Opinion | Morgan Liddick: On the nature of the republic
On Your Right
What is the nature of our political system? This isn’t an academic question; it’s vital to understanding what’s going on with the contemporary freak show we call politics.
To begin, remember that the nation was not intended to be, nor was it created as, a “democracy.” The founders were leery of direct public participation in government; they were concerned with what the ninth century monk Alcuin described as “… the madness of crowds.” Elbridge Gerry and others thought we would come to grief from “an excess of democracy.” So they decided to conduct the business of government through representatives elected by a small number of propertied men. To use a historical analogy, they preferred the open oligarchy of rich and successful Corinth to the democracy of Athens’ brilliant but meteoritic rise and collapse. Much of the course of American history from then has featured the continuous enlargement of this franchise — with consequences we are still working out.
The founders did not foresee today’s professional politicians; they disdained and were suspicious of “factions” — what we call political parties. They also saw government as something that should be limited and closely watched because power, in the words of James Madison in the Federalist No. 48, “… is of an encroaching nature and that it ought to be effectually restrained from passing the limits assigned to it.”Their government was to be a small undertaking, managed by citizens who, when they had governed for a bit, left to go on with their normal lives.
Political parties developed almost immediately, and a permanent political class emerged shortly thereafter. American citizens and their leaders began to diverge, with the latter more often than not taking a dim view of the former. This created profound frictions, as when the elites of Virginia and Massachusetts, who had governed the nation since its inception, were shocked by the election of Andrew Jackson, a man out of the howling wilderness of Tennessee. Jackson was a popular president, elected by voters newly enfranchised by a lower poll tax and diminished property requirements in many states. Most of the contemporary political hierarchy loathed him, creating scandals to undermine his administration and using the press against him. They failed spectacularly.
Our political history is peppered with similar men who sought the presidency, America’s only national elective office. Some, like John C. Calhoun or Huey Long, had a deep but narrow appeal, confined to a single region or class. They were generally unsuccessful. Others, like Theodore Roosevelt or John Kennedy were, like Jackson, a reflection of profound changes in American society. They succeeded because they were widely perceived to have the nation’s interests at heart, and because they never lost contact with those who elected them. In the election campaign of 1903, President Roosevelt felt perfectly comfortable walking into a bar full of armed men in South Dakota because, in a very real way, he was one of them. His political enemies and critics never understood that.
Today, we are at a similar moment in history to that of 1828 or 1903. Those who fancy themselves our leaders are so estranged from the everyday lives of the commoners they variously describe as “irredeemable,” “deplorable,” smelly, stupid, racist and a hundred other adjectives we hear daily from some quarters of power that they were shocked in 2016 when the plebes they despise elected a man they loathe, partially as a slap at them for years of their smug superiority. It is a shock from which they have not yet recovered, judging from current events.
To understand the depth of disconnection those hounding the president, consider this: Donald Trump may be an oaf. He may be an uncontrollable Twitterist and have only the sketchiest of ideas about protocol when dealing with foreign leaders. He may resist good guidance. But he has not politicized the apparatus of government and used it for political purposes. He has not promised an earthly paradise election after election and delivered, well, somewhat less. And he has striven to deliver what he promised during the 2016 campaign. Have we all forgotten what a novelty this is in today’s politics?
Finally, although he is often inartful, he generally means what he says. His opponents do not. Consider: When Elizabeth Warren yowls about “Medicare for All,” is there any expectation she will set aside her very generous congressional health care and become one of the “all?” Of course not. Because that much equality is just silly.
Morgan Liddick’s column “On Your Right” publishes Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Liddick spent 27 years working for the U.S. Foreign Service, primarily living abroad. He also spent 12 years teaching U.S. history and Western civilization at community colleges in Colorado and Texas. He lived in Summit County as recently as 2015. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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