Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Populism vs Elitism

When I was in Pittsburgh to attend brother Pete’s dinner celebrating la fête nationale de la France, I learned that Bill and I were reading the same book this summer:  The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis.  It tells the pretty compelling story of how four men – George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison – almost single-handedly manipulated the American political machinery to send the Articles of Confederation packing and establish a national constitution.  It was an unlikely achievement.  At the time, few people had any interest in consolidating the 13 former colonies into a single nation.  They saw rule by a “distant” federal government to be no different than foreign rule by the British parliament.  (As the book points out, the Articles of Confederation were more of a treaty among sovereigns than a plan for a central government.)

One of the concerns of the quartet in framing this new govenment was what might be called “unbridled democracy.”  Even Jefferson, the anti-federalist, acknowledged that:  “a choice by the people themselves is not generally distinguished for its wisdom, that the first secretion from them is usually crude and heterogeneous.”  Or, as my conservative friend likes to say, “People are morons.”  

On the other hand, these four also recognized that the people represented the greatest check on tyranny.  Madison spells out the paradox in the Federalist Papers:  “If men were angels, no government would be necessary….  In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the greatest difficulty lies in this:  You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.  A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on government, but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

So, they deliberately built into the constitution provisions that checked both the power of government and the power of the electorate.  Ellis claims that our founders would be utterly astounded to discover that their humble document had endured 230 years.  Ellis says that, “It has endured not because it embodies timeless truths that the founders fathomed as tongues of fire danced over their heads, but manages to combine the two time-bound truths of its own time:  namely, that any legitimate government must rest on a popular foundation, and that majorities cannot be trusted to act responsibly, a paradox that has aged remarkably well.”

Has there been a more salient example in our time of the people's choice not being distinguished for its wisdom than the nomination of Donald Trump for the presidency?  Based solely on popularity, with almost no support from any party or the political establishment, he has managed to secure this nomination.  And it was achieved by Trump being a textbook demagogue – “a person, especially an orator or political leader, who gains power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people” -- appealing to the worst in the electorate.  I don’t need to give you the long list of Trump’s inflammatory statements; every day, he seems to come up with another one.  

Bill thinks Trump is essentially harmless, but 50 former senior Republican national security officials claim that he would be “the most reckless President in American history.”   See Statement by Former National Security Officials.  In any event, from now on, I’m going to be a little less critical of elitism.


James R said...

So unbridled democracy, as well as unbridled elitism may be bad. Funny how this world works, it appears unbridled anything may be bad. Unbridled truth? love?

Big Myk said...

What about unbridled humor? There isn't any harm in that, is there?

James R said...

Unbridled humor I think would be worse than unbridled love or truth. I would not want to be victim of any of those. Plus "One man's cure, is another man's poison", or is it, "One man's Mede is another man's Persian."

James R said...

Wait, that makes more nonsense than I intended. Let's make the first quote "One man's meat is another man's poison."

Big Myk said...

I always thought it was "One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens."

James R said...

Isn't all men's modus ponens all men's modus tollens? And then isn't that an argument that perhaps one could have unbridled humor?