It is an age-old question that dates back to the very founding of our nation: Can ordinary citizens be trusted with the immense responsibility of democracy?
Today we think of democracy as a wonderful form of government. Citizens all across the land enjoy the power to vote and elect their own leaders. Consent of the governed. A beautiful thing.
Back when this nation was founded, however, our founding fathers did not think this was such a hot idea.
What? The commoners? Have you gone stark raving mad? We cannot give ordinary people the power to elect the nation’s leaders! They won’t know what to do with it. They cannot handle it. They’ll screw it all up!
As the thinking went, ordinary people are not sophisticated and educated, and thus they are not capable of discerning the proper qualities of leadership in candidates. No. Common people are vulnerable to being manipulated and deceived.
And this presents a problem for us all. Common people make up the overwhelming majority of the population. So if they are given the power to vote, their preferences would overwhelm the preferences of the minority in the population who are more sophisticated and who are far more capable of selecting the finest leaders who would best serve the nation overall.
There is an imbalance here. Something is upside down about this whole democracy thing. Giving the vote to the common people gives power to the lesser educated to select the nation’s leaders.
An unscrupulous candidate would certainly come along and identify this "flaw" and exploit it as an opportunity for self-promotion. Such a candidate would appeal to the worst instincts of the common people in order to filch their votes. This is the dreaded demagogue.
The demagogue knows no bounds. The demagogue lowers the bar way down to a standard below decency itself. They use course language, even profanity, to appeal to the commoners. They behave in a bombastic manner. They are firebrands, rabble-rousers, and provocateurs. They say outrageous things. And, of course, they play upon the fears and prejudices of the common people.
This is not leadership. No. True leaders aspire to higher standards and seek to overcome people’s fears and prejudices in order to bring people together. But undertaking true leadership is difficult and challenging. Vulgarity and bluster, on the other hand, present a much easier path to victory.
The founding fathers were very worried about these demagogues. As Alexander Hamilton famously described in Federalist Paper No. 1, the most dangerous candidates are those who pay “an obsequious court to the people” (in other words, they pander to the commoners), because they begin as “demagogues” with “dangerous ambition,” and once they are elected, they become “tyrants.”
History teaches, Hamilton warned, that these are the types of candidates “who have overturned the liberties of republics.”
Our founding fathers concluded that this was just too risky. The ordinary masses simply could not be entrusted with democracy.
“The people,” proclaimed one founding father, "should have as little to do as may be about the Government” because they are “constantly liable to be misled.”
“The evils we experience,” noted another, “flow from the excess of democracy.”
“Our chief danger,” declared another founding father, “arises from the democratic parts of our” government that fail to provide “sufficient checks against democracy.”
So in designing our government, the founding fathers set themselves upon the task of devising sufficient checks against democracy by the common people.
One little technique they deployed was to restrict the number of people who could vote. Right off the bat they excluded slaves and women. That right there sidelined a huge portion of the population.
But even if you were a white male, the odds were still stacked against you. The founding fathers were not too keen on granting voting rights to poor people. Most states required ownership of a sufficient amount of property in order to vote. In other words, the privilege of voting was reserved for the wealthy.
These restrictions worked marvelously well, thank you. In the nation’s first presidential election in 1788, less than 1.3% of the population voted. And this continued for a good long time. For the first thirty years of the nation’s history, less than 5% of the population voted in presidential elections.
So much for democracy!
It wasn’t until around 1900, over a century later, that the number finally cracked 20%. Quite amazing.
Another stunt pulled by our crafty little founding fathers was the imposition of the electoral college. This system is utterly astounding, and it still exists to this day. “Electors” are officials in each state who stand between the voters and the candidates, and who cast their own electoral votes for the president.
Even though citizens stream to the polls all across the nation and cast their votes for the president, and thus it certainly seems like the people are indeed voting directly for the president, this is actually all a grand illusion. The votes cast by the people, in fact, are not the votes that are used to determine the president. The only votes that actually matter are the votes cast by the electors.
And here’s the rub: The electors are not required to vote for the same candidate as their voter constituents. So in fact, the electors have the complete power to override the voters and vote for a completely different candidate! It’s astonishing!
This, in fact, is the whole point of the electoral college. To override the voters!
It’s amazing. Now, various states have over the years sought to rein in the power of electors, but this is all still quite a phenomenon. This system reflects the profound mistrust of democracy harbored by our founding fathers. They were terrified that the common people would be susceptible to manipulation by dangerous demagogues and would vote for candidates who were utterly disastrous. So in the event the common people went rogue and elected a nightmare of a candidate, the more sophisticated electors would be able to step in an override the will of the voters to instead elect a more responsible candidate.
Amazing! This system of overriding the voters is something you might expect to find in some other country, like a dictatorship, or a banana republic. But no. This is the voting system in the greatest democracy in the world, America.
Throughout the nation’s history, the electors for the most part have done the right thing and cast their votes consistently with the will of the voters. Although there have been a few instances where electors have overridden their voters, they have not been significant enough to have altered the outcome of any election.
Another little trick employed by the founding fathers was to create a bicameral legislature in the Congress consisting of both the House of Representative as well as the Senate.
But why are their two chambers? We certainly need the House of Representatives because these are the representatives of the people. But why is there a Senate?
Well, according to some of the founding fathers, the House of Representatives could not be trusted. So the House is like the kiddie table, and the Senate is like the grown-up table providing parental supervision. The House cannot pass any laws without the parental approval of the Senate.
The House is like the kiddie table because its members are elected directly by the common people. The common people, however, are dangerous and must be controlled. So the Senate is like the grown-up table because its members were not elected directly by the people, but instead, they were appointed by state politicians in the state legislatures.
This would help ensure that senators would be more sophisticated, elite, and wealthy, and thus the Senate could check any undesirable activity by the House. (Today, senators are elected directly by popular vote, but this was not implemented until the reforms of the Progressive Era and it required the full-blown 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913.)
So of the three branches of government created by our founding fathers, the common people had very little direct input. The president was not elected by the people, but by electors. Federal judges were not elected by the people, but were appointed by the president with the approval of the Senate. And senators were not elected by the people but were appointed by state legislatures. The only direct input granted to the people was to elect their own representatives to the House. But this was not very much power because the House could not enact any laws on its own without the parental approval of the Senate.
So much for power to the people!
And now we see the reason: Donald Trump.
Ohhhh, so THIS is what so terrified our founding fathers. Noowwww I get it.
Trump has come along seemingly out of nowhere and shaken the very foundation of our cherished belief in self-government. With this horrendous candidate stampeding through victory after victory in the primary elections, we find ourselves pondering unimaginable questions.
How could this possibly be happening in our very own celebrated democracy? What has gone so terribly wrong in our system? How could all of these common people supporting Trump be so utterly inane? And allowing all of these misguided commoners to select the next president is actually going to impose a disaster upon me!
Oh, my goodness. It’s difficult to even think about, but…
Does democracy even work?
It’s hard to escape the looming conclusion that, in fact, democracy seems to be failing us.
On the other hand, however, maybe this actually makes sense.
When the elites who guide this nation make responsible decisions and not only serve the wealthy few but also provide for the economic security and well-being of every person in society, the common people readily accept this leadership and have no desire or interest in upsetting the applecart.
But in this age of deplorable income inequality, the governing elites have failed society by neglecting to protect the middle and lower classes and instead allowing the wealthy to plunder the population mercilessly.
The common people have had enough. They may not know exactly how to improve their situation and they may not be acting rationally. But they’re acting. They’ve been forced to act.
Perhaps this is a lesson to the elites who guide this nation.
Perhaps this is democracy working exactly as it should.
Cody Cain is a writer and commentator living in New York City, and he writes a blog for The Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/