The Erosion of the Framers’ Republic

 

It is striking to note how different was the Framers’ understanding of the democratic republic they created from that envisioned by Rousseau and touted by today’s cultural leaders.  Where majoritarians seek direct rule, the Framers preferred representation.  Where majoritarians eschew all constitutional limits on the people assembled, the Framers relied on a constitution affirmed by a super-majority to constrain the will of the simple majority.  Where majoritarians believe all values are morally equal and that virtue was that which comes naturally, the Framers believed that humanity was corrupted, that virtue was cultivated through self-discipline, and that elected individuals of superior wisdom should interpret the long-term interests of the people.  Where majoritarians are contemptuous of deliberation and reason, the Framers believed that deliberation was necessary to attain wisdom.  Where majoritarians and proceduralists eschew any limits on the popular opinion and want a more efficient governmental mechanism to reflect that view, the Framers built a system intended to foil hastiness and express the will rather than the passions.  The unwritten constitution of the Framers’ culture produced a written Constitution in stark contrast to that envisioned by majoritarian proponents.

 

            Given that Americans are increasingly adopting a subjectivist worldview and retreating from the Framers’ fundamental belief in transcendence, it is not surprising that the structure of our government is beginning to look more like Rousseau’s ideal and less like the Framers’ model.  This brings us to a specific examination of how the unwritten constitution of the culture is rewriting American government.

 

The House: Democracy On the Rise

 

The Framers, while not enthusiasts for democracy, were intent on establishing popular government in which the ultimate authority for decision-making lay with the people.  It is commonly known that they established a bicameral legislature to reflect the tension between the larger and the smaller states.  What is less recognized, however, is that this bicameral structure also reflected the Framers’ understanding of the self, divided between the will and the passions. 

 

The Framers recognized the need for the more immediate expressions of the people’s passions in the House of Representatives.  With their two-year terms and smaller constituencies, House Members were intended to be in closer touch with the short-term views of the numerical majority than the Senate.  Furthermore, the more rigid rules of the House ensure that the majority party has tight control over what bills are debated, the timing of their consideration, and what amendments will be considered.  This framework ensures that numerical majorities are better able to act on the immediate interests of the majority of the American people.

 

As popular culture gradually accepts the notion that all values are of equal worth, that absolute truth does not exist, and that the cult of the self replaces theism, the internal structure of the House has become more democratized than intended by the Framers.  Where the Framers had envisioned strong House leadership guiding the body, the centralized power has been drained away from the Speaker to committee chairs and rank-and-file members.  The post-Watergate reforms have increased the number of subcommittees and the power of their chairs to control the House.[34]

 

Individual members of Congress have also become more firmly tied to the wishes of the majority within their congressional districts.  Advances in electronic communications and media coverage, the competitive nature of House races, the advent of polling, and improved transportation have aided representatives in keeping in closer contact with their constituents.  E-mails, blast faxes, lobbying groups, C-SPAN, and non-stop media coverage ensure that interested constituents can monitor the progress (or regress) of their individual concerns and provide daily input to the Congress.  These technological changes, combined with the cultural demand for more direct democracy, have served to heighten the responsiveness of U.S. House members to their constituents. 

 

Ironically, Americans feel increasingly disconnected from their government.  There is a widespread belief that the Congress is more attuned to the agendas of special interest groups rather than the constituency at home.  In fact, just the opposite is true.  Members of Congress carefully watch polling data to guarantee that their votes reflect the majority within their constituency, and constantly track constituent concerns to ensure they are “in touch.”  Representatives live in closer communication with their constituents and are more responsive to their concerns than at any point in American history.

 

The Senate: Losing its Resistance

 

Where the House was to be the hot tea, the Senate was to be the saucer to cool it.  The Senate was to take a longer, more deliberative view, reflecting the longer term will.  Whereas House Members were to be in closer touch with voters due to their shorter electoral terms, Senators were given six years between elections, providing them greater leeway to make decisions that might conflict with the short-term majority interests in their states.  Furthermore, only one-third of the Senate is up for election every two years, further insulating it from fleeting passions.  Senators also represent entire states, diminishing their ability to reflect a more confined majority in a smaller congressional district.  Their election by the state legislature further insulated them from momentary majorities.  And the ability of the Senators to filibuster legislation by controlling the debate indefinitely and preventing a vote was a powerful check on the majority’s passions.  The Framers intended that the Senate, while still a body representing citizens, would be several steps removed from the people. 

 

Once again, it is clear that culture has shaped politics.  The rise of subjectivism and its subsequent demand that ostensibly benign human nature be given reign in immediate popular expression has resulted in the erosion of some of the more reflective elements of the Senate.  The constitutional amendment ratified in 1913 to provide for the direct election of Senators, instead of their indirect election by the state legislatures, was an expression of the people’s desire to have greater direct control over their Senators.  Likewise, the ability of a single Senator to filibuster has been gradually eroded by the growing strength of cloture voting.[35]

 

The Executive Branch: Institutionally Strong, but Weak in Character

Unlike the Congress, where majoritarian reforms are slowing eroding the ability of the legislature to act independently, the executive branch is not losing its ability to override temporal majorities.  When the Framers established the presidency, they recognized that government needs the ability to lead decisively, especially in times of crisis.  The President’s veto power, another way the Framers placed a check on the majority, remains inviolate. 

 

Although the institution of the president is basically sound, it is the character of its office holders that is reflecting the cultural predilection for majoritarianism.  Take, for instance, President Bill Clinton’s reliance on polling to guide policy decision-making.  When the news first broke in January 1998 that the President of the United States had an affair with a White House intern, President Clinton commissioned political consultant Dick Morris to conduct a poll.  According to Morris, the poll showed that Americans would forgive adultery, but would not abide perjury or suborned perjury.  The President allegedly replied that he would “just have to win then.”[36]  Well-documented sources have demonstrated a similar reliance on polling in military actions and domestic policy-making.

 

Although the presidency retains its institutional strength, the means of its election, the Electoral College, is under attack.  Many Americans no longer understand the need for an Electoral College.  They fail to see the need for a second body to interpret or restrain the immediate vote of the people as expressed in a national election.  Where the Framers intended electors from each of the states to be people of wisdom who would be a potential check on an unwise decision of a national majority, the public views electors as an anachronistic and anti-democratic restraint on the people.  Providing the electors do not override the majority’s wishes, the Electoral College will continue to be tolerated, if only because the effort to remove it would require the almost impossible process of a constitutional amendment.

 

I should note that it is not my intent to prescribe constitutional or governmental reforms to stem the cultural tide of moral degradation.  In fact, such governmental reforms could not possibly redirect culture if it were not willing to be so directed.  For instance, bringing back the indirect election of the Senate, strengthening the filibuster, or reinvigorating the strength of the House Speaker would have little, if any, impact on the restoration of just government.  The point is that the government’s evolution reflects the culture’s premium on democracy as the cure for American ills.  Preference for direct democracy emanates from the loss of a belief that representatives are to pursue justice.  Representatives and senators are now seen as mere conduits for expressing their constituents’ desires.  The constitution of the heart reinterprets the Constitution and concretely changes the process of American governance. 

 

Yet it is in the Supreme Court, the body designed to be least subject to the passions of the majority, where the public’s operational rejection of transcendent truth is most fully expressed.

 

 

 

 

[34]               The Republican takeover of 1994 has returned some power to the House leadership.  However, Speaker Newt Gingrich’s consolidation of power is slowly being reversed by his successor, Speaker Dennis Hastert.

 

[35]               Although the filibuster was not an invention of the Framers, it was created by Senate rules in 1806.  From 1806 until 1917, there was no means to end debate.  Not until 1917 did the Senate adopt Rule 22, permitting a vote on cloture on the petition of 16 Senators.  If two-thirds of the Senators present and voting approved shutting off debate, cloture was invoked.  In 1975, Rule 22 was strengthened to permit just three-fifths of the entire membership (60 Senators) to stop unlimited debate.  And even then, another 30 hours of debate was permitted to proceed. 

 

[36]               Interestingly, the poll results did not comport with the ultimate willingness of the American people to retain a President whom they believed did, in fact, lie under oath.

SEND US A NOTE
WHERE TO FIND US

contact@oaktonfoundation.com



Tel: 202-340-5964

 

  • Twitter Social Icon
  • Facebook Social Icon

© 2020 by the Oakton Foundation