The loss of the republic

jefferson and hamilton

I lament the loss of the republic. Like the Roman senators under the emperors, who longed for the halcyon time before Julius Caesar, I long for the good old days when we had a republic in these United States.

For all the prating about democracy, and our current boilerplate pieties about the “will of the people,” it should be remembered that our Founding Fathers never intended that we should be a democracy. They feared democracy.

That is why they carefully crafted a republic.

The Romans and I lament the loss of the republic from opposite ends of the governance spectrum, but we lament nonetheless. Yes, just as Rome under the Claudians and Antonines maintained a certain hypocritical observance of the forms of the republic while the realpolitik was despotism, the United States maintains the observance of certain republican relics — like the Electoral College — while in reality giving over ourselves to mob rule.

“We are now forming a republican government,” wrote Alexander Hamilton during the debates of the Federal Convention in 1787. “Real liberty is neither found in despotism or in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.”

And we wrote republicanism into our Constitution, giving the people the right to choose their leaders. The expectation was that these elected leaders would govern us. Instead, over the past 200 years, there has been an erosion of that idea into one where the people have come to micromanage. We vote or voice out about every single issue that comes up with the odd self-assurance that any regular Joe can know and understand complex issues as well as the thoughtful and educated people who have studied them for years.

It’s as if we elbowed Steve Jobs out of his position at Apple and let the assembly-line workers make the corporate and financial decisions. Jobs was a leader for a reason. We expect talent at the head of our businesses, we expect them to know more than we can possible know about the particularities of their fields. They are hired to know what we cannot: Specialists, not generalists.

So, leaders no longer lead. We complain about it all the time, yet in fact, when it comes to politics, we don’t want our leaders to lead. We want them to follow. To follow public opinion. If this week we want English as an “official language,” then, bigod, we’ll have it. If next week we want something else, then we’ll change once more. American history is fraught with the warnings of this.

There was a time, if constitutional republicanism hadn’t won out, that American voters would have outlawed Roman Catholicism. We would have prevented the Irish from immigrating. The majority has scant respect for minority rights. And how many times in the past decade has some group discovered that if given the chance, most Americans would revoke the First Amendment? And if Lyndon Johnson hadn’t actually led, but had instead followed the vox populi, we still might not have a voting rights act.

John Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1815, “The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratical council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor.”

It is instead with thoughtful, careful, prudent people that we should hope to entrust our governance. Admittedly, educated people are quite capable of stupidity. It was the “best and the brightest,” after all, who got us into Vietnam in the first place. But stupid half the time is an improvement on stupid all the time. If we leave government to momentary passion and popular prejudice, we will always be stupid as a people. At least the “aristocracy of merit” that Thomas Jefferson foresaw has the chance to lower the percentage of egregiousness in our governance.

“There is a natural aristocracy among men,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “The grounds of this are virtue and talents.” That idea has faded into a lumpen and ignorant interpretation of his “all men are created equal,” as though you or I could play point guard for the Chicago Bulls, or build a moon rocket in our garage or write good law.

In a republic, we hire the best people to spend their time understanding just such things. In a democracy, such as we pretend to have now, our leaders need know nothing, as long as they do what we tell them in this week’s Gallup Poll, and change it all over again next week.

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