Democracy is not what our founders had in mind… Nor is it even preferable

The best headline of the week absolutely has to belong to this Atlantic story, by Uri Friedman:

Boaty McBoatface and the False Promise of Democracy

See, what happened is that the UK government held a naming contest for a new science vessel. And the British voting public, in their wisdom, declared in a clear and not-so-authoritative voice, that they wished said vessel to be named… wait for it… Boaty McBoatface.

The name received 124,000 votes, more than three times as many as the next closest option. In response, the ministry of science declared that it would not, in fact, abide by the will of the people. And thank God for that. Because, as our founders knew well and good, the will of the people is not always so reasonable.

Friedman makes all the good points, the main one being that democracy is basically a bait and switch. It promises to people that their voice will be heard, and then turns around and ignores their voice. Thus the headline: Boaty McBoatface and the False Promise of Democracy.

The other point that I want to make though, is that our founders never intended to create a democracy, though with each passing year removed from middle school civics we tend to forget that. We know they intended to create not a democracy, but a republic, i.e., a government in which our leaders, though elected, are still enough removed from the petty fickleness of direct democracy that they could still exercise some common sense judgement and independence.

Over the years we have edited (or amended) our republic to be more democratic. For example, the 17th amendment, adopted in 1913, established direct elections for U.S. Senators, whereas previously they had been chosen by the state legislatures. It was a similar sentiment approximately 40 years ago which established that elections in the form of primaries and caucuses would choose party nominees, rather than the party leaders who had previously gathered in actual smoke-filled back rooms to choose nominees.

Honestly, I don’t think either of these reforms were necessarily steps in the right direction. All one need do is read some de Tocqueville or a few Federalist Papers picked at random to know that the founding fathers were just as scared of the tyranny of mass public opinion as they were the tyranny of a king in England.

Anyone paying attention now a days should be able to see that their fears were well-founded.





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