04 April 2016

The tempering of democracy: How recovering the classical mixed constitution could affect the way we vote

No, it isn't just about Trump. Or Clinton or Sanders. It's about democracy itself, which most of us have come to think of as an unmitigated good. Throughout much of western history, however, democracy had a bad reputation, often seen as the penultimate stage in a constitution's degeneration, to be followed by that absolute worst form of government, tyranny. Plato in particular had many reasons to oppose democracy, which had led Athens into a disastrous war with Sparta and to the death of his revered mentor Socrates. The lesson for Plato seemed obvious: No ship's captain in his right mind would poll his crew on the best way to run the ship; he would instead rely on his own specialized knowledge. Similarly, a statesman who knows the art of statesmanship should govern according to this knowledge, not according to the shifting whims of a fickle and untutored public.

Plato's political philosophy has been castigated as unabashedly élitist, as something out of step with our own times. Nevertheless his fear of democracy was shared by most of the western tradition until very recently. Sir Winston Churchill gave democracy a backhanded compliment when he famously called it “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

By contrast, one-time American presidential aspirant Alfred E. Smith offered a different diagnosis: “the cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.” Over the past century the United States has moved increasingly in Smith's more evidently ideological direction rather than following Churchill's more cautious path. If the American founders established a federal republic similar in many respects to Great Britain's 18th-century constitution, their 19th- and 20th-century successors moved decisively to democratize as many institutions as they could manage, including the presidency, the Senate (1913) and many lower-level courts. These efforts gathered steam in the early years of the last century as the Progressive Movement sought at once to break the power of the old party bosses and to bring the insights of the social sciences to bear on public life.

One of the Progressives' key reforms was to institute a limited number of internal party primary elections as a way of testing a prospective candidate's appeal to the electorate. A candidate's performance in these pre-elections would be taken into account by the delegates to the party's convention later in the year, but they were by no means determinative of a victor in the larger nomination process. Generally there were still battles to be fought and decisions to be made at the convention itself.

This all changed when in 1968 the Democratic convention meeting in Chicago chose Vice-President Hubert Humphrey as its presidential nominee, despite his not having entered a single primary election beforehand. The resulting outrage within the party led to reforms aimed at further democratizing the nomination process, thereby carrying to its conclusion a process begun decades earlier. No more smoke-filled rooms where party bosses would choose a presidential candidate. Now the people themselves would choose the candidate through an increasing number of primaries and state party caucuses, the results of which would bind the convention delegates. A brokered convention would thus be rendered increasingly unlikely, and a party going into an election with an evidently weak presidential and vice-presidential team would be powerless to find replacements so late in the process. This unintended consequence has negatively affected both Democrats and Republicans at various times.

Might we do well to admit, not that democracy is a bad thing, but that too much democracy can harm a country's constitution? Indeed, if the prudential judgment in favor of democracy becomes an ideological democratism, animated by a belief in the infallibility of the popular will, the possibilities of abuse multiply accordingly. Candidates and parties are tempted to make promises that they must know they cannot keep and that no government, qua government, may even be competent to fulfill. Philosopher Yves R. Simon once wrote: “Any regime, in order to work well or merely to survive, needs or may need the operation of principles distinct from, and opposed to, its own idea.” Though this adage is not restricted to democracy, it definitely includes it: “a nondemocratic principle may serve democracy by holding in check forces fatal to it.” Some of those forces are the unintended side-effects of democracy itself, especially if the democratic principle is extended too far and the general will of the people comes to trump the rule of law.

Indeed even the rule of law is a nondemocratic principle, sorely needed to hold in check the potentially arbitrary whims of the popular will. But much more is needed. Beginning with Polybios in the 2nd century BC, many political philosophers concluded that the best constitution is one that incorporates elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy into a composite form. While each of the three alone tends to degenerate into an abusive distortion of just government, the mixed constitution will be more durable, as monarchical, aristocratic and democratic elements check each other. In some fashion, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin endorsed the mixed constitution. In the 18th century Baron Montesquieu admired the English constitution whose durability and protection of liberty he ascribed to its division of powers, including a balanced relationship between King, Lords, and Commons; an independent judiciary; and the jury system.

Two generations later the American founders drew on Montesquieu as they undertook to establish a new federal government characterized by checks and balances among three branches of government and a federal division of powers. And in the following century, Canada's Fathers of Confederation set up “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom,” consisting of a popularly elected House of Commons, an appointed Senate and an appointed Governor General to represent the Queen. While recognizing the need for democratic participation in public affairs, they were under no illusions that they were creating an unqualified democracy and had no difficulty retaining nondemocratic institutions as integral components of the larger political framework.

What relevance does the classical mixed constitution have for choosing candidates for public office? The need for democracy is satisfied by giving citizens a choice between two or more candidates thoroughly vetted by their respective party organizations and presented to the people as the best persons for the job. The aristocratic principle—necessary in all political systems—should come into play within the parties themselves as would-be candidates are screened in accordance with established criteria to insure a high level of competence and personal integrity. Only then would they be brought before the public for their verdict.

I am reluctant, of course, to advocate the abolition of primary elections and a return to the smoke-filled rooms of the past. In this democratic age, even the faintest whiff of élitism could elicit a negative response from many quarters. Nevertheless, as a potential voter, I would prefer to think that the leaders of whichever party I favor have done everything they can to nominate a quality candidate before I have to make a choice. Is that too much to ask?

This post is cross-listed at First Thoughts.

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