An Athenian-style democracy was not only not what the Framers wanted but what they elaborately warned about and guarded against.
A cliché that is getting up off its diapered bottom, flexing its fat little legs and taking its first wobbly trial steps is that “our democracy is in crisis.” It is not. The Democratic party may be in crisis, but that’s not the same thing.
The source of the alleged crisis is usually that some Democrat has just re-discovered the existence of the Electoral College. Last week the New York Times’ Nate Cohn published an intriguing article that suggested President Trump could do significantly worse in 2020 than he did in 2016 and still get reelected. Trump is doing pretty well in Wisconsin and might well hold that state. Assuming he loses Pennsylvania and Michigan but holds all other places he won in 2016, he would be reelected by the narrowest possible margin, with exactly 270 electoral votes. He could conceivably lose the popular vote by as much as four percent at the same time, Cohn writes. “This would be a real legitimacy crisis,” Washington Post columnist Matt O’Brien wrote on Twitter.
“This feels less and less like democracy,” President Obama’s national-security mandarin Ben Rhodes wrote on Twitter, outlining what will doubtless become a central talking point on the left should the Cohn scenario, or something like it, come to pass. The point will be: Our system has failed. Democracy is in crisis. We must “do something,” meaning stop Democrats from losing too many elections.
The prep work has been going on for a while. “American Democracy Is In Crisis,” Hillary Clinton wrote in The Atlantic in 2018, calling attention to Trump policies and behaviors she does not like and notifying us, “You won’t be surprised to hear that I passionately believe it’s time to abolish the Electoral College.” No, we’re not overly surprised to hear that, but it’s a bit surprising to hear such a nakedly self-serving statement from an obviously sore loser. It’s like hearing Bill Clinton say he wished people weren’t so interested in other people’s sex lives.
“The United States’ crisis of democracy is taking center stage in the 2020 presidential campaign,” wrote Katrina Vanden Heuvel in the Washington Post, again focusing her ire on the Electoral College. When Mother Jones’s David Corn was worried that Democrats might fail to take the House last November, he wrote on Twitter, “We may be heading toward a democracy crisis — a majority of Americans governed by the minority. House gerrymandering, the Electoral College, and the disproportionate Senate: the triad of popular will suppression.” Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times dispensed with using “crisis” as a bogeyman and got right to the point: “The Electoral College Is the Greatest Threat to Our Democracy.”
The frustrated impulse of the Democratic party is to push as many political decisions as possible up to the federal level and to drive through policy as soon as support tops 50 percent (but never to undo anything when support drops below it). Neither of these impulses is remotely in accordance with the Constitution’s structure, which encourages federalism and discourages direct democracy via a number of bulwarks, notably the Electoral College and the Senate. It isn’t because of some bizarre unforeseen circumstance that a Wyoming voter has lots more power to influence national policy than a California one; the Framers wanted exactly that outcome because they feared population centers would bully the rural areas and big states would bully little states. The smallest states are meant to wield disproportionate power.
An Athenian-style democracy in which a momentarily popular policy could easily be enacted in a rush was not only not what the Framers wanted but what they elaborately warned about and guarded against. “There are particular moments in public affairs,” wrote James Madison in Federalist No. 56, “when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.” That there would be a red state-blue state cultural divide, and that the more populated states might use their numbers to bring the less populated ones to heel, was anticipated. To put it another way, the Framers valued diversity of opinion. They didn’t want minorities to be silenced or ignored.
By democracy, the pundits really mean majoritarianism, and our system has all sorts of counter-majoritarian rules built in, the Electoral College and the Senate being the most salient examples. For Ben Rhodes to say, in effect, “OMG you guys, the Electoral College is NOT democratic” is like saying, “The Electoral College is not a hot fudge sundae.” It wasn’t intended to be. The Electoral College, like the Senate, was designed to stop the country from being ruled by a cabal of Washington Post and New York Times columnists.
What’s bizarre about all the “crisis” talk is that it is within the power of the Democratic party to change its course. There is a wall up ahead marked, “How to lose the election” and the Dems are stomping on the accelerator. Decriminalize illegal immigration! Destroy private health insurance! Health care for illegal aliens! If, as the media and the Democrats often tell us, Donald Trump represents a unique threat because of the nature of his personality, then the Democrats should offer up a candidate who proposes no major changes apart from not being Donald Trump. Instead, their supposed centrist Joe Biden has already abandoned his primary credential of moderation, which was that he opposed Medicare for All. Now even Biden is saying there should be a “public option” for health insurance, which is simply a “glide path toward Medicare for All” (Pete Buttigieg) because “over a couple years you’re gonna transition into single payer” (Kirsten Gillibrand). Offering a public option was considered so radical less than a decade ago that Democrats holding the presidency, the House, and a supermajority in the Senate backed off, even while in a frenzy to pass major health-care legislation with zero buy-in from Republicans.
Those Democrats who have not completely lost their minds see clearly what is happening. “Dear Democrats: This is not complicated! Just nominate a decent, sane person, one committed to reunifying the country and creating more good jobs,” writes Tom Friedman in the New York Times, adding, “Please, spare me the revolution!” If there is a “crisis” in America it’s that the party of Barack Obama, who inspired a Time magazine cover depicting him as FDR and a Newsweek cover saying “We Are All Socialists Now,” has now moved breathtakingly far to the left of its standard bearer. We should be worried sick about our Democrats, not our democracy.