How Much Democracy is Too Much?

Every once in a while an article comes along that forces us (or ought to force us) to question our assumptions. I think Andrew Sullivan has accomplished this with his new piece in New York magazine. It took me a while to warm up what he was trying to get across. As a philosophy major, I am a little impatient when folks try to take Plato to the masses. I know only too well how hard it is to use that kind of mechanism to break through and get people to really think.

I also believe that Plato’s ideas on politics are of limited use to us for several reasons, varying from anachronism to a basic lack of shared values. But, it’s true, Plato did kind of describe the rise of Donald Trump and it looks like he pretty much nailed the reasons why someone like Trump would have an appeal to a democracy well along its way to pushing equality to the outer fringes of the possible.

I’ve already begun to question some of this myself. I no longer believe we made a wise trade when we sought to stamp out corruption in state legislatures by moving to the popular election of U.S. senators. In retrospect, we may have cleaned up how senators are elected a little bit, and we certainly provided a system with more direct accountability, but the cost was to make senators as dependent on big money donations as congressmen, and to remove much of the insulation they were supposed to enjoy from the momentary passions of the public. We don’t have any need for a Senate that is just as frightened and knee-jerk as the House but which is dramatically less representative of the population. If we’re going to give Wyoming (with barely over a half a million people) the same representation in the Senate as California (now approaching 40 million souls), there must be something in it for us as a nation. And if there isn’t anything in it for us, then the Senate should be abolished. When we moved to popular elections, the only remaining insulation for senators was their six-year terms. Presumably, they would be willing to cast a difficult vote if they wouldn’t have to face the wrath of the voters for five or six years, and with a third of the body always about that far away from a reelection campaign, the upper body was supposed to be “august” and statesmanlike.

Right now, though, they are so frightened that they can’t even agree to hold a hearing on a Supreme Court Justice.

It may be true that democracy is unstable and prone to takeover by demagogues. The designers of our Republic certainly felt that way. We probably all agree that they were too cautious in not democratic enough, but it is possible to go too far in the other direction. At least, it’s possible to screw up their design by tinkering with it just enough to make it unworkable but not enough to give it newfound legitimacy.

There’s a lot more to say about Sullivan’s piece, but I’ll leave it with this food for thought for now.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.