California is teetering on the edge of economic and social collapse. According to an Economist special report, this is largely the result of decisions to implement direct democracy reforms during the Progressive era, such as poplar recall, initiatives, propositions, and referenda — reforms that have “inflamed” the passions of the people — “James Madison’s worst nightmare.”
The insidious influence of factions (groups united by passions or interests that are contrary to the rights of individuals or the wellbeing of the community as a whole) helped to cause California’s downward spiral of government and economy. California’s plight confirms the American Founders’ aversion to pure democracy and their preference for republican self-government.
Just after the American Revolution, the famous poet Philip Freneau anticipated a future American polity that resurrected the ancient Greek ideal of democratic rule:
Even here where Freedom lately sat distrest,
See, a new Athens rising in the west!”
The American Founders, however, had a somewhat different idea. James Madison, Freneau’s friend and Princeton classmate, believed that Athens had self-destructed because of its extreme form of democracy. Direct democracy left the passions of the people unchecked and allowed the majority to tyrannize the minority. If the American experiment was to last it had to learn from, and not mimic, ancient democracies.
The answer lay in republicanism, wherein the people’s elected representatives were responsible for making law. America’s original constitutional structure was, therefore, not a pure democracy – it was a democratic republic. This new form of government was embodied in Mr. Madison’s proposed Constitution, and offered an alternative to the historical forms of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. This republican form of government would allow for checks and balances to prevent a tyranny of one, the few, or the many from jeopardizing liberty. America’s constitutional order safeguarded the long-term interests of the people, while thwarting the passions of the people from becoming law.
In this constitutional republic, the Executive would possess the power of the sword and would be able to protect the nation’s security as effectively as any king in Europe. The House of Congress, possessing the power of the purse, would be directly elected by the people and would reflect their will, while Senators appointed by each state would compose a more aristocratic body with stable, long-term interests in mind. John Jay optimistically predicted in Federalist 64 that “the President and senators so chosen will always be of the number of those who best understand our national interests… who are best able to promote those interests, and whose reputation for integrity inspires and merits confidence.” Responding to Jefferson’s concern about the Senate being appointed by the states (as opposed to being elected by the people), Washington used Jefferson’s habit of cooling his coffee in his saucer as an analogy. “Even so,” said Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”
Such constitutional barriers to rapid legislation were viewed as obstacles on the road to progress by the Progressive movement of the early 20th century. As a result, the so-called “progressive” 16th (Federal income tax) and 17th (direct election of Senators) amendments substantially altered America’s national system of government. At the state level, a number of reforms – such as direct election of judges, popular recall, and policy referenda – altered the institutional nature of American self-government and removed checks on the rise and influence of factions.
Perhaps no other state adopted the direct-democracy model as vigorously as California. The demands on the state budget went unchecked for years as California became a welfare state—the result of many popular initiatives which proposed government services without concern for the state budget. When one Ronald Reagan became governor of California and dared to assert that the state had no business subsidizing intellectual frivolity, riotous protests ensued.
One man, however, could not reverse nearly a century of popularly impulsive rule. According to the Economist, California’s form of democracy today continues to promote imprudent and short-sighted policies:
It has no safeguards against Madison’s tyranny of the majority. It recognizes no saucer that might cool the passions of the people. Above all, it is not a system intended to contain minority factions…. Madison and Hamilton would have been horrified.”
The rise of factions and fiscal irresponsibility should not have come as a surprise, since James Madison had warned early on that the outgrowth of factions and selfish wants of individuals are “sown in the nature of man.”
Before tinkering with the Founders system of government, the brilliance of their design should be fully understood. Because the Founders looked to history, human nature, and higher justice, America’s constitutional order possesses the wisdom of the ages. That wisdom should be utilized as California attempts necessary reform in the coming months and years. Other states, however, should see California’s experience as a cautionary tale and remember Madison’s warning in Federalist 10: “Pure democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”