Greg Weiner’s Madison’s Metronome explains the subtle yet critical difference between a republic and a democracy. If a republic is only to be a representation of the popular will, a convenient mechanical tool to execute majoritarian democracy, then there is little difference. The American republic, however, was designed to intentionally slow down the democratic process to allow deliberative reason to rule over inflamed passions. Power is divided vertically with federalism and horizontally with checks and balances. Staggered terms further obstruct the power of temporary passions, what we today call populism.
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights coded critical rights with a process intentionally made difficult to change. The document embraced a civic culture of classical liberalism that included individual liberty, protection of minority rights, limited and divided government, and reason as a means to understand the world outside of our senses. These values reflected the philosophy of John Locke, our most influential Enlightenment thinker. If we had instead been influenced by Jean Jacque Rousseau, a path followed by continental Europe, we would have ended up quite differently.
These are two critical points: that the philosophy underlying the design of our government is critically important and that the civic culture is more important than, but not independent from, the form of government we choose to execute it. We have seen foreign policy failures from bringing our form of government to nations that do not have our civic culture.
Our government attempted to bring the best features of a monarchy, and aristocracy and and democracy together without the faults; an ambitious project. Our representatives are not just reflections of a majority will, but executors of judgment with an eye towards more than the next election. This means that sometimes they must say “no” to the populist majority. The Constitution makes this easy on some issues but not all.
Madison understood this required a ‘virtue’ of leaders that meant looking beyond their personal gain or the next election, but he also understood that it required a voting populace that understood this need when they voted. The Constitution did not foresee the rise of political factions coalesced into a two party system, a frustration of Madison’s view that factions would check each other.
In National Review Greg Weiner brings this to our current dilemma, in The Conservative Reckoning Doesn’t Have to End Badly:
The political thought of the American founding provides a middle ground between the alleged terrors of the swampland elite and the condescension of a populism whereby professors, pundits, and politicians cloak the unwashed in a kindly blanket of protection. That middle ground is republicanism. It balances the authoritative voice of the people with the requirement that they behave deliberately and accept accountability.
Enter James Madison, one of the Constitution’s primary designers and defenders. Where Brutus says a representative should reflect popular views, Madison explains in Federalist No. 10 that the representative should refract them. By this, he means that the effect of representation, as opposed to direct democracy, is “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
Today’s populists are fond of invoking Madison. But populism and republicanism are different things. Populism is either directed by the public views, in which case it is prone to passion, or it protects them from on high, in which case it is patronizing. Each of these views characterized Madison’s political opponents, not the Framers.
That accountability, a feature of dignity, is notably absent from many of the populist calls to protect the working classes, who are cast as living at the mercy of forces beyond their control. This is a strange populism: We somehow need good elites to shield the masses from bad elites.