Democracy, Churchill is supposed to have said, is a very unsatisfactory form of government—only it’s better than any other kind that has been tried. If man cannot be trusted to govern himself, Jefferson wrote, how can he be trusted to govern others, which was a definitive reply to the elitism of Hamilton (and all of Hamilton’s successors). C.S. Lewis defended democracy in the same way as Jefferson, from a Christian perspective.
These sentiments reflect conclusions based upon common sense and common decency. All things considered, it is better for the community to choose those who exercise power; and once chosen, it is better for the rulers to exercise power in accordance with the sense of community than against it. But, given this sensible agreement upon proceeding, there is no need to indulge in the too common American proclivity of sanctifying the democratic process. Majority rule is a good thing, but the voice of the people is not necessarily or even usually the voice of God.
More seriously, majority rule is not as clear a concept as may at first appear, and there are many problems in its definition and application. Like making war, love, or money, and all other important human activities, making a majority. the real thing, is an art, not a simple utilitarian matter of counting papers in a box.
Of course, politicians have been busy distorting and discrediting majority rule ever since it was invented, and the meaning of “democracy” has been hopelessly compromised by bad usage in this century. Nearly every state in the world is now a “democracy,” except for our masters, the Kuwaitis. Justice William Brennan believed it was “democracy” when he issued orders defined by himself, to be obeyed by all, even though they went against not only the will of the majority but against law, tradition, history, and reason as well. Far better to stick with the old American concept of republicanism, which means simply a government resting on the consent of the people.
But what do we mean by “people”? What do we mean by “majority”? Americans appear to concentrate lately much more on the choosing of our rulers—the counting of ballots—and much less on whether, once chosen, they rule in accord with the sense of the community. But what was heinous about the totalitarian dictatorships of this century was not so much the way their leaders were chosen as the unrestrained powers they exercised in office.
In fact, in our federal government, even when decisions are not made by judges and bureaucrats (as they often are), they are made by coalitions of interests, not by the sense of the majority of the people in any way our Founders would recognize. Deliberation was essential to the Founders—debate that, if it did not lead to complete agreement, educated all sides and promoted understanding and concession and a higher consensus. The intended design of the Constitution was to check and refine majorities—not to defeat them but to insure that they were real and solid and not mere temporary expressions of passions or selfish interests. And every controlling majority in the Constitution was federally weighted to give recognition to the smaller states.
This was a rather different thing, and a better rendering of majority rule than the counting of heads queued up by party whips and lobbyists. Our Congress is not a deliberative or even a legislative body—it is only a continually shifting bipartisan collection of successful pork-barrelers. True debate and deliberation disappeared long ago, when the government became chiefly a matter of dispensing favors to some at the expense of others.
Problems in determining and implementing the sense of the majority increase progressively with the number of decisions the government makes. It is doubtful if there is any majority sense of the people in regard to most of the vast legislation, expenditure, and regulation that now comes out of Washington, nor even any public opinion at all. The more things that are decided by the central state, and the fewer by society, the less majority rule there can be.
Setting the problem of the ongoing consent of the governed aside, even the process of electing our rulers seldom corresponds to glowing civics text descriptions of the will of the people in action, hi the presidential election of 1992, there was no decision by a majority. The Establishment, including its media wing, has assiduously ignored this and acted as though it did not happen. The primary fact of the election was that it showed both ruling parties to be national minorities. Mr. Clinton won with 43 percent of the vote, with half the eligible voters not participating at all. A putatively popular incumbent President received even less.
Yet the Establishment acts as though a continuing mandate exists for the present two parties. But the next election could be even more devastating to the hope of majority rule, which is one reason the media scramble to suppress and defame all serious challengers to the status quo. Should there be a three- or four-way race in this year’s election, it is conceivable that a President could be elected by a 35 percent plurality if it were well placed in California and a few other large states.
The problem is not with the Electoral College—that it is indirect and gives added weight to the smaller states and is therefore undemocratic. These aspects are completely in keeping with the design of the Constitution. The problem is the gimmicks which politicians have rigged into the practice by law and custom. Why, when we have popular vote, should all the electoral votes of a state go to a candidate who won by 51 percent (or by 35 percent in a three-way field)? Not because this is a better form of democracy, but because it makes it easier for politicians to win elections. (It also gives more power to party members in states that are less loyal to the party than in those that are loyal.) This is not in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution.
How many Americans think that the Democrats and Republicans are in the Constitution? In fact, the Constitution pervasively and deliberately seeks to minimize the power of political parties. The presidential electors were supposed to be outstanding citizens who gathered in their state capitals to deliberate and make a choice—not the obscure party hacks they are now. The electors could be chosen in any way the state determined—by the legislature or by the state’s (not federal) franchise, and in the latter case either by a general ticket or by districts.
Such was the practice in the beginning. Nor did political party conventions, that is, conclaves of professional politicians and would-be professional politicians, determine who the candidates were to be. But now the party conventions, themselves rigged with all sorts of tricks to distort majority rule, along with the media, decide the candidates.
Under the Constitution, if there was no majority in the Electoral College, then the election would be decided by the House of Representatives among the top contenders—with each state having one vote. It was a sensible way to evolve a majority, a firmer and more federal consensus. It was not expected that all the members of the House would be party hacks. In the beginning they were not.
Our present party system did not begin to take hold until the 1830’s, and then chiefly in states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio where both state and federal patronage were sizable, and organizations could be built and maintained on spoils. Representation elsewhere, in Massachusetts and South Carolina, for instance, continued to be based upon principle rather than organization. In the early days of the government, a federal representative could know and be known by nearly every substantial citizen in his district. Moreover, he had to meet the people face to face and debate his potential opponents. He was the representative of his people, who knew his character, and not the creature of party.
There remained many relatively independent members of Congress right down to the War Between the States. In fact, elections, the counting of heads, were relatively unimportant. Once the two or three candidates had debated around the district, it was pretty clear who was the choice, and the others often withdrew before the count. Serving in Congress was not a money-making proposition or a long-term career.
It was also true that many congressional districts, and this was also true of state legislative districts, through continuity over time, had developed characters of their own, even if they did not always strictly reflect “one man, one vote.” Artificial creations like congressional districts and counties acquired identities for those who lived there, so that being the representative of “the Old Ninth” carried with it a strong if intangible identification with a particular known history, geography, and collection of communities.
The Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” decisions have destroyed all of this. Even though state constitutions, presumably the voice of the people, chose to distribute legislative power in part by considerations other than numbers, in the interest of better representation, the voice of the people meant nothing compared to the Justices’ notions of equality. So today we have legislative districts devised by computer that divide not only counties but neighborhoods, which snake up and down 100-foot corridors of superhighways, and change every few years. These changes have hardly been remarked upon, but they have hopelessly distorted the relationship between representatives and their constituents and compromised the will of the majority.
Moreover, who are the people forming the majority? When I last went to renew my driving license, in a peaceful suburb in conservative South Carolina, the motor vehicle employees were busy (under federal mandate) registering to vote a considerable number of Asians and Hispanics—whether citizens or not, who knows?
It was not thus at the founding of the American Republic. George Washington and John Adams received the suffrages of their fellow citizens in much different fashion. Most elections were indirect except those for the representative bodies; these, not the executive and judicial, had most of the power, and the number of decisions made by the public sector at any level was small. Voting was viva voce. The justices of the peace spread a table under the trees by the courthouse and the citizen came and declared his choice in front of the whole public (before or after to be feted with rum and barbecue by the candidates’ friends). It was a manly act of citizenship, allied to serving in the militia or on a jury. It was limited to those who had achieved responsible ownership of productive private property.
Of course, since human nature was present in those days, there was demagoguery and clandestine manipulation, but some eras and societies are more honorable than others. When the election, which often took several days, was over, there was a general public knowledge of the sense of the community. The utilitarian counting of heads with which we are now so obsessed was an afterthought.
Can we really say today that our counting of papers in a box, or of holes in a computer card, produces majority rule in any but a superficial sense? Do we really think, when such vast amounts of power, wealth, and vanity are at stake, that politicians, who control the machinery and the ground rules of the elections, always, or even usually, behave honestly?
My enlightenment came in 1968 when I volunteered as a poll watcher for the Wallace campaign in a liberal college town in the South. I discovered, as did the Republican watcher, that the Democratic precinct manager, an old time leftist of local notoriety, was giving two ballots to the black voters, and instructing them on how to fill them out. When confronted, she avowed unashamedly that she was making amends for their previous disfranchisement, which was only fair. We reported this to the Republican county committee, and were ready to swear affidavits. We were told later that the FBI was notified. Nothing further was ever heard. Nixon carried the state by a plurality over Wallace. It was not in the interest of Republican politicians to upset the system. I had my youthful eyes opened to the difference between politics and democracy.
Does anyone really believe that John F. Kennedy defeated Nixon fair and square in 1960? In an incredibly close election divided by less than one percentage point and with evidence of fraud in several key states? Nixon made the “statesmanlike” decision not to protest and upset the apple cart. A real democratic statesman would have insisted that the true will of the people be determined, whatever the consequences to the convenient party games. The consequences for American society were immense—the deification of Kennedy by the media, his martyrdom, and the implementation of social revolution by Johnson on the emotions produced by that martyrdom. Yet in what sense can Kennedy’s election be said to represent the unqualified will of the people?
It is absurd to congratulate ourselves on our right to go to the polls and choose between Tweedledee and Tweedledum when in fact our government, though it is never mentioned in polite circles, is in many aspects a plutocracy. We plain folk are overshadowed by accumulations of wealth that make the difference in property between George Washington and a tenant farmer insignificant. Decisions are made more often than anyone likes to admit by the wielders of great capital. It is a measure of real power when one can exercise it without even being noticed. How often behind some foreign policy decision we find lurking the interests of the Rockefellers and other big money manipulators. One does not have to be a conspiratorialist to see the distortion of majority rule this represents.
How else to explain a buffoon like Nelson Rockefeller becoming governor of a powerful state, Vice President (by appointment), and a perennial presidential candidate without any trace of intellectual or moral qualification? Somewhere Carroll Quigley, President Clinton’s mentor and an admiring historian of our Establishment, records an anecdote of Averell Harriman, the multimillionaire Democratic mover and shaker. When he first heard of Jimmy Carter, Harriman, who was temporarily out of the loop, remarked in a moment of senescent candor: “He can’t be President. I don’t even know him.” As Orwell remarked long ago, some animals are more equal than others.
History begins about 1960 for our media and politicians. They know no more of the spirit and little more of the letter of early American history and government than I do of the Han dynasty. The complications that may well arise in the 1996 presidential election, if there is no majority, could become a virtue. They could invoke further deliberation and compromise and the addressing of neglected issues. They won’t, because we will see the media and the two parties coalescing to put down challenges to their hegemony.
The 1824 election saw a crisis that may have meaning for ours soon to come. With the Virginia dynasty at an end, there were now four presidential candidates, and the Electoral College had registered no majority. The politicians’ machinations then kicked into gear—Henry Clay on behalf of John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren and various other sleazy operators for General Jackson, and many others.
In the House, 13 states were needed to elect a President. Twelve, after much wheeling and dealing, were for Adams, including some which had favored Jackson, who had the largest plurality, in the canvass. The New York delegation, thanks to Van Buren, was equally divided, with one undecided. The undecided was Stephen Van Rensselaer, a wealthy fool of the Nelson Rockefeller type who had originally supported Crawford, now out of the running.
Besieged by Adams and Jackson advocates, the old man prayed while the count was being taken. When he opened his eyes it was revealed to him that Adams should be President—and so he was. There followed one of the most beleaguered and divisive administrations in American history, which led to the rapid formation of competing political parties—parties competing less on principles than on personalities, spoils, and organization. Thus was set the basic text of American political discourse, the gift of Van Buren to the democratic process: the politician who seeks the middle, is all things to all men, pretends that divisive issues do not exist, and gives a plausible but noncommittal answer to every question.
The Lincoln crisis gives us another historical lesson. Though a clear winner in 1860 in the Electoral College, Lincoln had slightly less than 40 percent of the popular vote, more narrowly concentrated than in any election before or since. Clearly a majority of the American people never favored his hardline policies, which led to war and social revolution. We ought to give some thought to exactly what is meant by government of, by, and for the people.
In fact, glancing back over American history, very few of the largest and most decisive acts have been taken by means of real majority rule. How often has the peace candidate inaugurated war shortly after his election, prior to rather than as a consequence of majority consensus? And no Southerner can forget Reconstruction, with the qualified barred from the polling places, the unqualified marshaled to vote, dishonest officials routinely certifying fraudulent election returns, and the presence of military intimidation. Indeed, it is clear that Samuel J. Tilden was elected President in 1876 and not Rutherford B. Hayes, who was sworn in nonetheless.
In 1824, 1844, 1848, 1856, 1860, 1876, 1880, 1884, 1888, 1892,1912, 1916,1948,1960,1968, and 1992, Presidents were elected without a majority, and in 1836, 1852, 1976, and 1980, the majority was less than one percent. After a number of these narrow elections, there followed great and irrevocable decisions. We need to find ways of determining firmer and truer majorities and mandates—of taking the real sense of the people rather than abiding by the deceitful choices offered by party and media hacks.
One need is to derail the present party system and force a more honest deliberation of public issues. Possibly the American people are already moving in that direction. Even more important is the need to devolve decision-making back to places where the will of the people can really be known and effected.
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