from Kevin Williamson at The Dispatch, Curb Your Enthusiasm:
(Likely firewalled if you are not a subscriber, and I encourage you to subscribe. Jonah Goldberg has created a wonderful new resource. Both Goldberg and Williamson used to be must reads at National Review , and I have probably quoted Kevin Williamson more often than any other single writer in this blog.)
Americans get a little psychic jolt out of writing, with capitalization, “We the People,” but political philosophy has recognized that we the people are the main problem going all the way back to the beginning. It is scandalous to frankly admit this in our times: The prehistoric truth is forbidden by postmodern manners. But Plato understood it, Hobbes understood it, Confucius understood it—and our Founding Fathers understood it, too. Plato, Hobbes, Confucius, and many of the other giants of political philosophy understood, each in his own way, that there is no such thing as We the People, that there are groups and factions and classes and interests, with desires and priorities that are, at least at the margins, mutually exclusive, and that the role of the state is to seek harmony and balance among these rivals not by arriving at a state of perfect mutual satisfaction but by convincing (or, more often, forcing) the parties to accept imperfect, second-best, compromise settlements that satisfy no one entirely but provide for the best opportunity of overall flourishing. At one point, that was elementary stuff, Statesmanship 101, as obvious to John Adams as it would have been to Cosimo de’ Medici or to Marcus Aurelius. Adams was obliged to take his Congress more seriously than Cosimo did his signoria or Marcus his senate, but all of them understood that there was more to good governance than deferring to the tribunes of the plebs or treating the state and/or its chief executive as the embodiment of the will of the people as a whole. Marcus Aurelius was an emperor, but he was less of an imperialist than some of our democrats in good standing.
Liberty under a constitutional order is an idea that was born in England and grew up in the United States. In a recent conversation with our friend Dan Hannan (who sits in the House of Lords as Lord Hannan of Kingsclere), Jonah describes democracy not as some sanctifying romantic principle that will necessarily lead to a noble society in which the state is an authentic representative of the people but simply as a “hedge”—a hedge against all of the horrifying things that people do when you give them political power without checks and accountability. That’s the real conservative sensibility at work: If progressivism is about making incremental improvements in the direction of utopia, conservatism is about avoiding catastrophe. And if democracy is a hedge against Caesarism, constitutionalism is a hedge against democracy—against the horrifying things that the people will do when you give them political power without checks and accountability. The loyalist clergyman Mather Byles put the question to his fellow Americans on the eve of the revolution: “Which is better—to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away or by three thousand tyrants one mile away?” That is a fair question. Adams himself was skeptical about independence in the years leading up to the revolution. The American constitutional order is an attempt to provide an option other than the choice between one tyrant and 3,000—or, in our time, 320 million—of them.
The peculiar and narrow effects of small-dollar donations and social media are very much of our time and place, but the underlying issue isn’t—and the solution, to the extent that there is one, isn’t something we have to dream up de novo. We have been here before—that is how we got here in the first place. A liberal constitutional order works by dividing up power among competing factions and institutions, setting them against one another and, when necessary, frustrating the will of We the People when it congeals into a temporary majority in support of some destructive policy or project. What will save our system is . . . everything populists left and right are working against, everything a good populist hates with all his heart and both his lungs: not the destruction of the power of political parties and their leaders, but the reinvigoration of those parties and the restoration of their traditional role as gatekeepers; fewer open primaries and more smoke-filled rooms; not the democratizing of anti-democratic institutions such as the Electoral College and the Bill of Rights, but the fortification of these institutions and an unembarrassed emphasis on their countermajoritarian character; more federalism rather than more nationalism; better and more effective news media gatekeeping rather than the ever-finer subdivision of the national conversation; more independent power exercised by interest groups rather than less; less regulating and more legislating, meaning a constrained executive branch and a more active legislative branch; more textualism and less opportunism in constitutional disputes; less crusading and more compromising; government and elections that are boring rather than a national pastime.
The founders often referred to ‘The People’ as the ultimate source of government power, but between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution they learned the importance of limiting the power of the majority. They sought the benefits of an aristocracy, a monarchy, and a democracy without the faults. They were able to see the faults of an unrestrained democracy in France as soon as our Constitution was ratified. The most violent despots of the 20th century claimed to speak for the people.