September 30, 2003


Publius vs. Demos (Christopher Hull, 09/30/2003, Tech Central Station)

As any political science 101 student can tell you, the United States is not in fact a "democracy," at least not as the term is understood technically. In a democracy, power to govern is lodged with the demos, that is, the mass of individual citizens. In America's federal republic, the power is allocated to local, state and national representatives by the vote, delegating decision-making authority to them.

This is not an accident. Our Nation's Founding Fathers were sharply opposed to too much democracy -- too much decision-making ability placed at the disposal of individual citizens. They deliberately turned instead to a system in which those citizens selected statesmen according to their merit and judgment.

The greatest voice of our Constitutional constructors is the tri-partite character "Publius," the pseudonym of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, writing around 1787 in defense of the soon-to-be-approved Federal Constitution. These thinkers, though later to be divided by politics, were united in thinking that the Constitutional Convention had gotten it right, and that rejecting the framework for the United States would prove disastrous.

In these "Federalist Papers," as the collected writings are generally called, Publius argues consistently against direct democracy, and for a representative republic. Hamilton and Madison especially were rebutting the Anti-Federalists who had an eye for California-style distribution of power to the states and the masses. They felt "sensations of horror and disgust" over early stabs at self-government in Greece and Italy, for instance, because of their "perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy." That said, they felt that a republic vitiated these concerns. Unless the country adopted a strong, central representative republic, Publius held,

we shall be driven in the alternative either of taking refuge at once in the arms of monarchy, or of splitting ourselves into an infinity of little, jealous, clashing, tumultuous commonwealths, the wretched nurseries of unceasing discord and the miserable objects of universal pity and contempt. (Federalist 9)

More than just calling for a central authority with representatives from the people, Publius directly assaulted direct democracy itself, charging that where citizens had too much direct power, special interests -- or "factions" -- would rule the day entirely. "A pure democracy," he wrote, "by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction."

And Publius warns that direct democracies themselves

have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. (Federalist 10)

Welcome to the Hotel California.

The most remarkable thing about the Founding is that the opposition was even more opposed to centralized power.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 30, 2003 6:24 PM

The anti-federalists saw the greatest danger in what they believed was the centalization of power at the expense of the states. They overreacted in the sense that the nation could not have survived without some centralization and uniformity of law for the sake of commerce, an efficient geographical expansion and national defense.

The Federalists have almost nothing in common with contemporary statists and centralizers as represented by modern Washington, D.C. In their wildest dreams they would never have imagined our current situation, i.e. the administrative bureacracy and tax regime. The constitution was their answer to the anti-federalists. The problems have become manifest as the constitution has been deformed and no longer regulates the relationship between the feds and the states or the people. The federal government now determines that realtionship rather than the people. The constitution no longer speaks for itself but rather how the courts determine under the guise of "compelling state interest" or "penumbraic emanations" etc. The Bill of Rights was the safeguard for the anti-federalists. Sadly, they don't mean very much anymore.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 1, 2003 11:44 AM


Yes, the anti-federalists were certainly right in the long term, arguably wrong in the short.

Posted by: oj at October 1, 2003 1:32 PM