A history textbook used by thousands of college freshmen for the last twenty years tells fledgling citizens that democracy is the system of government which “trusts the average man to free himself from tradition, prejudice, habit, and by free discussion come to a rational conclusion.” This tissue of sophistry encapsulates the derailment of republican self-government in our time. Most certainly democracy has something to do with the “average man,” the common people, the many. But one of the numerous defects of the modern and artificial definition above is that it leaves out three-fourths of the moral and historical context that was taken for granted by the Framers and Founders of the American federal republic when they talked about a government of the people. The definition, in fact, subtly shifts democracy away from substance to procedure, from ethics to instrumentality. The pins have been kicked out from under democracy, leaving it balancing precariously on one leg.
The definition, to begin with, abandons virtue for reason. Our forefathers took it for granted that virtue was necessary in a ruler—whether it be the one, the few, or the many. And where in the definition do we find the ends and limitations of government? In other words, where is the Constitution? What tells us which things men in the collective are entitled to come to “rational conclusions” about, and what things are they to leave alone? What restrains the 51 percent from coming to a “rational conclusion” to expropriate, enslave, or exterminate the 49 percent? And why is it necessary for the common man to divorce himself from “tradition, prejudice, habit”? In fact, the average man at all times and places (and the wise man too) is fond of tradition, prejudice, and habit, and rightly so. If we believe in the rule of the many, are we not obliged to respect their traditions, prejudices, and habits as well as what we deem to be their rational conclusions? What, after all, are our liberties and democratic forms—freedom of the press and assembly, fair play, parliamentary procedure, due process of law—if not traditions, prejudices, and habits handed down by our forefathers over centuries, which owe their survival to inheritance as much as to abstract argument.
Most assuredly “free discussion” is indispensable to democracy. That is, free, candid, and tolerant deliberation among differing opinions and interests in the process of arriving at decisions-decisions on those things which the public is entitled to decide. But free discussion divorced from “tradition, prejudice, habit” rather leads us away from the common man. It describes a type of society loved by the few, not by the many. Who exactly is it that is “trusting” the “average man” to arrive at a “rational conclusion”? “Rational” according to what system of values? According to whose views and interests? Here is the most insidious part of this peculiar modern democracy—the rationale for a hidden elite. If the average man perversely refuses to come to a “rational conclusion,” what happens?
What happens is a government of the few who decide, against the will of the many, that “free discussion” requires a foreign-born pornographer be subsidized to create obscenity; a government in which the few enforce “rational” social policies (such as busing, affirmative action, coddling of criminals) overwhelmingly considered unjust and oppressive by the many; a government in which schools, local authorities, and even the taxing power (immemorially reserved to the people) are taken over by unelected and untouchable judges. Democracy suddenly requires the people to submit to their betters, whether they will or not. This, of course, is not democracy at all, but oligarchy, as our Fathers would have immediately recognized.
Again and again, we have seen the self-government of the American people frustrated by the few, the oligarchy, in the name of “rational democracy.” This is the problem of republicanism in our time—our chief dilemma in society and government—the consolidation of power in the hands of the few. It explains that, while sophisters (whenever they raise their snouts from the public trough long enough) shout hosannas to the triumph of democracy, the American people, everywhere, have ceased to believe that the government they elect is really theirs or that they will be allowed to make the institutions ostensibly theirs respond to their will. Everywhere an ideological construct mislabeled “democracy” has triumphed. And everywhere the people feel powerless.
For those who really value the rule of the people, as well as the special constitutional heritage of American federal republicanism, the task of the day is not to spread democracy about the world while we congratulate ourselves on our success. The task is to restore the federal republic at home. In order to carry out this task we will need the spirit of liberty that animated generations of our forefathers—not an obeisance to their forms, but an imitation of their spirit. For forms may survive when the soul is fled from them.
What we need is a return of power to the many. Not a concentration of power in the hands of the few for the alleged benefit of the many, abstractly conceived. That way lies Hitler and Stalin. Rather a dispersal and deconsolidation of power. Only power can check power. And self-government is in its nature local and individual. Only then is it real.
For our Fathers, liberty consisted in a negative upon government. It was not a boon bestowed by government, but something that must be asserted against government. It will not increase the power and liberty of American families in the least for the government to bestow upon them a voucher to spend on a limited choice of schools under stipulated requirements. It will rather further consolidate power and further intrude the government into as yet unregulated spheres of life. The only way to increase the power and liberty of the family is not to collect the taxes and not to lay down the regulations to begin with. Both our governing parties agree on the consolidation of power—they argue only over marginal aspects of administration.
Unlike us, the attitude of our Founders toward democracy was not ideological and not self-congratulatory. They believed in the right of those who were capable of governing themselves to do so. They were pleased that Americans had the fortunate opportunity to live under self-government at a time when, unlike today, most of the world was hostile to the very idea. They hoped they might set an example for oppressed mankind. They did not entertain a duty to spread democracy about the world by fire, sword, harangue, and money. They were the opposite of self-congratulatory and arrogant. Their demeanor was cautious, monitory, and self-demanding.
“Well, gentlemen,” Dr. Franklin is supposed to have said at the Philadelphia Convention, “you have made a republic—if you can keep it.” If republican self-government was to survive, if Americans were to go on governing themselves, then government must be watched. Republican liberty could always be subverted by lust for power on the part of the cunningly ambitious few and by the decay of those strenuous and demanding virtues among the many that made self-government possible. When our Fathers spoke of America as an experiment, they did not mean a glorious mission of revolution. They meant an experiment in the exercise and preservation of republican virtues.
“Power is always stealing from the many to the few,” was the motto of a Washington democratic newspaper in the early days of the republic. It was a paraphrase of Mr. Jefferson’s “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Mr. Jefferson also said that the tree of liberty must be watered from time to time by the blood of tyrants, and of patriots, that a little revolution now and then is a good thing.
Because, Jefferson has been, since the mid-19th century, enveloped in a dense fabric of lies woven by Jacobin democrats and made the symbol of consolidated power in the name of equality, it is difficult for us to see what he meant. But what he meant was exactly what I have described above as the task of the day—the occasional need to restore the republic. He was not suggesting the overturn of society, a perpetual revolution for ever greater consolidation of power in the name of equality. Jefferson is nothing if not the enemy of consolidated power. It is not society that is to be overthrown—it is society, as in the American Revolution, that is to assert itself and overthrow those rulers who have usurped the power of society.
Jefferson’s democracy ran thus. No one can be trusted with power. Government, though necessary, must be confined within narrow limits and dispersed. The average man, the many, is the least dangerous receptacle of power, lacking the opportunities for usurpation that afflict the few. But the essential point is the limitation of power. As he asked Adams: “If man cannot be trusted to govern himself, how can he be trusted to govern others?” That was his answer to the Federalist contention that the weakness of human nature required popular government to be restrained by checks and balances and the deference of the “average man” to his betters. Jefferson put his finger immediately on the hidden elitist assumption, the hidden elitist agenda, that lurked in the contention—as it lurks in our guardian democracy today.
Trusting or not trusting the common man to arrive at a “rational conclusion” was the wrong way to put the problem. It was Jefferson’s point that the “betters” are just as corruptible, probably more so, than the popular mass—that is, more likely to abuse the limits of power, which are the essential thing. Jefferson is here exactly in agreement with C.S. Lewis’s Christian defense of democracy. That democracy makes sense exactly because of original sin—precisely because man (all men) cannot be trusted to govern himself, much less others. But the Federalist idea has prevailed since the War Between the States, and in this century, given the consolidating tendencies of the modern form of society, it has become overwhelming.
Jefferson’s occasional revolution is not, then, revolution but reaction. Not a new utopia, but something radically conservative—a radical returning to the roots, to old viruses and old principles lost by the dilutions of time and the distortions of usurpation. In the American system this can only happen by the revival of .states’ rights, the only true force for limiting power. Which is exactly what Jefferson’s own “Revolution of 1800” meant to him and his generation.
What we need is a reaction, a renewal, a true return to roots. We should approach our constitutional heritage and our governing establishment in exactly the spirit of our forefathers—with both deep respect and intelligent flexibility. To conserve is to save the essence, not the dead form, as true conservatives have always known. Our heritage is something to be understood and used by us to meet our present dangers. As Calhoun said, constitutions are human contrivances, and what man does and his reasons for it surely ought not to be beyond man’s capacity to fully comprehend.
Let us contrast such an attitude with that of our current oligarchy. They want us to treat the Constitution with mystical awe and submission, but their Constitution is not the one handed down by our forefathers for our use. Rather, it is whatever the oligarchy mysteriously discovers it to be, by the alchemies of natural rights and evolution, which can justify any abuse of power on their part. On the other hand, they twist and distort the plain historical sense in the most petty and deceitful ways. Thus we get the worst possible combination of a phony tradition and destructive innovation. What we need is a real tradition and constructive innovation.
Many of the constructive innovations are already known at the grass-roots level, and others will emerge in the course of popular revolt. They seek to recover the spirit of the Constitution, to return power to the people. These would include term limits, for the federal judiciary as well as the Congress; a balanced budget amendment with inviolable restraints upon taxing and spending power; a line-item veto for the executive to check legislative irresponsibility, with balancing devices in the Congress to check executive warmongering; and the restoration of the Tenth Amendment to what Madison, the Father of the Constitution, said it should be, the cornerstone of our government. We have nothing to fear from a new constitutional convention, if necessary. Such a convention cannot destroy the handiwork of our Fathers. That has already been destroyed and must be restored. Whether we are able to accomplish this will be the measure of whether we have enough moral and social substance left to be a self-governing people.
We have not one problem to cure but two—the consolidation of power and the decay of virtue. But from the viewpoint of the classical republicanism of our Fathers these are but one and the same, two inseparable evils that feed upon each other. Consolidation of power breeds the decay of virtue in the people, and decay of virtue in the people breeds consolidation of power.
Our forefathers were neither economic determinists nor, like us, materialists. But they realized that, as Burke put it, the revenue is the state, that the power of taxation and expenditure is the master of all other powers. There is no clearer principle established in the American Revolution and the whole heritage of British liberty that preceded it. Put another way, the restoration of power to the people can only come with limitations on the taxing and spending power of the federal government, which has become autonomous and limitless. We despise our representatives and yet we reelect them at the greatest rate in history. This paradox is a key to our times. Our forefathers would have recognized this condition immediately as a symptom of decayed republican virtue. Our politicians buy us, with our own money. The habit of spoils is so deeply ingrained that only the most radical remedy will cure it.
The Cold War has ended, making possible a great decrease in the burden of expenditure carried by the American people for more than a generation. A responsible republican government would do two things in this situation—reduce taxes and retire debt. That is, the people would enjoy a great boon in the lifting of burdens, a peace dividend. It is a measure of our degradation that neither of our ruling parties has considered either alternative. Instead both parties and both branches of government have conspired to raise taxes. They have considered only the opportunity to broker funds in new ways and buy new allegiances. The peace dividend is not ours, but theirs. Like all economic questions, this is at bottom a moral question, which our leaders evade by seeming to see only a technical question. So accustomed are we to the evil system that we hardly notice the unreality of the debate.
The people must not only put limits on government. They must break their own dependence upon the corrupt system, give up the expectation that things will be done for them, and demand the return of our resources to ourselves, to dispose of in our own way. For liberty plain and simple is the ability to decide and dispose. This is even less easy than it sounds, because demands upon the Treasury always come disguised as public benefits; because we have as a people almost lost the ability to distinguish between public necessity and private subsidy; and because we have created an immense clamoring clientele that exists only on and for ever increasing patronage.
To restore the federal republic we will have to begin to level up rather than level down, to substitute liberty for equality as our chief goal. Ideological equality is the enemy of republican citizenship. It is in its guise as the imposer of equality that the overweening state has taken most power to itself, even more so than in war, and become the arbiter of society. Government programs for preferential groups must be ended, and all citizens become equal under the law. In no way else can we restore morale and productivity, belief in fairness and opportunity. We must take away from the oligarchy the brokering of how differing groups of a pluralistic society live together. Also, in order to restore the value of republican citizenship, it will have to be restricted. That means that immigration has to be reduced to a small number determined specifically by the future and current interest of the American people, not by any philosophical or economic consideration. We must end the system by which any respiring creature who manages to sneak under the fence becomes immediately entitled to all the rights and privileges of citizenship. To say that everyone in the world who can manage to get here is an American citizen is to say that there is no such thing as an American citizen in any meaningful sense, to cheapen our citizenship beyond toleration. The restriction of immigration and citizenship rights will make American citizenship more valued and viable, not less so.
Democracy, as our forefathers clearly recognized, is not a group of people living under common procedures and economic exchanges. It is a social fabric of tradition, habit, and prejudice that makes self-government possible in a way that no proclaimed set of procedures or even carefully balanced interests can. A miscellaneous collection of people are not citizens of a republic but interchangeable ciphers of imperialism. The aspiration of a globalized citizenship is not the vision of republicanism but the dream of empire. In order for American society to begin to feel its power and reassert itself against government, it must have a period of stabilization. We must have time to absorb the great immigration we have received in the last three decades. Otherwise we will have a society increasingly fragmented rather than pluralistic, divided into hostile groups competing for advantage, a situation in which democracy cannot long survive, as the history of the world shows. Unlimited immigration serves the rich and the government, not the people.
Here we find the deep moral problem of modem society. Our unrestricted immigration, the celebration of constant and endless social transformation, does not result from allegiance to democracy or liberality of spirit. It results from the same state of mind as our economic irresponsibility—an inability to care about posterity and act for the future. A healthy society, like that of our forefathers, will automatically take account of the welfare of its posterity when it makes decisions. There can be no posterity in a society whose citizens are merely interchangeable parts of a politico-economic machine.
It is true that we live in a very different world from our Fathers and that our solutions cannot always be the same as theirs. But our problem is the same—the harnessing of power. They solved the problem for their time, and the problem is solvable in our time, given sufficient will and political genius. There is much in modern society that makes convenient the dispersal and devolution of power as well as its consolidation. The computer can serve decentralization as well as centralization. There is no reason why we cannot have many small humane factories or schools rather than a few large ones. As Edward Abbey observed in one of the wisest insights of our time: “Growth is the enemy of progress.” Consolidation of power is not so much inherent in our current state of society as it is the product of choices made and institutions constructed in the past that showed a bias in favor of gigantism over humane scale, centralized control over freedom, and elitism over democratic rule. In imitation of our Fathers we may solve the problem of consolidated power.
Allen Tate observed that our Founders “had a profound instinct for high style, a genius at dramatizing themselves at their own particular moment of history. They were so situated economically and politically that they were able to form a definite conception of their human role; they were not ants in an economic anthill, nor were they investigating statistically the behavior of other ants. They knew what they wanted because they knew what they, themselves, were.” It may be that this sense of self-determination of free men enjoyed by our Fathers is an impractical goal, not fully realizable in the modern world. But unless we recover it at least as an ideal and a point of reference toward which we direct our collective selves, the American experiment has failed. The restoration of the federal republic will not in itself solve all our problems because the ends of human life do not rest in government and because modern society is in deep spiritual crisis, as every great thinker of our century has observed. But the restraint of power is a necessary first step for all progress—moral, economic, political, cultural. Leviathan has gotten loose from the harness our forefathers so skillfully fashioned for him. He has knocked over the fence, laid waste our gardens, and waxed fat on our substance. We must begin to look to our husbandry, but first we will have to chain the beast. In this task we have one great advantage—the preponderance of the American people are still republican at heart.
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