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No longer can individuals expect that American industry will bequeath them steady employment and a gateway to the consumer middle class. As global warming remains unaddressed and evermore dire, our prison population increases to frightening levels, and our educational system lags farther and farther behind our competitors, new challenges confront us all. There is no policy that can shield the American worker from the vital importance of attaining an education. Likewise, there is no protectionist agenda that can halt the movement of certain middle class jobs abroad.
The politics of the New Deal have the potential to inspire a new generation of politicians and activists to establish a system whereby the American people will come to expect advanced education and training from their government, and will demand it if is eliminated.
The politics of the New Deal were transformative because they were smart and pragmatic. The consensus was reached that there is both a moral and pragmatic imperative for the government to protect its citizens from the pitfalls of a free market economy. Today, that same line of thought must be employed to institute a dramatic expansion of green corps jobs initiatives. Addressing the problem that Madison and the Founders left unresolved is critical to restoring faith in our democratic republic.
Constitutionalists have been insufficiently attentive to the practical challenges of letting the majority have its way while ensuring that the majority governs for the good of the whole. In large measure this is because the practical challenges involve sophisticated analysis of the institution that most embodies the principle of majority rule in our political system: the Congress. Constitutional scholarship on the executive and judicial branches vastly outstrips constitutional scholarship on the legislature. Scholarship on the legislature is typically left to conventional empirical political scientists.
Just ponder: if you wanted to teach a seminar on the Constitution and the courts, or the Constitution and the presidency, how many more books you could select for your syllabus than if you wanted to teach a seminar on the Constitution and Congress. One political scientist, sadly overlooked, who dedicated much of his work to understanding the problem of majority rule was Willmoore Kendall.
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He is the thinker who most directly addresses the problems confronting the American republic in the 21st century. Kendall was widely regarded by those who knew him best as a conservative populist. His work consistently focused on two themes: first, the idea of a virtuous and engaged citizenry, and second, the institutional arrangements that best promote virtue in citizens and deliberation in the legislature.
Religious objectives are explicitly declared to be the end or purpose of civil society in these pre-Lockean documents. The kind of civic virtue Kendall identified as critical to the success of majority rule was not simply dedication to higher law and religious principles. It also had to do with civic engagement and community. Like the classical republicans who interpret early America as dedicated to collective deliberation and civic virtue, Kendall thought that America had solved and could continue to solve the problems of majoritarianism through its citizen engagement, initiative, and public-spiritedness.
These virtues—engagement, initiative, public-spiritedness, devotion to community—have been heavily eroded by developments that we are only now beginning to understand. Grappling with these developments and understanding how to preserve civic virtue in the face of them must be a priority for anyone seeking to vindicate our experiment in self-government. But reliance on civic virtue, by itself, cannot vindicate that experiment.
The crux of the matter here is not whether we have sufficient virtue to govern ourselves, but whether our institutions channel what virtues we have to positive ends. Instead, we must realize that majorities can be organized along different principles and, in particular, can be represented in various ways.
How the majority is represented, therefore, will determine to a great extent whether it is a virtuous one at all. In turn, institutions can promote or undermine a virtuous majority depending on how they channel that majority into governing institutions.
Owing to the fact that multiple parties and viewpoints are represented in the legislature, the majority is forced to win the consent of the minority, or at least is checked and circumscribed by minority scrutiny. For all of these reasons, congressional policymaking is preferable to presidential policymaking in that the former ensures a more deliberate, moderate outcome.
Can the American People Be Trusted to Govern Themselves?
And it is well they do; the alternative would be national policies based upon a wholly false picture of the sacrifices the electorate are prepared to make for the lofty objectives held up to them by presidential aspirants. Congressional majorities adopt this character only if Congress can operate in a manner that capitalizes on its virtues.
It can only produce the wiser, more sensible majority if it has mechanisms for using pluralism to promote deliberation, compromise, and consensus. The extended republic, composed of so many different interests, actually offers the best method for dealing with this intensity problem, according to Kendall. Obtaining these signals from other legislators will incentivize a majority to restrain itself.
It does so by recognizing that its preferences are mild and temporary compared to the strong and permanent preferences of a minority. Thus Congress should promote a culture in which representatives understand the preferences of the other interests in society, and restrain themselves in light of those preferences. If their goal is to enact legislation that advances the interests of their members, they will have to know and understand the preferences of the other members, whose cooperation they will need to enact legislation.
But it is complex in comparison to the quick and blunt action of an executive, and a self-governing people must accept the inherent messiness of this legislative process. A self-governing people needs to be engaged, and capable of building real communities, but it also needs to have some respect for politics and for the political compromise that self-government requires. Deliberation in the legislature requires a virtuous citizenry to resist the simplistic appeals that characterize the presidential majority and to accept the difficulties inherent in the process of building legislative majorities.
Instead of thinking of politics as a win-at-any-cost endeavor, the people will have to think institutionally to some extent, and reward behavior that preserves deliberation even if it detracts from the policy outcomes they seek to achieve. That so many today prefer to avoid the difficulties inherent in building a governing legislative majority indicates the most critical problem facing the American experiment.
Americans can be trusted to self-govern, but they also must remember that self-government means valuing sound political process, and is not simply reducible to getting the right policy outcomes. George W.
2001-02 Student Essay Contest Question
About the Author. Read More. A few months after the Federalists had secured the votes of nine state conventions to ratify the Constitution, James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson on the subject of future congressional action on a promised bill of rights. Madison proved ambivalent in his letter of October 17, Although he favored a bill of rights as an…. Absent from this debate are some…. Each response brings a different perspective to this debate.
They range from optimistic about the practice of self-government in…. As opposed to whom? Expanding a bit on the experience of the Bay Colony between it should be noted that the charter for the Bay Colony was granted in March NS. In the same month, the 3rd Parliament of Charles I was summonsed and it produced the Petition of Right, which lit the fuse for the English Civil Wars of the s. The form of government created by the settlers in the Winthrop Fleet is interesting.
The first government formed consisted of the governor, John Winthrop, who was appointed by the stockholders in London, and his assistants, who were initially the named grantees in the charter. Problems persisted between the settlers and the magistrates and in the settlers demanded a statement of their rights and liberties.
Ultimately, the heads of proposals were edited by Nathanial Ward and were adopted by the General Court in as the Massachusetts Body of Liberties. Although the Liberties have the form of a legal code, the underlying constitutional principals are obvious. The Liberties is well worth reading. Under the Liberties, the Bay Colony functioned as a free state until and it consistently denied that either the Crown or Parliament had any right to review any judicial action taken by the colony or to interfere in the government of the colony.
Thoughtful article. In that case the formation of a majority to allow any action is more of an issue than the blocking of whims of temporary majorities. The whims of the temporary majority should be limited by Constitution to enacting their desires on the state level. At this point most Constitutional limitations on the federal government have been abandonned, so the questions are no longer relevant, but in understanding those thoughts in context they are relevant.
It seems to me that events have long-since overtaken the question Mr. Postell poses. The American people no longer govern themselves, and they have not done so for some time now.
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Instead, we live today in an elected soft despotism, that is, a state of affairs in which we periodically trudge to the polls to engage in the theater of choosing those who thereafter tell us what we must, may, and may not do to an extent that is extraordinarily fine-grained. The United States is no longer a constitutional republic in any meaningful sense, but rather it exists in the state reluctantly foreseen by Tocqueville so long ago.
But to the extent that it is worthwhile to respond to Mr. Professor Postel asks a profound question. I think the answer is maybe, depending upon willing American citizens. Scholarship sometimes seems to unintentionally conserve error: promote tradition more than utilize experience and observation.
Human beings are so psychologically powerful that each decade of their lives may be lived on the edge of moral progress more than on the past. Each human may be free to perfect his or her person. Each parent, while perfecting his or her person, may coach their child to work for his or her unique, personal perfection.
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