american republicMy good friend, Bruce Frohnen, poses a question (“An isolated, but not Pacifist, query“) that I take the liberty to reformulate as follows: Aren’t the American people—whom I had held up as our best hope for putting an end to mindless imperialism (“Nisbet, War, and the American Republic“)—really to blame for the mess we are in today? After all, we are a republic in which, off at the end, the people rule. If our rulers get out of line it’s up to the people to set matters straight through elections.

His question is, I confess at once, a critical one. I want to attempt an answer by way of pointing to certain mitigating factors that bear directly on the culpability of the people and even raise the crucial question of whether they can exercise control.

(a) One of the virtues of our system, at least as it was originally “sold,” is that there are safeguards against precipitous, oppressive actions. If we are to take Madison at his word, the main safeguards are not institutional in nature. Rather, as we can see from Federalist essays nos. 10 and 51, the major barrier is the multiplicity and diversity of interests found in the extended republic. It was anticipated that the process of majority formation among these diverse and multiple interests would be difficult and time consuming, particularly with respect to progress toward convergence on any unjust or oppressive measure. A second safeguard was the belief on Madison’s part at least, that the voters would choose “fit characters”—virtuous, civic-minded individuals—to represent them. The extended republic, he maintained, at a minimum offered a wider choice of fit characters from which to choose and he thought the people would take advantage of this. To be sure, Madison and others looked upon the Senate as an institution that could delay oppressive or ill-conceived measures that might come to it from the House, hopefully providing enough time for the people to regain their good senses.

There are at least two significant things to note about this approach. First, it conforms with Schumpeter’s understanding of democratic government; that is, the main function of elections is not to decide matters of policy, but rather to select those, the representatives, who will. This, I believe, was the way the Framers wanted it. At least I think it clear that they did not anticipate a continuous parade of popular majorities from issue to issue dictating to their representatives. Nor has our system operated in this fashion. V.O. Key (one of the more sensible “behaviorists”) in his extensive study of public opinion found that seldom could it be regarded as “decisive,” i.e., as demanding a specific policy or course of action by government.


A second point is that the presumed benefits of the system are “one-way” benefits. By this I mean the built-in safeguards relate to the processes of enacting of laws; they serve to slow the process down and to provide the opportunity for deliberation before final action is taken. By the same token, as Madison acknowledges in Federalist no. 63, if an unjust or ill-conceived measure does somehow make it through the hurdles of the extended republic, it will also take some time to correct the situation. I think in this regard matters have turned out to be worse than Madison envisioned. One, for instance, would be hard pressed to identify the repeal of any program or policy that confers benefits or privileges on certain sectors of the population, no matter how wasteful, worthless, and inefficient they may prove to be. Such measures by their mere passage frequently create interests that are not easily overcome. (Think, e.g., English as a second language programs, Department of Education.)

(b) How does this bear upon Bruce Frohnen’s query? The safeguards more or less built in our system are inoperative when it come our interventionist policies that have proved so catastrophic. Presidents can make lasting commitments almost on the spur of the moment; they can readily position themselves in ways I indicated in my prior essay to unilaterally commit this nation to war, even to the extent of launching a preventive war. The deliberative processes for these commitments are, to say the least, quite different from those associated with domestic legislation. Moreover, the people, subject as they are to lies, distortions, and deceptions, are hardly in any position to exercise control. But this is not all. Once the deed is done, once the president acts, other intimidating forces come into play, not the least of these being the Neanderthal patriots.

But the question then becomes, why can’t the people, once they clear their heads, exercise their sovereign prerogatives? To begin with, to do so they must face up to the hurdles of the extended republic that I noted above. This by itself will be difficult, but our leaders, those who have committed the nation to war, aren’t going to be very helpful in this process. In fact, they will constitute an additional obstacle that must be dealt with. Partisan considerations will come into play, wherein the president’s party can be expected to support his policies. (What is astonishing to me is that with few exceptions the Republicans in Congress followed Bush II right off the cliff.) Moreover, among other things, there is a momentum to war that is also extremely difficult to overcome. The Democrats encountered this when they took control of Congress thinking they were going to wind down the Iraq War.

In sum, it is extremely difficult for ordinary citizens to get a clear picture of what is going, and even if they do, they still have enormous obstacles to overcome in order to exercise any control.

Other factors come into play. Our politicians play their roles against the backdrop of politically apathetic and ignorant public. I mean no criticism in this: most people have other interests and pursuits. For this reason, though, it takes a good deal to arouse the public. Couple this with the fact that the costs of our interventions are not widely felt in the population, being largely confined to member in the voluntary military and their families, and it is not difficult to account for the lack of popular intervention and control today. What is more, our media sanitizes the war; we don’t see the carnage, misery, and destruction. (Wikileak scares the hell out of the establishment.)

(c) What conclusions or observations seem to be called for. Here are a few. First, recall the key role representatives or “fit characters” were to play in our system? Well, forget about that. They should be our first line of defense. Instead, they are a problem. Second, we would do well to devise some safeguards that would control our presidents, not only with regard to their war-making powers but also in those areas where they claim unilateral powers. And don’t be deceived by Professor Yoo about the Founders’ conception of presidential powers. Third, with Professor Birzer (“Westward, the Loss of the Republic”), I am concerned whether we can rightfully be called a republic. As far as I can see, the increasing incapacity of our national government to govern is probably due to the republic being far too extensive with too many divergent interests. In modern times we have never really faced up to one of the questions uppermost in the minds of the Anti-Federalists: How extensive can a republic be and still be a republic? This leads to my final observation by way of addressing Professor Frohnen’s question. We should cut the people some slack. It is highly questionable for reasons I have set forth whether they can exercise sovereign power. This is an additional and weighty reason for questioning whether we are still a republic. It may well be that, upon reflection, what I regarded previously to be our last and best hope is really a lost hope. Thanks, Bruce.

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The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

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