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Democratic Tyranny and the Need for Responsible Elites in American Politics

Democratic Tyranny And The Need For Responsible Elites In American Politics

Populist waves have been a constant in American politics at least since the Jacksonian era of the early nineteenth century, and traces of populist sentiment can be detected as far back Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia.[1] While the historical and ideological contexts of these movements vary wildly, their essence is always the desire to shift political power away from some class of elites and into the hands of a larger group of common people. Throughout American history, the arguments made by instigators and adherents of these types of movements have been remarkably similar. For example, Andrew Jackson’s speeches hailing “the virtue and sovereignty of the people” bear a striking resemblance to the words of Donald Trump’s inaugural address, where he promised to work on behalf of the “righteous public” and “the forgotten men and women” who had, according to Trump, been maliciously abandoned by the ruling class.[2] This sentiment is understandably attractive to those parts of the electorate that are struggling to adjust to economic change, social change, or any combination of the two and are in search of a scapegoat. However, when held up to scrutiny, such arguments often hold little weight. This is where problems arise. Like designing infrastructure requires expertise in the field of engineering and performing surgery requires expertise in medicine, the act of governing requires a degree of political expertise and philosophical coherence that is lacking in popular movements. Because of this, populism, anti-elitism, and the push for a hyper democratic state pose an enormous threat to the republican nature of the United State’s constitutional structure, which inevitably puts individual liberty at risk.

Rather than a representative democracy or a democratic republic, the original Constitution formed an aristocratic republic with some democratic institutions. This type of system, combined with necessary legal guarantees of rights, is far superior to others at ensuring the stable operation of government according to higher principles. In order to make this argument, I will rely heavily on the political thought of Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles de Montesquieu, and the American Framers along with modern interpretations of their work. Furthermore, I will also analyze several cases of American populist movements and examine their philosophical roots and practical outcomes through the lens of the theorists mentioned. Furthermore, populist waves and unrestrained democratic sentiment often create technocratic institutions, as this is the only way to fulfill the desire for constant state action. The result of this is a political culture that exists in an oxymoronic state of hyper democratic impulse and bureaucratic control. This is neither sustainable or desirable, and I will argue that the only way to prevent this cycle and a descension into tyranny is the maintenance of respected institutions, a virtuous political elite, and sturdy constitutional protections of individual liberty.

The Issue of Consent and Aristocratic Government in Political Thought

As mentioned in the introduction, populist sentiment was a factor in American politics long before the United States won its independence from Great Britain. Popular movements in the colonies were often based on social divisions regarding socioeconomic class, geography, and race, and commonly resulted in deadly violence.[3] Regardless, the monarchical British government that controlled the territory ensured that none of this sentiment could amount to much as far as political reform until after the American Revolution. While there were an abundance of intellectual influences ranging from the Enlightenment thinkers to the Ancients that animated the Revolution’s intellectual leaders, an idea that seemed to unite these leaders was the necessity of public consent for government to be legitimate. This idea is rooted in the political thought of John Locke and Algernon Sidney, who were both ardently opposed to any form of government that was founded through “violence or fraud,” which is the opposite of consent in a political context.[4] Undoubtedly, this requires that government takes on some democratic features and that mechanisms exist for the public to resist overreach through an electoral process or popular vote. Some form of social contract must be accepted, whether it be expressly or tacitly. Otherwise, the society will consist of subjects rather than citizens and this has never been conducive to the protection of rights.[5]

That said, a plethora of problems arise when this theory is taken to extremes in defense of a government where popularity is the supreme value. As Jason Brennan points out, some philosophers and modern political thinkers have interpreted the consent requirement quite broadly.[6] For example, Allen Buchanan argues that “where democratic authorization of the exercise of political power is possible, only a democratic government can be legitimate.”[7] While this claim seems reasonable on its face, it can become seriously problematic when put into practice. As addressed in the introduction, the knowledge required to conduct politics and make sound policy decisions is not inherent, and the appropriate skills have to be learned as with anything else. Even in the early 19th century, when there were far less distractions than there are now, Tocqueville recognized that most citizens are far too occupied in their personal and professional lives to spend time studying politics seriously enough to be able to competently participate in public affairs.[8] Because of this reality, a government in which most meaningful decisions are made by popular majorities could produce troubling outcomes.

The practical flaws in the theory of Buchanan and similar thinkers, while significant, will be addressed in far greater detail later on. His argument as it pertains to political legitimacy poses a significant challenge to the concept of aristocratic republicanism and there are no simple answers for it. While the public could elect the governing elite and provide legitimacy this way, this quickly dismantles such a government’s aristocratic nature, and the government simply becomes a normal representative democracy. Sidney, who was a pioneer of the consent theory in Enlightenment thought, answers this question most effectively by establishing the overriding social contract, rather than daily political decisions, as the government’s source of legitimacy.[9] Because of this, Sidney believes that various forms of government can meet the required standard of consent.  In his Discourses Concerning Government, Sidney writes that the best societies in history have generally formed “governments mixed or composed of” elements from democracies, aristocracies, and even monarchies.[10] While obviously framed well after Sidney’s death, the original United States Constitution formed a mixed government. The House of Representatives embodies democracy with its population based apportionment and its frequent elections, while the presidency is, to a degree, monarchical in its domestic executive powers and its authority over foreign policy, but also has considerable democratic elements. The Senate, along with the Supreme Court, was supposed to be an aristocratic institution, however the 17th Amendment altered this greatly, and this progressive era reform will be addressed later on in the paper. The important point here is that plenty of undemocratic elements were purposely crafted into the design of American government, but it is still regarded as legitimate because of the convention process that approved the Constitution. Therefore, while Buchanan poses an interesting challenge to the legitimacy of aristocratic government that is worth examining, his interpretation of the consent requirement varies greatly from the thinkers who originated the idea.

Montesquieu and Aristocratic Republicanism

Throughout the history of liberal political thought, the practical need for a knowledgeable and temperamentally moderate elite to exist as a counterweight to uninformed majorities has been a consistent staple. While republican forms of government have historically been far more conducive to public liberty and prosperity than others, there are two types of republics, both of which differ greatly in practice. Again, a republic can be democratic or aristocratic, and the latter is far better than the former at protecting individual liberty and ensuring the stable operation of government. Montesquieu recognized this, and wrote about it extensively in The Spirit of the Laws. He argued that if democratic government is to effective and just, the public must possess a certain amount of “virtue.”[11] In the political realm, this virtue comes from education, experience, and participation in the governing process. As pointed out in the introduction, many, and arguably most, citizens in a democracy have no interest in the  pursuit of this kind of virtue, and therefore lack the knowledge and efficacy required to make political decisions based on reason. As Montesquieu points out, even the citizens of traditionally strong democracies often become distracted with their other interests, for example those related to “commerce” and “luxury.”[12] While this is understandable, it also makes the long-term maintenance of popular government challenging. Because of this, Montesquieu argues that an aristocratic class that is able to “restrain the people” is absolutely necessary.[13] Despite not being particularly well informed or interested in politics, democratic citizens still have a tendency to become hyper defensive over their beliefs and party affiliation.[14] This means that citizens will demand immediate action without understanding the possible consequences, which is clearly a dangerous way to conduct politics.  An elite class that holds political power will always be more resistant to momentary passions than the general public. For example, if something like the war-making power is exercised through democratic means, a small provocation could unnecessarily turn into a major conflict. While this possibility would still exist if a more knowledgeable elite held a check on the war power, it becomes far less likely.

Montesquieu’s concern with democracy, however, was far more complex than a lack of faith in the masses. As Carrithers points out, Montesquieu was distrustful of the emphasis on positive liberties that frequently accompany popular forms of government. Moreover, Montesquieu was far more concerned with negative liberties, and thought that these were unsafe if the source of their protection was rooted in “political participation by large numbers of citizens.”[15] Instead, he recognized institutional and procedural legitimacy as the most sustainable safeguards against tyranny. For this reason, he felt that republican governments “have no special claim to liberty,” despite their emphasis on representation.[16] While Montesquieu’s professed faith in monarchy as a viable form of government is problematic in the sense that the institutions and procedures that he advocates for often fail to restrain an ambitious despot, his criticisms of democratic republicanism still hold true.

Furthermore, as noted above, Montesquieu believed that having a virtuous sovereign was absolutely necessary for a state to prosper. Maintaining this standard in a democracy, and particularly a large one, is nearly impossible. It is far more likely that the sort of virtue Montesquieu describes could safely accumulate in a ruling class rather than the entire citizenry or a royal family. Furthermore, “moderation…is the very soul” of aristocratic governments, which is why they are generally more resistant to tyranny than democracies.[17] Popular governments place a higher value on other virtues, among these constant action, which Tocqueville recognized as a potentially problematic aspect of democracy and is a concept that will be addressed in more detail later.

All of that said, however, Montesquieu was not naive enough to think that the moderate temperament of most aristocratic institutions was enough to permanently prevent oligarchical tyranny. His proposed solution to this was simple: ensure that all laws apply to the aristocratic ruling class in the same manner that they apply to common citizens.[18] According to Montesquieu, this safeguard would work in several important ways when put into practice. Obviously, it would disincentivize the elites from making bad laws and curb their ability to make laws that disproportionately affect the masses. More importantly, however, such a requirement would lessen the tension that naturally arises between the ruling class and the ruled class, which is crucial for the avoidance of social class warfare that could easily come as a result of irresponsible elites running government. [19]

Furthermore, Montesquieu’s solution here, along with the presence of some representative features, provides one of the essential differences between pure aristocracy, which is problematic, and aristocratic republicanism, which is the form of government most conducive to liberty.

The Aristocratic Spirit of the American Constitution

Although quite a bit of variation exists in the political thought of the American Framers, Montesquieu’s ideas regarding the structure of government and the weaknesses of democratic rule were unquestionably a major influence on most of them. This is clearly evident in James Madison’s writings and in particular Federalist 10. He begins the essay by acknowledging some of the clear and unavoidable flaws present in popular government, writing that in such governments, “the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties; and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice…but by the superior force of an…overbearing majority.”[20] This is simply a consequence of human nature. When the majority of political power is shifted into the hands of the public, individuals will use the state as a battering ram to advance their own interests even if this amounts to the political oppression and economic plunder of fellow citizens. As Madison declares in Federalist 51, “Justice is the end of government.”[21] Unfortunately, a brief overview of political history reveals that this aspiration to a higher principle quickly goes by the wayside for citizens in a democracy, and is replaced in favor of self-interest and rent seeking.

The solution to the problem of self-interest becoming the governing principle in a democracy for Madison and his Federalist allies was to create a system in which various interest groups would exist and counter one another. This prevents one faction from becoming dominant, and thus would prevent majoritarian tyranny from taking hold. Creating a political environment that would fuel the multiplication of “faction” was intended to complement the aristocratic checks present in the Constitution’s institutional design, and allow the government to maintain some democratic features while still being a republic conducive to elite rule.[22]

Despite its popular elements, however, the structure of government that was proposed by Madison did face democratic critiques. One of the primary themes in Anti-Federalist literature was an objection to the Constitution’s aristocratic spirit.[23] The arguments made greatly resemble modern arguments in favor of populism and make connections between democracy and liberty that are not present in reality. Furthermore, the negative arguments regarding rule by the elite rely on questionable assumptions and enormous leaps of logic.  The articles belonging to the anonymous “Federal Farmer” are a particularly good example of this.[24] The author asserted that the Federalists were attempting to establish an oppressive aristocratic system that would preclude common people, for example “mechanics…merchants and traders,” from participating in government.[25] While a quick reading of the Constitution makes it clear that this is hyperbole, the reasoning that accompanies this argument is worth considering because it is at the root of contemporary arguments in favor of democratic republicanism. The author asserts that individuals in common occupations are better suited than the elite to control government because they “are generally advocates for liberty,” while the highly educated are oftentimes not. There is certainly a plethora of  anecdotal evidence available to support this argument, but it also ignores several unavoidable truths. As noted earlier, few individuals that do not deal with politics in a professional capacity have any sort of understanding of the theoretical and historical foundations of classical liberalism or republicanism. Even if common citizens have an instinctual attraction towards liberty, this alone is not enough. The ruling class has to be committed to the pursuit of a just and liberal society, both practically and intellectually. Furthermore, these principles must also be combined with expertise in areas like economic policy and military strategy, among others. These qualities are simply not present in most citizens, and for that reason the amount of control they have in political decision-making, especially those decisions that determine the rights that others possess, should be reasonably limited. Proponents of the Constitution understood this well, and it is reflected in the original document.

Furthermore, a particularly common target of Anti-Federalist criticism was the Supreme Court. As Alexander Hamilton articulated in Federalist 78, Article III of the Constitution was written with the intention of designing a judiciary that was insulated from political influence and the popular will in order to promote the rule of law and ensure that the authority of the Courts was not  unnecessarily encroached upon by the other branches.[26] This vision of the Court, however, was antithetical to the Anti-Federalist ideals of unfettered democracy and anti-elitism. The essays of “Brutus” demonstrate this best.[27] The author argued that because of the lifelong sentences of Justices, the Court would be unacceptably independent of democratic influence in its decision-making process. Brutus argued that this, along with the Court’s ability to make final rulings on the Constitution’s meaning, left the institution’s power “in many ways superior to the legislature.”[28] Similar democratic criticisms of the Court are common in contemporary discourse, and are as flawed now as they were in 1788. First of all, as Hamilton points out, the Court has no capacity to initiate political action and can only settle disputes that are brought before it.[29] While the power of judicial review, which was formally established roughly 15 years after the ratification debates, certainly gives the Court a significant role in the legislative process, it is hard to maintain a rule of law if there is no legitimate institution that is insulated enough from politics to protect it despite majoritarian pressure. Brutus was concerned that the Constitution made it impossible to hold Justices “accountable for their opinions,” and as a consequence the Court would not be sufficiently receptive to the public will.[30] While the Court’s inability to act on its own or enforce the decisions it makes should mitigate this concern, Brutus’ line of argument ignores the essential need for an aristocratic, decorated institution that has ample authority to protect the rule of law but can also be reined in by government’s republican branches if necessary.

This is not to say that members of the aristocratic class, whether they be Justices or Senators, will always be friendly towards liberty; they certainly will not be. Even the most pompous and elitist of the American Framers recognized this, as did Montesquieu. This, however, is where constitutionalism picks up the slack, as such a contract limits the extent to which the government can interfere with individual liberty through both informal and formal means, and allows for a government that can be run by elites while also protecting the common people from the infringement of their natural rights despite their somewhat limited role in the governing process.

Tocqueville and Majoritarian Tyranny

Even more so than the authors of the Federalist essays, Tocqueville’s reflections on American government reveal a deep skepticism towards majoritarian rule. This is particularly important because Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America during the Jacksonian era, which was a period of intense democratic sentiment that did serious damage to the aristocratic spirit of the American Constitution. Tocqueville was clear in his belief that democracy had considerable “natural defects.”[31] While these include the faults mentioned by Madison in Federalist 10, the more important problem with democratic government for Tocqueville is the definition of justice that it necessitates. He writes, “some have not feared to assert that a people can never outstep the boundaries of justice and reason in those affairs which are…its own.”[32] In a democratic society, this means that the majority gets to define justice. This is problematic because the will of majority, even if it is thoroughly lacking in wisdom, gets to replace the aspiration towards higher ideals, for example the protection of liberty and virtue, as the end of government. When this inevitably goes wrong, majoritarian tyranny ensues and the governing process becomes a tool for pursuing individual or group interests at the expense of others. This comes in many forms, for example protective tariffs and other arbitrary barriers to market activity, and always has the same result, which is the gradual elimination of individual liberty.

Furthermore, like Hamilton and Madison before him, Tocqueville recognized the volatile nature of public opinion.[33] However, his reflections on the essentially coercive capacity of public opinion in a democracy are far more thorough. He writes that when tyranny takes hold in a “democratic republic…the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved.”[34] This is fascinating insight, as it casts doubt on the ability of constitutionally guaranteed rights to truly protect individual freedoms in a democratic society. Tocqueville was concerned that if an individual held a political position or religious belief outside of the societal mainstream in American democracy, he could be subject to a level of ostracization “worse than death.”[35] This is a complicated critique of popular government, as rule by elites or aristocratic statesmen carries the potential of making this problem worse by narrowing the accepted range of opinion further. The only hope is that a republic ruled by elites rather than common people would be more understanding of the need for a wide range of free flowing ideas in the pursuit of truth, but this is by no means guaranteed and it is a problem that might be unavoidable.

A critical fault in democracy that Tocqueville discussed throughout the text, and that aristocratic republicanism could potentially heal, is the fixation on equality within society. The consequences of this fixation appear in both culture and law. On a cultural level, individual merit becomes less important, and individuals who are capable of greatness are pressured to “abjure” the parts of themselves that give them this capacity.[36] On a legal or political level, democratic citizens tend to become less interested in political liberty as they become more enamored with the maintenance of perfect equality within society.[37] This leads to a loss in political freedom that cannot be recovered through any means short of revolution, and is the ultimate flaw in democratic government. The kind of equality that is conducive to liberty, for example the right to pursue the same career or to seek “wealth by the same means” as others is far better protected in an aristocratic republic.[38] As Tocqueville expressed these sentiments, however, American political culture was drifting further and further away from its aristocratic roots, and the consequences were becoming immediately apparent.

The Flaws of Populist Reform Movements and Modern Applications

While the history of American anti-elitism is incredibly lengthy, populist movements from all eras and the reforms that they produce have a tendency to validate the concerns of Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and the Framers, whether they come from the political right or the left. These movements not only lead to a more volatile and polarized political culture, but do lasting damage to the institutions that are best equipped to preserve liberty and prevent tyranny. Although such sentiment existed long before the Jacksonian era in American politics, which spanned from Andrew Jackson’s first attempt at the presidency in 1824 to the early 1850s, the roots of contemporary populist rhetoric can most clearly be found there.[39]

After being denied the presidency in 1824 despite winning a plurality of the popular vote, Jackson went to war against the Constitution’s aristocratic checks on democracy.[40] No candidate had received the necessary amount of electoral votes to win the election outright, which meant that the decision belonged to the House of Representatives. The House eventually elected John Quincy Adams, who was by far the more qualified candidate and had received the second most votes.[41] While this was recognized by many as a triumph for the United States’ young and fragile constitutional system, Jackson and his followers were quick to  challenge the legitimacy of the Quincy Adams presidency. While Jackson had demonstrated his populist instincts beforehand through his exaggerated ‘man of the people’ persona, this was when his emphasis on democratic processes became most pronounced.[42] The electoral college system was designed “to filter the will of the people,” and, for Jackson and his allies, this unacceptably assisted eastern elites in maintaining aristocratic control over the government at the expense of common citizens.[43] Jackson was able to rhetorically ride this wave of democratic sentiment and capture the presidency in 1828.

Early on his presidency, Jackson proved Montesquieu, Madison, Tocqueville correct in their critiques of democracy and also laid the framework for the brand of populism and anti-elitism that can be seen throughout American history and now in the Trump presidency. For example, Jackson validated Madison’s concern that self-interest would replace justice as the end of government in a democracy.[44] Jackson and his Democratic party were able to do this through the “spoils system,” which created personal and financial incentives for common citizens to support candidates regardless of their merit.[45] If an individual showed sufficient loyalty to the Democratic party, they had a chance of obtaining a position in government as a reward. Clearly, this distorts the electorate’s ability to make virtuous political decisions with the public good and the protection of rights in mind. While this system has since been destroyed by civil service reform, this has brought along a whole host of new problems that will be touched on later.

Furthermore, Jackson constantly advocated for the weakening of institutions and procedures that acted as checks against government by pure majoritarian will. This anti-republican populist rhetoric was not merely bluster, and frequently resulted in concrete policy action. The most notable example of this came when Jackson ignored the Supreme Court’s ruling in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), which was a decision that would have protected the rights of a minority party, the Cherokee Indians, if it had been enforced.[46] While this case had grave consequences for the Cherokee, as they were forced out of their Eastern lands, it was an example of democratic sentiment winning out over the rule of law and institutional strength to the detriment of liberty.

Moreover, as Remini points out, Jackson’s presidency and populist rhetoric formed a critical foundation for the democratic reforms that were made throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, some of which greatly altered Madison and the Framers’ original design. Jackson consistently advocated for the popular election of Senators, for example, and this eventually became the law through the 17th Amendment during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century.[47] The amendment transferred the authority to choose Senators from the state legislatures to the state electorate, and in doing so made significant changes to the nature of the Senate.[48] Rather than being the deliberative body of elites that Madison and the Framers intended it to be, the Senate became a mirror image of the House of Representatives, just without proportional representation. This is a clear cut example of one of Montesquieu’s chief concerns with democracy coming to bear. As noted earlier, Montesquieu was worried about positive rights, such as the right to vote, becoming more important to democratic citizens than negative liberties or protections of individual freedoms against government overreach. Moreover, Montesquieu believed that institutions capable of restraining the public when necessary were the most important roadblocks against tyranny in democratic societies. With the ratification of the 17th Amendment, the Senate’s ability to play this role was effectively gutted.

Furthermore, Tocqueville also touched on this. He wrote that after a period of succumbing to the sort of despotism that occurs in democracies, citizens will only be able to “shake off their dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again.”[49] In other words, the people fixate on their right to vote for president when the time comes every four years, but ignore all of the other responsibilities they must accept to govern themselves. As a result, political power tends to centralize and “intermediary powers,” which include any institutions or procedures that prevent the public will from quickly becoming policy, are eliminated.[50]

While it is true that the intermediary powers that Tocqueville refers to have yet to be completely eliminated and some institutional “guardrails” still exist, the centralizing process that he was concerned about in the 1830’s has undoubtedly taken place and has shown no signs of slowing down.[51] While the executive branch began to accumulate more power during the Jackson administration, the progressive era presidency of Woodrow Wilson made Tocqueville’s words seem prophetic. Wilson believed that the proper role of the executive laid in “opinion leadership,” and envisioned a version of American Government where the “reverent checks” of Madison’s system would give way to a more dynamic and democratic system where the president could act on behalf of the public will.[52] Most modern presidents have followed Wilson’s example, and this has not only led to significant increases in executive power, but also the consolidation of other governmental powers in the executive branch.[53] As a result of this democratic transformation in American politics, intermediary institutions that separate the public and their one nationally elected official, the president, have been weakened while elites that inhabit them have become a regular scapegoat in public discourse.

Furthermore, this steady transition from aristocratic republicanism to a democratic republicanism throughout American political history has done several extremely harmful things. As noted above, Madison and the Framers designed a “natural aristocracy,” where a ruling class would exist by virtue of their relative merit rather than by inherited nobility.[54] Therefore, elites would lead, but also be subject to republican restraints and the same rule of law as everyone else. With the increased democratization of American government, however, comes a political society more susceptible to populist influence. The result of this has not been the abolition of a ruling class, but rather the development of a far more irresponsible one. The weakening of traditional filters on the public will and the obsession with rule by the common man leads to the rise of candidates like Donald Trump. A major part of his success in running for president can be credited to the democratization of party politics. Despite his values and rhetoric being far outside the normal boundaries of the Republican party, he was able to capture its nomination through popular primaries. While the democratization, and thus weakening, of American political parties go slightly outside the scope of this paper, it provides a fascinating example of what can result when procedural checks are eliminated.

The Trump case is interesting in the sense that he is not a particularly popular president, and he failed to win a majority of the popular vote in 2016 despite his electoral victory. This, however, has not stopped Trump from claiming a popular mandate to justify pushing the boundaries of presidential power in numerous instances.  In fairness, most of this has been done rhetorically thus far. His recent claim that he possesses the legal authority to amend the Constitution through executive order is an example of this.[55] While enough institutional resistance still exists to prevent this rhetoric from turning into action, it is not a position totally lacking in public support. In this populist moment, much can be justified by citing the public will as a source of authority. If the authority of intermediary institutions continues to decline, moreover, and a populist in the mold of Trump is in power and has sufficient public support, it is hard to imagine that these checks could hold in the future.

Furthermore, Trump has taken some consequential unilateral action that no institution has been strong enough to prevent as a result of democratization. The best example of this can be seen in tariff and trade policy. Although the power to regulate foreign trade was clearly given to the legislative branch in the Constitution, this is a power that has been delegated to the executive branch through the centralization process that Tocqueville repeatedly warned about.[56] Trump has used this power to pursue protection of American industry and to initiate trade wars, most notably with China.[57] While there is considerable consensus in both houses of Congress and among most political elites that this is a disastrous route to follow economically and diplomatically, there has been little formal resistance to Trump’s policies.[58] This, moreover, is a direct consequence of democratic influence. There are large populations in the Midwest that have lost out economically as a result of more open global trade, and their vote carries considerable weight in determining both congressional majorities and who holds the presidency. Furthermore, many Republican members of Congress are hesitant to challenge a Republican president because of the possible electoral consequences. As a result, Congress does not find itself in a position to even have meaningful debate over this issue, much less take formal action, because its members to do not want to be responsible for opposing the interests of important electorates, even if it leads to bad policy and less economic freedom.

Another flaw in democratic government that has had major consequences for contemporary politics is, as Tocqueville described it, the desire to be “perpetually in action.”[59] There is a prevalent attitude in contemporary politics that government is too inefficient and unresponsive. Trump is fond of saying that political elites are “all talk and no action,” and this properly embodies the sentiment that Tocqueville was concerned with.[60] The only way to fulfill the democratic demand for a hyperactive government is to eliminate, or at least weaken, institutional checks and to avoid deliberation. Both of these were central to the Framers’ design, and were intended to prevent rash action.[61] This sentiment goes far to explain the formation of the modern administrative state. Although commonly regarded as undemocratic, rule-making bureaucratic agencies in American government are a pure outgrowth of democratization, as only they can perform the constant activity demanded by the public and continually provide for the positive rights that citizens now demand.[62] Furthermore, this development of administrative control is a crucial step to Tocqueville’s dire prediction of a democratic government that “compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people.”[63]


As American government becomes more centralized, bureaucratic, and paternalistic, there is nowhere to place the blame except for on the consistent majority of citizens who have clamored for more  direct control over government while simultaneously ignoring the ends that government is supposed to produce. The procedural restraints that Montesquieu, Madison, and Hamilton correctly regarded as crucial safeguards for liberty are increasingly being seen as impediments to executing the public will. Furthermore, great statesmen appear to be a thing of the past, and they are being replaced by irresponsible and self-interested opportunists who prefer to engage in demagoguery over serious debate. As a result, the “soft despotism” that Tocqueville feared would overtake democratic societies appears to be on its way.[64]  Again, this has not been the result of some elite conspiracy to destroy liberty, but instead a public that demands more control over government while ignoring the responsibilities that come along with it.

It is important to point out, however, that some crucial institutional safeguards still exist and United States has clearly not yet fallen to tyrannical rule. Any claims otherwise are generally fueled by hyperbole. That said, there are only two ways to reverse the process and prevent Tocqueville’s concerns with democracy from becoming fulfilled prophecy, and they both rely on the consent of the majority. The public could suddenly accept the responsibility that comes along with the increased control over government that it has obtained throughout American history and becomes a “virtuous sovereign.”[65] The other option is for democratic majorities to concede some authority and to work to rebuild the authority of the aristocratic institutions that Madison and the Framers designed. This could start, for example, with something like the repeal of the 17th Amendment and other misguided Progressive Era reforms.

While this second option is more feasible, neither of them seem particularly likely to happen at the moment. Populist impulse is on the rise, and in contemporary politics, democracy is often treated as an end rather than a means to preserving individual liberty and just government. As long as these trends continue, anything but a bleak forecast would be dishonest.



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Tocqueville, Alexis De. Democracy in America. Translated by Henry Reeve. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2003.

Trump, Donald J. “The Inaugural Address.”Washington, D.C., January 20, 2017.



[1] Edmund Sears. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003).

[2] Robert V. Remini, The Jacksonian Era. (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1997), Donald J. Trump, “The Inaugural Address,” Washington, D.C., January 20, 2017.

[3] Edmund Sears. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003).

[4] Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1990): 17.

[5] Sidney.

[6] Jason  Brennan, “The Right To A Competent Electorate,” The Philosophical Quarterly 61, no. 245 (2011): 701.

[7] Allen Buchanan, “Political Legitimacy and Democracy, ” Ethics 112, no. 4 (2002): 689.

[8] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2003): 506.

[9] Sidney, 17.

[10] Sidney, 31.

[11] Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, Ed. Thomas Nugent, The Spirit of Laws, Kitchener, Ont. : Batoche, 2001, 38.

[12] Montesquieu,  38.

[13] Montesquieu, 40.

[14] Thomas M. Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[15] David W. Carrithers, “Democratic and Aristocratic Republics: Ancient and Modern,” in Montesquieu’s Science of Politics: Essays on the Spirit of Laws, ed. Michael A. Mosher and Paul A. Rahe (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001):112.

[16] Carrithers, 112.

[17] Montesquieu, 40.

[18] Montesquieu, 40.

[19] Carrithers, 143.

[20] Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2006): 52.

[21] Madison, 291.

[22] Madison, 55.

[23] J. R. Pole, The American Constitution : For and Against, (New York : Hill and Wang, 1987,) 30.

[24] Pole, “The Federal Farmer,” 30.

[25] Pole, “The Federal Farmer,” 34-35.

[26] Hamilton, 429.

[27] Brutus, “Brutus VX,” ed. Ralph Ketchum, in The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates (New York, NY: Signet Classics, 2003): 322.

[28] Ketchum, “Brutus VX,” 327.

[29] Hamilton, 428.

[30] Ketchum, “Brutus VX,” 328.

[31] Tocqueville, 213.

[32] Tocqueville, 215.

[33] Tocqueville, 219.

[34] Tocqueville, 219.

[35] Tocqueville, 219.

[36] Tocqueville, 222.

[37] Tocqueville, 467.

[38] Tocqueville, 466.

[39] Walter Russell Mead, “The Jacksonian Revolt: American Populism and the Liberal Order,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2017.

[40] Remini, 25.

[41] Remini, 25.

[42] Remini, 22.

[43] Steve Inskeep, “Donald Trump and the Legacy of Andrew Jackson,” The Atlantic, November 30, 2016.

[44] Madison, 54.

[45] Remini, 27.

[46] Remini, 48.

[47] Remini, 26.

[48] Sean Gaillard and Jeffrey A. Jenkins, “Agency Problems, the 17th Amendment, and Representation in the Senate,” American Journal of Political Science 53, no. 2 (2009): 324.

[49] Tocqueville, 688.

[50] Tocqueville, 671.

[51] Charles Krauthammer, “The Guardrails Hold,” Washington Post, August 3, 2017.

[52] Robert Eden, “The Rhetorical Presidency and the Eclipse of Executive Power: Woodrow Wilson’s Constitutional Government in the United States,” Polity 28, no. 3 (1996): 359.

[53] Eden, 359.

[54] Adam M. Carrington, “‘Natural Aristocracy’ and the U.S. Constitution,” National Review, October 27, 2017.

[55] Christopher Coble, “Trump Threatens Executive Order to End Birthright Citizenship,” (blog), October 30, 2018.

[56] Tocqueville, 694.

[57] Ana Swanson, “Trump’s Trade War with China Is Officially Underway,” The New York Times, July 5, 2018.

[58] Swanson, “Trump’s Trade War with China Is Officially Underway.”

[59] Tocqueville, 623.

[60] Nick Gass, “Trump in New Ad: ‘Politicians Are All Talk, No Action’,” Politico, November 5, 2015.

[61] Madison, 343.

[62] Paul Anthony Rahe, Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, and the Modern Prospect (Yale University Press, 2010), 242-271.

[63] Tocqueville, 688.

[64] Rahe, 242-271.

[65] Montesquieu, 38.

Ryan CaseRyan Case

Ryan Case

Ryan Case is a senior at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, where he studies Political Science with a focus on American Politics and Political Philosophy. After graduating in May of 2019, Ryan plans on attending law school to pursue a public interest career.

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