In view of what they observed to be the special “genius” of the American people, America’s founders made the decision to make the people as a whole the ultimate representatives and arbiters of government power in the United States.
The people, in one form or another, “ordain and establish” the constitution(s) of government; they elect the individuals charged with making and executing the laws made according to constitutional provisions; their periodically elected representatives in Congress oversee the activities and composition of the executive and judicial branches; they also have the power to impeach and remove members of those branches, even at the highest levels, if and when they are constitutionally impeached, tried and found guilty of offenses that “relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” (Federalist 65)
Some form of monarchic or oligarchic rule was overwhelmingly predominant in the world America’s founders knew. Yet, in the constitutions they devised, they trusted the citizen body of the people to exercise, directly or indirectly, all aspects of sovereign power of government. They painstakingly sought to construct and preserve a democratic republic. Surely, this proves that they favored and approved democratic rule.
Yet America’s founders shared the view that unalloyed democracy was its own worst enemy. This was the operational premise for their constitutional deliberations, despite the fact they believed the American people had a special genius for self-government. How are we to make sense of these apparently conflicting views? The first was based on the overwhelming preponderance of evidence about human nature, drawn from human experience. The second was based on “the substance of things hope for; the evidence of things unseen,” which is to say, the power of faith to transform human nature, in accordance with the will of God and the example of Christ.
Human society spawns dangerously ambitious factions, compelled by natural passion to impose their rule on others. Their aim is to rule by force and fear, as tyrants. But in order to gather the forces despots require, they begin “their career by paying an obsequious court to the people.” Observing the passions of the people, and particularly their fear, anger and resentment, these demagogues tell them what they want to hear. Then they press them by all means to satisfy their passions, sweeping aside all opposition.
To this end, the demagogue gathers and organizes the people into a formidable force. With intemperate speech and actions, he then purposely rouses opposition to himself, opposition he points to as the identifying mark of the enemies of the people. With these enemies as the focal point of a people’s passion, the demagogue holds himself out as the lens that gathers and directs its destructive force against their enemies. So, he achieves the goal of bringing himself into focus as the one who embodies the people’s common identity and allegiance.
Enmity toward the demagogue is portrayed as enmity against the society as a whole. This seems to excuse releasing the whole force of sovereign power against those who express it. But once one individual can, without constraint, concentrate the whole force of the society against other individuals, all individuals must live in fear of him. And the passion the people thought to unleash only against their enemies empowers forces exceedingly dangerous to themselves, because it acts, ostensibly, in their name and by their will.
Though it expresses itself in and through demagogic personalities, what constitutes the real threat to American society today is such tyrannical power, released from all constraints but what arises from superior power. Many Americans, now and in the past, have been misled into believing that constraining power with power is the whole purpose of the constitutional arrangements that go by the name of “the separation of powers” and the “system of checks and balances.” But when Madison says that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm” his words do not erase the evidence that, at every juncture, America’s founders took pains to increase the chances for good people in the United States to put them there.
Impressed that the genius of the American people inclined them toward self-government, and knowing they could count on human ambition, for better or worse, America’s founders put in place structures of government that would preoccupy the ambitious with their competition against one another. Thus, they postponed the moment when one would come to dominate all the rest. They then gave citizens at large frequent opportunities to tip the balance of power among these competitors in favor of preserving decent liberty.
But this scheme did not so much rely on the strength or power of the people (democracy) is it did on the character derived from the Christian faith of the American people. That faith limited the appeal of leaders of the people (demagogues) because so many Americans already professed to owe their identity and highest allegiance to Christ, who led them toward the goals of right, justice and mutual well doing, which all who follow him are called to represent.
There are still many Americans today who profess the Christian faith; and many others who profess to sympathize with and aim to achieve the goals it calls upon the faithful to pursue. But like the seed plant among the thorns, their implanted faith is being throttled, choked and lost in a self-mutilating welter of confused hearts and voices. Too many have been cowed into believing that, when it comes to their citizen vocation, good has no substance but what is defined in opposition to evil. In a republic based on the people’s choice, once good people determine their choices by reference to evil instead of God, they have already surrendered the only standard of choice that empowers them to be a force for good.
How many times will this mistake be forgiven? We are called to forgive offenders 70 times seven times. But if even we, who are inclined to evil, are called thus much to forgive, how much more will our Father in heaven forgive those who ask Him? Doubtless, as much as Christ, who “being in the form of God, … humbled himself, and took the form of a slave … obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” All so that we would know we should never fear to ask sincerely for God’s mercy, even if, remembering our sins, we know that we deserve the shameful death Christ endured for us, all undeserving.
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