The Threat to Democracy Isn’t Coming From Its People

Donald Trump flanked by senators including Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Tom Cotton, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Thom Tillis, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Sen. Mike Lee.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Edelman - Pool/Getty Images, Zach Gibson/Getty Images, Zach Gibson/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Has American democracy been hijacked by the passions of its people, now a dangerous and untamable majority undermining the republic?

In a new issue of the Atlantic, Jeffrey Rosen, head of the National Constitution Center, says yes. “[James] Madison’s worst fears of mob rule have been realized—and the cooling mechanisms he designed to slow down the formation of impetuous majorities have broken.” For Rosen, America is trapped in a nightmare of majoritarian excess: a polarized Congress, “ideological warfare between parties that directly channels the passions of their most extreme constituents and donors,” and a vulgar presidential politics rooted in “emotional appeals.” The people have the government they want, and it’s threatening our institutions.

But this story of popular excess—to be tamed by enlightened elites—doesn’t stand to scrutiny. Our current president wasn’t elected by a majority of the people, the public’s preferences across a range of issues haven’t been translated to public policy, and ideological polarization—whatever its disadvantages—isn’t responsible for the decline of congressional deliberation. Far from an excess of majority rule, American democracy has seen the rise of minority rule, with efforts to entrench it in the states. If there’s a malign actor in this drama, it’s not “the people,” it’s many of the elites currently in power. And this argument against majoritarianism is essentially a brief for those elites.

Donald Trump is the obvious catalyst for this discussion of democratic excess; he is a classic demagogue, with the requisite contempt for truth, deliberation, and restraint. When Rosen laments the fallen state of the presidency—that leaders now “communicate directly with voters, and pander to the mob,” presumably in contravention of the framers’ intentions—he clearly has the current president in mind. But a fatal problem for his argument is the plain fact that Trump wasn’t elected by “the people.” Trump lost the national popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots. Add third-party candidates to the total, and a firm majority of voters—52.6 percent—rejected Trump.

Far from unbridled majoritarianism, Trump is president because of the Electoral College, an institution designed precisely to “prevent the rapid mobilization of passionate majorities.” Were the Electoral College not to exist or no longer favor less-populated states, those “passionate majorities” may have prevailed in the 2016 presidential election, leaving less cause for concern in the present.

Rosen cites our political parties as another Madisonian institution now undermined by democratic excess. In the 19th century, parties were a moderating influence, “uniting diverse economic and regional interests through shared constitutional visions.” But by the 20th century, these effects were diminished 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.”

But this doesn’t hold either. Nineteenth-century American politics were notoriously raucous, with frequent violence in and around elections. And the idea that these parties sustained democratic stability is belied by recurring sectional confrontations, from the Nullification Crises of 1832 and 1833 to the increasing dispute over slavery that led to the infamous “Compromise of 1850” that merely forestalled the crisis. Under this party system, Americans suppressed and sidelined conflict over slavery through a series of bargains and concessions until it erupted into civil war. For all of its faults, the more “populist” party system of the 20th and 21st centuries has yet to produce domestic bloodshed on the scale of the slaveholders’ rebellion.

This warning of democratic excess falters most regarding Congress, where the Senate—itself a counter-majoritarian institution with counter-majoritarian norms like the filibuster—is held by a party representing a minority of all Americans. The House of Representatives operates under a minority party and operates under informal rules that preclude consideration of any legislation that isn’t backed by a majority of the majority. Public support for universal background checks or comprehensive immigration reform has crashed on the rocks of institutions and rules meant to either stymie majorities or prevent the formation of bipartisan legislative coalitions. To say that a gridlocked Washington headed by a minority president suffers from too much democracy is to make a statement with little connection to reality.

As he concludes, Rosen asks is there “any hope of resurrecting Madison’s vision of majority rule based on reason rather than passion?” But there isn’t majority rule. What there is, however, is declining trust in political elites and a technological infrastructure—social media—that gives ordinary Americans opportunities to challenge, criticize, and occasionally ridicule the elite consensus. It’s telling that Rosen’s solutions aren’t institutional reforms that might change incentives for politicians or better align Congress with principles of deliberation; it’s a call for limits on social networks and greater civic education provided—he implies—by wealthy citizens with a vested interest in defending existing institutions.

An honest examination of democratic decline would look at the ways in which our counter-majoritarian institutions are thwarting the public will—as expressed through its elected representatives—and how that can create support for truly destabilizing forces. It would account for how the Republican Party itself has made Madisonian institutions unworkable by abandoning the commitment to compromise and fair play that makes them work. The transformation of the GOP into a parliamentary-style party primarily responsive to donors, right-wing activists, and conservative media is arguably the central problem for American governance.

What declinist arguments like Rosen’s actually fear is the waning influence of elites. And what these arguments seem to seek—in voicing nostalgia for early American politics—is an era where elites could steer governance with only the cursory affirmation of a narrow and exclusive public. But if political and economic elites have lost their stature in American life, it’s only after a generation of profound mismanagement, from misguided foreign adventures to wage stagnation and broad economic collapse. Their failure, and the extent to which they’ve never been held accountable, is the shadow looming over our politics. And if we’ve seen light, it’s in those places where ordinary people have organized and begun to build new movements and new ways of democratic living, like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Fight for 15, the immigrant rights movement, and the massive mobilization of women that followed the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Democracy didn’t create our problems, but it may solve them.