The Crisis of Democracy 1.

            The American Constitution is the product of compromises.  If all states were represented equally, the few big, populous states feared being outvoted by many smaller, less populous states; if states were represented on the basis of population, the many small states feared being outvoted by the big, more populous states.  Some states depended on slave-based agriculture, while many people in the free states disliked either slavery or the slave-owning elite.  As the instrument of the people’s will, many people feared a tyrannical government located far from voters; many others feared “mob rule” (pure democracy).  Most recognized that the Articles of Confederation were too weak to defend national interests or even hold the country together in a world full of wolves.  The Founders sought to reconcile these tensions by enhancing the powers of the national government in certain specific ways, while reserving other powers to the state government; by dividing power between three co-equal branches of government; and by shoring up individual liberties with a Bill of Rights. 

            This system of government served well enough to deal with the crises of the 19th Century: territorial expansion, civil war, and rapid industrialization.  What it lacked in efficiency, it generally made up for by fending-off tyranny. 

            The 20th Century dropped more challenging problems on the door-step of government.  The two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Cold War each required a massive government mobilization.  That mobilization enhanced the prestige of the federal government as a problem-solver.  That mobilization increased the size, powers, and responsibilities of the executive branch.  The tripod created by the Constitution tilted as the Executive branch grew in power while the Legislative and—for a time—the Judicial branches ceded their powers.[1] 

            These changes were justified in various ways.  Obviously, national emergencies demanded a rapid and effective national response.  Then the greater ability of the national government, based on its ability to recruit able servants from business, academia, and the civil service, could be offered.  Finally, it began to be argued that the President alone was elected by all the people to lead the country.  Members of Congress represented only their districts or states, and judges were appointed.  Thus, the president enjoyed a unique mandate to govern.  The other branches should defer to his (and one day her) leadership in whatever grave hour was at hand. 

            In recent decades even a modified version of the original Constitution seems ill-matched to the needs of the hour.  The country is deeply divided over some issues, so the Congress is polarized to the point of incapacity.  The intervention of the courts in issues of national importance sparked an arms race between the parties over which one could pack the courts with sympathetic judges.  A number of times, presidents have won a majority in the Electoral College, while winning a minority of the popular vote.  Increasingly, presidents have relied upon rule-writing, executive orders, and executive agreements in place of legislation passed by Congress and judged constitutional by the courts.  Presidential inaction and action alike arouse bitter commentary in the media.  More seriously, perhaps, voter frustration with a government that cannot act fueled “populism.”  Now a “crisis of democracy” has become a buzz-term.[2] 


[1] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency (1973). 

[2] I don’t know.  Maybe none of this is true.  “I just know what I read in the newspapers.”—Will Rogers.    

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