Last week, in an AlterNet article titled “How Our Political System Has Cracked—and Why It Probably Can’t Be Fixed,” Neal Gabler expounded at length about how the founding fathers believed in a wonderful and uncorrupted America, governed by the righteous and the good.
Ah, those benevolent founding fathers! Could Trump but hold a candle to their glorious vision!
From the rocky shores of Ireland, I roam the internet freely, looking for and duly slaying any inaccuracies that catch me on a bad day. Some readers may remember the bone I picked with Andrew Sullivan over what he said about democracy in Athens. The things people say about democracy in Athens really get my goat. But a close second on my list of grievances is what people say about the founding fathers of the United States of America.
Gabler’s argument was basically that the American system was designed so that someone like Donald Trump could never become president, and “the legislature could never be captured by a reckless, ideologically obsessed minority bent on overriding the majority interests of Americans” (by which he means the current Republican Party). He proceeds to back up this assertion with several alleged assumptions that the founding fathers made about their Constitution and the future of America, including:
- That only the best men would be attracted by government (something that has sadly proven not the case in Gabler’s eyes, as borne out by the continued existence of Paul Ryan as a political entity).
- That there were constitutional safeguards against "extremists" (to wit, the Republicans).
- That back in the good old days, it was assumed people aspired to power in order to govern, rather than aspiring to govern in order to gain power.
Leaving aside such points as the fine and unexplained difference between "governing" and "gaining power" (he who governs hath the power, yes?), there is a whole lot wrong with this.
Where to Begin?
First off, it blows my mind to think that the founding fathers like James Madison or Alexander Hamilton would have found modern Republican views in any way "extreme." One of the key advantages of being conservative is that it’s often pretty easy to point to a past where the dominant parts of society agreed with you. One could say that this is the essence of what it means to be conservative.
Trump, had he existed circa 1789, may have come across as playing the nouveau riche to the founding fathers (another gold-plated carriage, good sir?), but it is unlikely they would have objected to the idea of an old rich white man with disparaging views on women and ethnic minorities coming to power, particularly should he prove willing to give the rich a tax break.
For all the vaunted talk of a "shining city on a hill" and so forth, what the founding fathers really liked was cold, hard cash—preferably in the form of gold, rather than something as dÃ©classÃ© as actual modern cash.
You see, in the minds of the founding fathers, humanity was ultimately divided into two groups of people: the haves and the have-nots, and the have-nots would always be more numerous. That was just a law of the universe, up there with gravity, water freezing at 32° Fahrenheit and black people being natural slaves. Other majority-minority scenarios (religious ones, for example) might come and go, but this have/have-not paradigm would spring eternal.
“The most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination,” wrote James Madison, in Federalist Paper Number 10.
In the founding fathers’ view, it would thus be highly important to keep American institutions like Congress from falling into the hands of the majority, who would doubtless act against the interests of this particular minority, given half a chance.
So while it is true that the Federalist Papers often refer to factions in general, they are also peppered with specific references to some of the things that made their authors shudder in horror, such as:
- “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project” (Madison, Federalist No. 10).
- Pushing the tax burden onto the rich (“Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets” (Madison).
The more you read from these Federalists (who were, let me remind you, the ones lobbying for the adoption of the Constitution) and from their arch-nemeses, the Anti-Federalists, the more you notice the founding fathers’ particular concern for their own special "minority," and not women, slaves, Native Americans, LGBQT interests, or blingless white men. They would not freak out over the potential repeal of Obamacare. The founding fathers may often have used the same words as we would today—for example, the type of man who was to govern would be "the best"—but it is pretty obvious that they meant very different things by those terms than we do.
A System Designed for the Elite
Considering the above, it shouldn’t blow your socks off to learn that the founding fathers’ idea of a really good political system, while being noticeably light on kings, would still be designed to institutionally support the minority that would always be in need of protection: the well-to-do, who were, incidentally, "the best." To wit, themselves. It was all quite unimaginative, when you think about it.
These benevolent statesmen accomplished this lofty goal of self-enthronement by instituting a federalist system, where power would be held by those able to win elections over a wide area, something that detractors pointed out would cut ordinary people out of the process as “only prominent lawyers, or military heroes or the most prosperous merchants in a state could possibly be known by enough people to get elected.” As George Mason (who was a bit of a fence-sitter in this whole fiasco) confessed, this offered “not the Substance, but the Shadow only of Representation” (Storing, The Complete Anti-Federalist, 1981).
Just to nail things down, the founding fathers also created the Electoral College rather than direct election for president. Mason described it as a method of preventing “an act which ought to be performed by those who know most of eminent characters and qualifications” from being “performed by those who know least” (Madisonian Debates, July 26, 1787). Alexander Hamilton enthused that such a method would preclude “[t]alents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity” (Federalist No. 68), although he also thought that a president-for-life was an even better idea. That’s right, the Robert Mugabe approach was pushed by the guy who became your first Secretary of the Treasury and who wrote a goodly chunk of the Federalist Papers. As you can see, it was all off to the right start.
The founding fathers also widely advertised their loathing of democracy, lest anyone get the mistaken impression that they were some kind of equality-obsessed radicals. “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths,” Madison told the world.
To give them their due, the founding fathers may have been elitists, but they were competent elitists, and the filters they put into the system in order to prevent the horrors of democracy accomplished what they were supposed to; they created electoral distortions that live on today. Both Trump and George W. Bush lost the popular vote in their first election, but won the presidency. In the past years, Republicans have also won disproportionate numbers of seats in comparison to votes received in Congress, perhaps most aggravatingly in 2012 when they won nearly 54 percent of seats in the House of Representatives with only 48 percent of the popular vote, while Democrats took 46 percent of seats with just over 49 percent of the vote. That’s right—you can win a vote, but lose an election. Happens from time to time.
In the era of Trump, a lot of people seem to be running around with their hair on fire worried about dictatorship, and the reason they need to worry (although possibly not with this level of hysteria) is that considering the founding fathers were hell-bent against turning their country into a democracy, they intentionally created an oligarchy, which is kind of close to dictatorship on the "rule by the few" scale. And that oligarchy does suck, but it cuts both ways.
Some of those agonizing over Republican control and a lack of separation of powers may want to recall some of the past greatest hits on this theme. Republicans may have lined up the presidency, the House and the Senate under their control, but Democrats had a similar field day between 1960 and 1968, helped on by the sympathetic Warren Court and the immense popularity of John F. Kennedy. I personally am one of the world’s greatest fans of all that came with the 1960s, but I’m not blind to the fact that many a conservative Republican is probably smugly thinking it may have taken them a while, but payback’s a bitch.
Right-wing or left-wing, the key is that it is always the rich wing, just as the founding fathers intended.
JFK may have been more fun at a party, but he wasn’t exactly a pauper. Bankrolled by his father, helped by his connections, and keeping, shall we say, his wild side under wraps like a respectable citizen, Kennedy was still pretty much what the founding fathers had in mind. He may have appealed to previously excluded sectors of society, particularly African Americans, but at the end of the day, he was the one who was elected and held power.
And that is the central point: the political system the founding fathers created gives power to the connected and well-off, who can buy their way in. It is a foregone conclusion that you will like some of those people and dislike others, depending on your preferences, but the essential bias toward the upper social classes is a systemic one, not a partisan one.
To some extent we all know this deep down. It’s telling that when television writes a series about a psychopath becoming president, as in "House of Cards," it seems easily achievable under the current rules. Yet in a series like "Designated Survivor," about a sane person filling the role of Commander-in-Chief, the most plausible plotline is that this comes to pass because all branches of government suffer a simultaneous demise.
The Founding Fathers Didn’t Make Too Many Mistakes
To return to the point: The founding fathers just didn’t want democracy. And to give them some credit they were pretty open about that. It just doesn’t square too well with the modern-day fable that what makes America great is that it's a democracy. Democracy means "people power," not "rule by the elite" or even "rule by the best," which is aristocracy. But since the founding fathers designed a republic, instead of a democracy, well, we’ve got what we’ve got.
The good news is that it doesn’t need to stay that way. Just as human beings didn’t need to live in caves forever and eat mammoth brains, or worship absolute monarchs forever with men wearing tights, they also don’t need to live like this forever.
With today’s technology, it would be relatively easy for citizens to keep tabs on representatives and to control their votes in Congress, just as it would be easy to roll out participatory budgeting and allow people in municipalities across the United States to decide how their tax dollars should be spent. One wouldn’t need to go as far as ripping up the U.S. Constitution to make these changes, either—it’s all perfectly legal and it would fundamentally shift the balance of power in our society. May I suggest you take some of these ideas up with your county, township or state representative.
If Trump opponents actually care about their professed values (and at this point, I believe many of them don’t), one would think they might focus a little more on correcting the institutional underpinnings that allowed Trump (and all others like him) to come to power.
In order to change something, you have to first understand it. The sky-is-falling hysteria of those who object to Trump, and seek to simply fabricate everything under the sun, including the past, as an argument against his presidency is misguided and will only make things worse. Indeed, the mythical past of the eternally benevolent founding fathers is as much misplaced nostalgia as Trump’s call back to 1950s Pleasantville. Only when America fully realizes that will it be able to move on to something better.