representative democracy,” for a few reasons.

First, Senators were to be selected by the state legislatures. This tied the states to the Federal government much more strongly than they are today. The passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 changed this. A major component of the  reasoning was that there was too much corruption in the election process and that direct election would make this less likely.

Senators were intended to be more of an American aristocracy. The Federalists were certainly not against such a class, but they though it would be beneficial because those men would be less prone to manipulation and more willing to look to the good of the country first. The aristocracy part they got right, but it was not the Framers’ plan that they become a permanent political class.

Second, the Federalists wanted to protect the rights of the minority. They knew that pure democracy was just as dangerous as monarchy – in a pure democracy the majority will always overrun the minority. The Anti-Federalists pushed the Federalists even harder for the protection of the minority, and the result was, among other things, the Bill of Rights.

Parts of the Constitution have been interpreted in ways never intended by the Framers. For example, I don’t think any of the Framers could have imagined how the Commerce Clause has been used to infiltrate every transaction make in the US. They purposely left the Federal government at the mercy of the states to provide funding; the Sixteenth Amendment (1913) established a Federal income tax and from that moment on there was no turning back. Activist government needed money, and there were no checks on the taxing power.

So on the one hand, we have lost a representative body that would have perhaps provided a little sanity in the legislative process. On the other hand, we have gained an enormous bureaucracy supported by our tax dollars, by taking our property without our consent.

But we elect our leaders, do we not? Yes and no. Gerrymandering has made it nearly impossible to flip many of the seats in the House of Representatives, making it a game of inches in that body in most elections. State populations have grown so large that a senator needs huge amounts of money to run, and that means large donors, and today, PACs. That makes senators beholden far too much to interests other than the people of the state, or even their party.

Incidentally, the Federalist/Anti-Federalist arguments begat the first political parties in the new government, before it was even born. The Federalists held power until Jefferson was elected, and by then the two-party system was already pretty well-established. However, a two-party system was not an intention of the Framers, but a by-product of the dynamic of political thought.

The second decade of the 20th century is very interesting, by the way – in many ways it was very much like today. “Progressives” advocated populist ideas in all possible arenas, from women’s suffrage (19th Amendment, 1920) to environmentalism (see Teddy Roosevelt) to socialism (See Eugene V. Debs, et. al.) Many of the same arguments were used then as now.

I’m not being as clear here as I would like to be. Some of these distinctions ¬†– and their historical bases – take far more explanation than I have given here. I suggest two sources for those who would like to know more:

First, Mark Levin’s book, The Liberty Amendments. Not only does he talk about the Framers’ intentions, but he has concrete suggestions on how to get closer to their intentions.

Second, Joseph Kobylka’s course, Cycles of American Political Thought, part of the Great Courses series. This is a very enlightening series and I highly recommend it. It takes some time to get through, but the instructor does an excellent job of making the material engaging. I have the digital audio version.

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