THE NATION / NEWT, MEET HISTORY : Madison Paradox: More Info, but Knowing Less
Newt Gingrich has placed “The Federalist Papers” high on his list of readings for the new Republican majority in the House. Somewhere James Madison is smiling--and not only at the thought that his essays supporting the Constitution are still being read more than two centuries later. For the ideas about representation that Madison expressed in “The Federalist” do not sit well with those the new Speaker is expected to put into practice.
Consider, for starters, these differences:
Madison wrote “The Federalist” to persuade Americans of the benefits of national government; Gingrich’s “contract with America” assumes Congress is more likely to do wrong, and that his mission is to restore power to the states.
Madison worried that newcomers to Congress would fall prey to the superior wiles of their veteran colleagues; Gingrich promises to whip his young Republicans into shape while giving the House the most disciplined leadership either chamber has seen since Lyndon B. Johnson ran the Senate.
Madison hoped to insulate Congress from the populist fevers that, even then, swirled through U.S. politics. Gingrich comes to power as an advocate of electronic democracy, a skillful manipulator of C-SPAN and the beneficiary of the rancorous forms of talk radio. Where Madison cringed at the idea that a shallow public opinion could be so easily used to distort the deliberations of Congress, Gingrich and other advocates of politics-by-fax assume these pressures are needed to keep Congress on a straight path.
Yet, the disdain for Congress that Gingrich has exploited taps political attitudes as old as Madison’s republic. With the revolution in Congress under way, it might be useful to examine the claims about representative democracy both Gingrich and his adversaries appeal to. The technology of C-SPAN, talk radio and lobbying-by-fax may be new, but the arguments on both sides have a long and respectable ancestry. They have co-ex- isted since the Constitution was adopted.
The classic arguments against making representative government too responsive are those we associate with Madison and his fellow Framers. It has become a cliche for critics of electronic democracy to insist that the Framers valued deliberation far more than impulse--but it is true. It was one thing to say the authority to govern should flow from the people, another matter entirely to assert the decisions of government should simply follow popular preferences.
Madison stressed this at the Constitutional Convention and again in “The Federalist.” Legislators should be well informed about the needs and interests of their constituents. But the affairs of a national republic might prove more complicated than the business of a state legislature. The fact that representatives would assemble from distant corners of the union meant it would take time for them to learn about and take seriously each other’s concerns. A common good would not simply appear by counting the votes of parochial legislators; it could only be the product of deliberation and a depth of knowledge that Madison doubted private citizens could ever possess.
Advocates of congressional term limits err, then, when they argue that the Framers wanted representatives to be “citizen lawmakers.” The state assemblies contained examples aplenty of such representatives--and the Framers had little respect for the laws these amateurs produced. They thought lawmakers should gain a measure of expertise that only experience could provide, and that was why they eliminated the rule of rotation that had forced Madison to leave the Continental Congress. True, they would be astonished to learn that later generations of representatives would serve term after term in Congress. But they valued experience and expertise, because they assumed that was what serious deliberation required.
To establish these principles, however, the Framers had to struggle against powerful currents of political opinion. For other norms were alive and well among their anti-Federalist opponents and in the circles of state politics, and in many ways these remained closer to the attitudes of ordinary citizens who grew wheat, raised pigs and tried, even then, to avoid taxes.
In their view, already colored by populism, the ideal criterion for a representative was not knowledge but sympathy. A lawmaker should think always of the burden his actions would place on his constituents. He should remember his office was a temporary trust. When he voted on a bill, he should recall that he would be subject to the measure.
That was why anti-Federalists and other Americans favored the annual election of representatives and rotation in office. For only by knowing that they would soon return to the mass of the population would lawmakers realize they were only citizens, not rulers--a part of the people, not their overlords. If possible, constituencies should even retain a right to instruct their representatives how to act. This was an impractical measure for national representatives, but a common practice in the states.
In sentiments like these, it is easy to find strong hints of the current anti-congressional mood Gingrich has exploited. No great leap is required to imagine how 18th-Century Americans would view a Congress that exempted itself from the laws it imposed on the larger society, or which voted itself generous pensions to enable its members to remain in the urbane confines of “the federal district” rather than retire to the sleepy backwaters from whence they came.
Both sets of attitudes, then, have deep roots in our history; both will still be part of our politics when the millennium rolls around. But that does not mean the deliberative and populist strains of American democracy have equal merit.
Madison’s ideals were obviously rooted in the less-than-democratic world of the 18th Century. But they rested on a profound understanding of popular politics that still merits attention. For the nasty secret of popular politics, Madison observed in 1788, was that there were clearly “subjects to which the capacities of the bulk of mankind are unequal and on which they must and will be governed by those with whom they happen to have acquaintance and confidence.”
The idea of electronic democracy rests on a false premise that ease and speed of communication should facilitate the spread of the knowledge that citizens need. But all the evidence suggests the opposite is more likely. Half the public cannot name the candidates in the most recent congressional election; less than 10% can identify the position their representative had taken on any given bill. Every election suggests that decisive mood swings in the electorate often flow from vague and superficial impressions about candidates and half-formed understandings of issues. Only a fraction of the voters who gave the GOP its new majority in Congress could have described the “contract with America,” much less realized they were endorsing it as a platform for change.
Nonetheless, Gingrich has every reason to claim this as a referendum on the contract. If he can hold his majority in the House together on this mandate, and carry the Senate, more power to him. And if he can get Presdient Bill Clinton to go along, and so abdicate his duty (as Madison put it) it acts as a check on the “impetuous vortex” and “enterprising ambition” of Congress, his achievement will be more remarkable still.
But if this comes to pass, and U.S. politics and governance are transformed, it won’t be because the vision of deliberative government in “The Federalist” has been taken to heart.