Reclaiming the initiative of the people
Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3 ESV))
Periander began his reign in a mild spirit. But his manner changed after he had sent a herald to Thrasybúlus, the tyrant of Miletus, asking his advice how he could best rule with honor and fortune. Thrasybúlus led the messenger outside the city and through a field of corn, questioning him as they walked, while, whenever he came to an ear of corn that overtopped its fellows, he broke it off and threw it aside. Thus his path through the field was marked by the downfall of all the tallest stems and ears. Then, returning to the city, he sent the messenger back without a word of answer to his petition. (Charles Morris, Historical Tales: Greek)
From this point of view we cannot altogether regard as just the strictures passed by the critics of tyranny on the advice once given by the tyrant Periander to his fellow-tyrant Thrasybulus[sic]…Thrasybulus guessed that he had been advised to cut off the outstanding men in the state. It is not only tyrants who may derive some benefit from this policy; nor is it only tyrants who may put it into practice. Oligarchies and democracies are both in the same position. (Aristotle, Politics 3, 1284a and again at 5, 1311a)[Cp. Herodotus, The History, 5.92)
At the beginning of Federalist #9 Alexander Hamilton regrets the fate of previous republics, both ancient and modern because, though “…they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrasts to the furious storms that are to succeed…the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage.” The dominant faction excites resentment against any outstanding focal points of opposition. When these opponents act to defend themselves, the resulting conflict may sooner or later erupt into open civil war.
Whether composed of many or few, every type of human community requires outstanding focal points around which to organize their association. Therefore, every type of community is naturally susceptible to the strategy that attacks such focal points in order to disrupt that association. (Following the ancient example, we can call this strategy the harvester’s approach.) As Aristotle carefully suggests, a course of action that appears to respond to a natural imperative cannot be dismissed as altogether unjust.
Apparently, America’s founders agreed with Aristotle’s suggestion and his careful articulation of it. When they framed the Constitution of the United States to implement the principle of representation they put into practice their recognition that no form of government can be sustained that does not deal with both the imperative need for leadership, and the opportunity for factious mischief it entails. Unless its form of government allows for the success of people with extraordinary qualities and abilities (the elite), the community will not, in every circumstance have the foresight and intrepidity required to defend itself against attack. But, by the same token, if the ways of its government disrespect the actual and potential strength of those with less extraordinary ambitions (usually the great majority of the people), the community may not have the wherewithal to act, in orderly fashion, on the planning and inspiration that would otherwise allow it to do so. (Keep in mind here that the word “ordinary” includes, in its origin and meaning, a reference to the ordinances or norms that allow individuals to associate with one another in an orderly fashion.)
Of course, when thus acting on the whole, the sovereign body of the people includes both the many and the few. This leads to a situation in which it can be to the advantage of ambitious individuals on either side to strive toward a result that unites elements of both in order to form a majority with respect to the whole. Except in the terminal stages of civil discord, the willingness to do so should give such individuals an electoral advantage. Of course, in order to reap this advantage these cooperative elements of the people as a whole must take into account the ordinary sensibilities and priorities of the people, but with due regard for the less ordinary benefits their elite counterparts bring to whatever efforts all undertake in common.
Realistically, however, the sincere disposition to seek the advantages of cooperation is apt to dwindle when one side or the other enjoys a real or perceived predominance of power. When they can keep the many divided and isolated from one another, the elites are inclined to govern with no regard for their sensibilities. When the many rise up together with sufficient strength and resolve to overpower, they are apt to govern without regard for the advantages of the elite. The mutual dependency that might otherwise be the basis for their cooperative association then gives way to the concomitant temptations of superior power.
Susceptibility to the allure of superiority is a defining characteristic of the ambitious few. In fact their sense of superiority is often what spurs their ambition to go beyond the ordinary. They are therefore more likely to abuse the position of superior power once it is achieved. Generally, the ambition of the people at large is more self-contained, more apt to stay within the bounds of immediate needs and satisfactions, without challenging the norms they represent. The spur of their political ambition comes, more often than not, from some external circumstances, articulated on their behalf by outstanding individuals who, in fact or consciousness, find themselves in the same circumstances (or pretend to do so.) Such individuals become focal points for rallying the political interest of the people.
The people are therefore less likely to seek power on their own. But having attained it they are likely, in their use of it, to fall back upon their natural disposition with respect to the elite leadership. This is the key to understanding why, as a practical matter, America’s founder’s made election by the people the key to exercising the sovereign powers of government in the United States. The people, taken individually, are likely to be used to working respectfully with elements of the elite precisely. In most cases, even when driven by passion (as for example in a mob), people do not act collectively without some kind of leadership (i.e., without someone who takes the first step). On the other hand, a successful elite’s sense of superiority inclines them to disrespect the people at large. This is true even despite the fact that without the people the qualities and abilities of the elite would be far less rewarding, for they would have no venue for public success. (In this context it’s worth remembering that the English word “public” has its origin and root in a Latin word that meant “pertaining to the people”.)
Those gifted (Or is it, more often than not, burdened?) with the ability to see and act upon extraordinary possibilities usually encounter resistance from others with less extraordinary vision, even when the new possibilities promise to improve the situation for all concerned. The gifted seem to overstep the bounds- the norms and ordinances from which others derive a sense of security as they deal with one another. So these others often react with fear against the ones whose activities may disrupt their peace. So is it surprising that, when their insights produce powerful results, harbored resentment leads the elite harbingers of that power to disrespect those who resisted them?
As implemented in the U.S. Constitution, what James Madison (Federalist #10) calls “the scheme of representation” aims to countermand this disrespect for ordinary folks by making them the arbiters of access to the exercise of government power at every level. But it’s important to notice that they only do so as members of the sovereign body of the people, not as “sovereign” individuals. This reflects the underlying political understanding implemented in the U.S. Constitution and that of all the States, an understanding that acknowledges no individual governing sovereign (i.e., one that appears in the form of an undivided whole whose sovereign powers are not separated from one another) except Almighty God. This reflects the universal experience that, in strictly human hands, the undivided power of government assumes a tyrannical aspect.
The aim of the republican governments established in the United States is to banish tyranny. But this means finding some way to mitigate the natural tendency of every form of government to implement what we have termed the harvester’s approach to leadership. This approach reflects the nature of tyranny, whereby the tyrant sees every extraordinary leader outside of himself (i.e., outside of his absolute control) as a potential threat to his own extraordinary claims of leadership. It is precisely in order to discourage the people themselves from taking this view that the Constitution recognizes their exercise of sovereign power only when they act on the whole, within defined boundaries (Districts and States) and/or Constitutional limits which they have defined and agreed upon as constraints upon themselves and those who are to represent their sovereignty in the government.
In order to elect a representative each individual is called upon to recognize and acknowledge in others the qualities they would have in government over themselves. Rather than seeing themselves with the powers of government and others subject to them, they must on the whole see others with the power of government and themselves as its subjects. Only in this way do they take seriously their position as members of the sovereign body, acting in the election to help carry out its power of judgment.
But though they see themselves acting with sovereign power they also quite naturally have a keen sense that they represent the people who will be governed by their choice, because this is in fact exactly who they are. They have therefore a very good reason to apply to their choice the intuitive rule of justice, the rule that superior power otherwise tempts human sovereigns to ignore: Act as you would conscientiously want others to act if you were in their position and they were in yours.
By making the people the arbiters of access to sovereign power republics that implement the scheme of representation are more likely to have in their government people who use it in a way that reflects the common sense rule of justice. But this is only true because, unlike the successful elites, the people at large have no sense of superiority liable to make them feel less vulnerable, as individuals, to the effects of the power they exercise. When the choices they make truly reflect this sense of vulnerability, the representatives they choose will act accordingly. They will govern with respect for the premise of God endowed natural equality that is the first principle of political right.
Yet even if this is correct, given their natural reliance on elite leadership, what is to keep the people from being grist between the millstones of one element of the elite and another? Are they fated to be ground away to nothing in political battles that simply hand the reins of power from one tyrannical master to another? Elections are no guarantee against this outcome unless the use that can be made of the powers accessed as a result of such elections is limited, by the people themselves, with every such election they periodically make. This is the proper function of Constitutional government. By its provisions the balance of power the people periodically create is entrusted to government officials on condition that it be employed within the limits, and for only the purposes the U.S. Constitution articulates speaking with the enduring, sovereign voice of the people of the United States.
In effect, by their elections the people can create and empower new elements of the elite, throwing their weight behind them to affect the balance of power in the competition among the elites. But this renewal of the elite with elements respectful of the Constitutional sovereignty of the people (and the common sense of justice it involves) depends on the initiative of the people. If the electoral initiative is controlled instead by elements of the elite, the people’s natural sense of justice will no longer be reflected in the result. Instead of producing representatives with that sense of justice, periodic elections become exercises in self-perpetuation and self-selection of, by, and for the controlling elite. Rather than renewing the elite with representatives of the people who will respect the boundaries entailed by the people’s claim to political sovereignty, elections based on elite initiative allow one element of the elite to engineer focal points of elitist factional leadership intended to assure that, on the whole, the people are confined within the ambit of their self-serving power.
To avoid this elite usurpation of their sovereign power requires elections that offer the people true representation, i.e., representation that serves to perpetuate their constitutional liberty. This requires that, when they deem it necessary the people, have the capacity to make choices on their own initiative, without relying exclusively on prior determinations by the existing elite. This capacity is not just a matter of external arrangements and circumstances. It also depends on inner resources of character and self-respect that are the fruit of the people’s moral, rather than material strength.
As they face the current crisis of elite usurpation, there is a feature of the U.S. Constitution which offers the American people a vehicle for mobilizing these resources in a way that could dramatically illustrate and restore their political initiative. Ironically, it is a feature often decried by elitist demagogues as a vestige of humanity’s undemocratic past. Accurately perceived, however, it epitomizes the determination of America’s founders to respect the sovereignty of the people. It does so by assuring that at the most visible level of government, the people of the United States always have the option to retake the electoral initiative that preserves their right to exercise their sovereignty. In the third and last part of this series we will take a look at how that option could still be exercised in this election year.
[Check back soon for Part III-the plan of action]