Barack Obama’s second presidential triumph has left many American conservatives feeling stranded.  It is as if they have become aliens in their native land.  Are conservatives simply sore losers, or does their sense of alienation correspond to a seismic disturbance in America’s political terrain?  It is hard to say, but this much seems clear: When a large part of the most responsible class of citizens cannot accept the result of an election, democracy—in whatever sense we use the word—is on the verge of collapse.

The alternation of party governments, so we have been told since childhood, is one of the pillars of our democratic political system.  Every few years roughly half of the eligible voters turn out to choose candidates from column A or column B, and the results send the happy winners to the county seat, state capital, or federal district to represent the people who elected them.  But who are these “people” who are being represented?  Are they all the people, or just the citizens who voted for the winning candidate?

In the old days, the losing side in a presidential election could concede defeat and spend the next four years merrily plotting a reversal of fortune.  Democrats acquiesced in the election of Dwight Eisenhower and (with some reluctance) Ronald Reagan, just as Republicans were willing to acknowledge Harry Truman or Jack Kennedy as spokesperson in chief for the victorious cadre of lobbyists that engineered the election, but, as time has gone by, both sides have become more and more skeptical: Democrats continue to argue that Al Gore really defeated George W. Bush in 2000, and many Republicans refused to accept the legitimacy of the Clintons.  We heard repeatedly that Bill and Hillary were subverting the Constitution and preparing the way for an enduring political dynasty, but even among conservatives these suspicions were voiced only by a paranoid fringe that was and is indifferent to the mischief likely to be caused by such conspiracy theories.

The loyalty of conservatives has now sunk far lower than it did during the mock trial of Bill Clinton.  After President Obama’s two victories, they have begun to suspect that our country has turned a corner and left them behind, without hope and without a country to call their own.  This sense of alienation probably explains the latest internet craze: secession petitions, one of which has garnered over 100,000 signatures.  I am now hearing repeatedly what only a few diehards were saying 20 years ago: “Obama, Reid, and Pelosi do not represent me, because this is no longer my country.”

Citizens who can reject the results of an election and with it the regime in power are in effect denying legitimacy to the entire “democratic” system.  Can conservatives even be justified in voting, if they are unwilling to accept the consequences?  If this country is now in the hands of an electoral majority consisting of revanchist ethnic minorities, illiterates, criminals and mental defectives, irresponsible welfare dependents, infanticidal women, and anti-American Marxists, it is no longer our fathers’ United States.

Are conservatives justified in their despair?  The answer depends in part on our view of representative government, a political institution we seem to take for granted without ever understanding what it is.  Americans all claim to live under a representative government, just as they all seem to believe they live in a democracy, but we never seem to wonder who it is that is represented by our President and the members of Congress.

We are supposed to be a hardheaded and skeptical nation, yet we do not balk at the incomprehensible mystery of representation.  Most of us (including most self-described Christians) reject the vicarious atonement of the God-Man Who offered Himself as the scapegoat for our sinful race, but we still pretend to understand the notion that one fallible and venal human being can stand in for his fellows.  Logically speaking, the reverse should be true.  Granted the premise that there is a God Who created and loves the human race, we should be able to understand (if not necessarily to accept) the notion that in some way this God, in taking on human flesh, could represent all of humanity that has ever lived and will ever live, but even to someone inclined to mysticism, the theory of political representation seems fantastic.

That a mere mortal being can “represent” thousands or millions of others is, on the face of it, absurd, especially if the representative is supposed to reflect the will and interests of the majority of his constituents.  Dick Durbin does not know I exist, and if he did he would probably want to do something about it.  To suggest that such a man can represent me is deeply insulting.  But that is precisely what Senator Durbin and my fellow citizens pretend to believe.  In a party system, of course, a representative has to balance the needs of his district or state with those of his particular friends and followers.  Senator Durbin is supposed to pay particular attention to the desires of his fellow Democrats, while at the same time taking care of Illinois’s interests and legislating for the entire United States.  To navigate one’s way through such a conflict of interests would be, for an honest man of great ability, a difficult task, but for the specimens of humanity that Illinois sends to Congress, the very idea is ludicrous.

In this age of computerized survey analysis, the theory of popular representation is antiquated.  Why pretend that Dick Durbin or that other fellow—the Republican whose name no one remembers but who bombed Christians in order to aid the Muslims in Yugoslavia—can represent the changing whims of the state’s majority, when we can hire Gallup or Rasmussen to do the job?  But if a machine that is nothing more than a lot of on-off buttons can represent us and make decisions for us, perhaps the theory of democratic representation is not just out of date but inherently false.

At its best, representative government is a kind of contradiction in terms: Government by its very nature acts as the instrument of a power elite, and it hardly matters whether the members of that elite inherit or buy their positions.  To the extent that they represent anyone, our senators and governor represent themselves and the people who have bribed them into office.  At its worst, the theory of popular representation is a deliberate deception practiced upon the people who are duped into believing that the government belongs to them, when, “believe me, it doesn’t.”

However did we persuade ourselves that such a system could work?  Historical parallels may have helped to delude us into accepting the fiction that an honest man could be elected to represent the interests of a county or a state.  After all, some form of representation is common in most of the political systems with which we are familiar: The tribes of Israel, the Athenian democracy, the Roman Republic, and the English Parliament all made some use of leaders who spoke for and exercised authority over the people they represented, but under the surface of this generality we can see very important distinctions that are differences not just in degree but in the very nature of the representation.  Each is different in important ways from the others, and all are quite different, both in principle and in fact, from our own form of representation.

The children of Israel we glimpse in the Pentateuch are divided into tribes, which in turn are broken down into groups of families whose heads may be said to be the natural leaders of their peoples.  Moses appointed rulers/judges over groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, but at the beginning of Numbers, we see that the selection of leaders is not arbitrary but derives from a natural system in which each tribe has a senior head of family, backed by elders, to rule it.  In Deuteronomy we hear of “chiefs of your tribes . . . captains over thousands,” etc.  Whatever part was played by Moses in selecting leaders and assigning them duties, it is clear that, in the long run, the situation is something less like a top-down bureaucracy than a segmentary, clan-based society in which the political representatives exercise power over their kinsmen by virtue of their leadership qualities and position within the clans.  It is a tribal parallel with American federalism or the Catholic theory of subsidiarity, but it has little in common with our own elective representation.

The leaders of the Israelites represented their peoples as a father can be said to represent his wife and children.  These unelected captains and judges were not bound to follow the dictates of majority rule or conform their decisions to consensus.  A similar freedom was enjoyed by the leaders of commonwealths that are not entirely dominated by clans and tribes.  Many (though not all) Athenian and Roman leaders were elected, but they did not serve as mere mouthpieces of public opinion.  Elected Athenian officials were chosen on the strength of their abilities (and popularity).  They may have had to flatter the demos, but they were not therefore expected to obey the mob in the assembly.  Nicias had learned to fear the mob, but Cimon and Pericles were, as heirs to dynastic family traditions, entitled to play a leading role in Athenian politics.

The Roman order was far less democratic.  A Roman elected to a magistracy that conferred the right to enter the senate did not have to stand for re-election, and he could only be removed for a serious cause.  The younger Cato could defy public opinion by opposing the tyrannical aspirations of Pompey and Caesar.  He represented not this neighborhood or that village, but the Roman commonwealth, or at least his understanding of that commonwealth.  He was as secure in his seat as John C. Calhoun—indirectly elected by the South Carolina legislature—was in his.  The 17th Amendment, which requires direct election of senators, made statesmen like Calhoun and Webster extinct.

The Greco-Roman style of oligarchic representation is echoed in the councils chosen or appointed to assist the kings of England and France.  Naturally, a man from Bourges or Norwich would be particularly interested in the welfare of his neighbors, but he was not required to advance their views.  Eighteenth-century England was infested with pocket boroughs and rotten boroughs, so the liberal reformers claimed, which corrupted Parliament by permitting a nobleman or a small group of electors to elect members.  A man sent to Parliament by such methods might well be stupid and venal, but he might also be the elder Pitt, a statesman of a type that no democracy would tolerate.

This is, substantially, the position that Edmund Burke took when he responded to a petition from the electors of Bristol.  Bristol merchants were dissatisfied with their member’s relaxed view of trade restrictions on Ireland.  Conceding that the unanimity of opinion between a representative and his electors was desirable, Burke utterly rejected the notion that he could be bound by instructions or petitions from the men who had elected him:

You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament.  If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect.

Most Americans, including conservatives, believed in their dream of democratic representation and refused to understand that the consequences (representatives of inferior character and abilities) followed directly from an absurd premise.  Now that the dream is shattered, they are losing faith not just in their political institutions but in their country.  That is always the problem with naive optimism: When the lies are revealed, the credulous dupes fall too easily into despair.  Bill Clinton, bless his corrupt and wooden head, could not understand how people could love their country and yet say they hate their government.  To me, such sentiments at that time seemed perfectly understandable.  They still do.  If a Roman citizen could love the Roman Empire under Caligula and Nero—Saint Paul even told us to obey such emperors—we can obey the Lord Obama and continue to love the better parts of the American tradition.

Englishmen have loved their country and the monarchy while despising the unworthy monarchs who disgraced the throne.  For most of the life of Walter Scott, Britain was ruled by a madman, George III, and by a degenerate, his son George IV.  Scott revered the monarchy and did the royal family more than a few highly useful services without pretending to himself that George IV deserved his loyalty.  It was Scott, living in so corrupt a period, who defended British traditions and penned the most frequently quoted lines on love of country:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead

Who never to himself hath said,

“This is my own, mine native land!”

If conservatives could understand Scott’s patriotism, they might recover their morale and their manhood.

These terrible times require a healthy measure of skepticism about our political institutions and the creatures who manage them, but they also require a little courage and, more than courage, an historically grounded love of country that cannot be broken by all the scoundrels in Washington.