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Voices from the Past: Trump vs. America's Founders: No Longer Fresh at Project Syndicate

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No Longer Fresh at Project Syndicate: At the start of the American experiment, Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and James Madison pulled no punches: admitting that the historical record strongly suggested that a democracy, a republic—indeed, any form of government that gave substantial political voice to those outside an aristocracy of counsellors or advisors to a monarch—was a really bad idea: "It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the... state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.... The [unflattering] portraits... sketched of republican government were too just copies of the originals..."

But, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison went on: "The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement.... Distribution of power into distinct departments... legislative balances and checks... judges holding their offices during good behavior... representation... in the legislature... are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided..." The peculiar thing about this list, however, is that all of these great improvements in the science of politics apply just as well to monarchies as to republics.

Indeed, these institutional innovations have historical roots as actions by, well, monarchs:

  • The Plantagenet kings of England professionalized the judiciary.
  • They set forth (not completely willingly) the principal that not the king alone but the king-in-parliament held the power to levy direct taxes.
  • The professionalization and bureaucratization involved in distributing power applied as much to the Council of the Indies or the Council of Castile of Spanish sixteenth century monarch Filipe II Habsburg as to any republic.

Thus the "great improvement" in the "science of politics, which Alexander Hamilton and James Madison relied on held the potential to make both monarchy or aristocracy and republican government better, not to change the balance between them—a balance that seemed, according to the history Madison knew—to weight heavily against forms that produced "perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy".

From what source, then, did Alexander Hamilton and James Madison derive their confidence that the republican constitution of America that they had put so much effort into creating would, in fact, be a good idea? The arguments they set forth in their contributions to The Federalist Papers revolve around two ideas: "representation" and "faction":

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison placed stress on representation: "Cure... [in] the delegation of the government... to a small number of citizens elected by the rest..." "The public voice", he wrote, when "pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves..." Representatives chosen by and responsible to the electorate will look outward to the people, assessing their interests and drawing on their knowledge and good ideas, but also looking inward to the government and, via deliberation, discussion, and compromise, refine and elevate policy. Thus a republican form of government could gain the advantages of professionalization and expertise, the advantage of working in the public interest, and the advantage in gathering ideas from all of society.

And Alexander Hamilton and James Madison placed stress on how a large republic could avoid faction, which they defined as "some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community". A monarchy or aristocracy, of course, is nothing but a faction: a faction in control, with little pressure on it to work for the public interest or, indeed, to be open to good ideas from outside its circles of concern. Madison saw a republic as starting with a great advantage here: A faction could only rule if it could command a majority. And in a large republic with "a greater variety of parties and interests... less probable that a majority... will have a common motive to invade the rights of other[s]... or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other..."

Of course, when a majority did have a common motive to invade the rights of others and did discover its own strength and was able to act in unison—then we have Jim Crow; then we have the herding of Japanese-Americans into concentration camps; then we have the dispossession of the Cherokee and the Trail of Tears. "John Marshall has made his decision", said President Andrew Jackson, speaking of a judge holding office during good behavior exercising a distinct department of power and serving as a check, "now let him enforce it". If bureaucracy, procedure, representation, and deliberation cannot elevate and transform the passions of a majority faction into policies in the public interest, there is then no "republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government".

A century and a quarter ago the constitutional and semi-constitutional monarchies of Europe faced their crisis of political order which was resolved by the move neither to centralized socialist dictatorship in the interest of a progressive class nor to strongman plebiscitary leadership focusing on the unity of an ethnos but, rather, by a reinvigoration of election, representation, and deliberation in the form of parliamentary democracy. We do not yet face a crisis of the same magnitude. At the moment, our problems seem overwhelmingly to be those Alexander Hamilton and James Madison foresaw when they warned that "enlightened statesmen... able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good... will not always be at the helm". But there is a definite sense in the air that the two processes James Madison saw as the particular advantages of democratic republics—representation with its triple advantages of gathering ideas, working for the public, and refinement through deliberation; and control of faction—have gone awry. They need to be rebuilt if the case for a democratic republic is to remain an overwhelming and obvious one.

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