This Fourth of July, Celebrate Madison’s Gamble

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- My Fourth of July theme every year is the same: On this celebration of the nation, politics and political actors should be the main focus. The United States was founded in and defined by politics. We’ve never been a people, or even a territory; we are a political entity. Just as Memorial Day and Veterans Day are specifically intended to honor the armed forces and the men and women who serve in that way, Independence Day should be set aside for particularly honoring and celebrating politics.

This year I’ve been thinking especially of those newly entered into the political arena, and the waves of past entrants. We’ve now witnessed, and many have participated in, two large instances of political activism in the last decade, the current “resistance” and the earlier Tea Party. Both are very American reactions to their political environments. And both, in a way, are confirmation of James Madison’s wisdom long ago.

Here’s the story.  In 1776, Americans fighting for independence believed they were creating a democracy. (They called it a republic; the words are best treated as synonyms in most contexts.) They saw the huge outpouring of political action — the enormous production of pamphlets, the organized societies and meetings, the enthusiasm in every state for writing new state constitutions. And they realized that involvement in the world of public affairs was a uniquely fulfilling and satisfying activity, something that they called public happiness

They believed, however, that a republic depended heavily on one thing: the virtue of the people. Only public-spirited men could sustain a democracy.  If the people became corrupt, democracy would fail.

What happened next appeared to be confirmation of their greatest fears. Once the revolution was won, it turned out that many citizens were quick to forget the public happiness of political action. Instead, they returned home and resumed their quest for private happiness and personal success. Republican thinkers in the 1780s despaired at the fate of the nation: The people, it seemed, were easily corrupted.

Madison wanted to build a strong central government for many practical reasons. But one of those reasons entailed a dramatic break with centuries of republican thought. Instead of assuming democracy was only possible if the people were virtuous, Madison asked: What if we take people as they are? If people weren’t interested in becoming active citizens for high-minded reasons, why not encourage them to get involved based on self-interest and the passions of the moment?

The immediate danger, Madison knew, was that participatory democracy in a polity with “corrupt” citizens — that is, those entering politics for their own self-interest — could quickly regress into mob rule, which would just as quickly be overturned by those with the most to lose from mob rule and the resources to do something about it. That’s why, historically, republics were short-lived; eventually, those with the most to lose would prefer any other kind of government. They would even resort to asking foreign nations to take over.

The solution for Madison was a government of (in the political scientist Richard Neustadt’s words) separated institutions sharing powers. Separation of powers was nothing new; the French thinker Montesquieu had advocated it, and all right-thinking 18th-century people believed in Montesquieu. The only problem was that it didn’t make any sense in the American context. Separation of powers made sense in the context of different powers in a nation, so that for example in Britain the House of Commons represented the people, while the House of Lords represented the aristocracy. But in the U.S. there was to be no king, no aristocracy, no official church. Only the people. So there was nothing to separate. That’s why it had made sense for the revolutionaries in the 1770s to set up in the Articles of Confederation a government consisting of just a single-chamber Congress. Legislatures represented the people, and in the new nation the people were the only power that needed to be represented. 

Madison, however, ingeniously uses the idea of separation of powers to make for redundant representation of the people. It had, I think, two complementary purposes. On the one hand, by making it difficult to enact anything, it created a buffer against mob rule: Citizens, no matter how corrupt and self-interested, would be welcomed into the political arena, but they couldn’t simply overrun the system. The other purpose is more subtle. Because the U.S. would require a politics of bargaining and deal-making, given all those overlapping and competing institutions, it would draw people into a more sustained engagement. It wouldn’t be enough to simply vote and walk away; real political change would require much more extensive involvement. And eventually, to be effective in that kind of system would require people to master important political skills such as alliance-building with others from very different backgrounds, and even empathy for political opponents.

So Madison’s gamble was that the benefits of participation in public life — the benefits of democratic governance — could be available to anyone, not just those whom the 18th-century majority considered virtuous. It took a long time, to be sure, for the theoretical opening of the public realm inherent in Madison’s thought (and the Constitutional structure he was instrumental in writing) to in fact open to most citizens, and even today barriers remain for many.

For the Fourth of July, then, I’m celebrating a political system that allows in everyone who wants to meaningfully participate in politics: from the Parkland students to corporate lobbyists to Black Lives Matter activists to the folks who show up for local city council meetings. And more than that, I’m celebrating the citizens who actually do it. Especially those who stick around and do the hard work of bargaining and coalition building and not only mobilizing their fellow citizens, but also teaching them the values of an active democracy.

The U.S. is of course not the only nation that is this open to citizen involvement in the public realm, but it was an important historical experiment in that kind of self-government, and it remains unusually open to active citizenship.

Happy Independence Day.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.