Direct democracy is wreaking havoc on America’s political workings.
During his victory speech following the April 19 New York Republican primary, Donald Trump repeated what has become a common refrain from his campaign of late: that the Republican nominating process is “crooked” and “rigged.” The solution, Trump proposed, is “going back to the old ways: You get votes and you win.”
The idea that “you get votes and you win” coheres with most Americans’ definition of democracy, but the framers of the Constitution, looking back to the origins of democracy in the city-states of ancient Greece, would not have defined it that way. In Greek democracy, as James Madison noted in The Federalist no. 10, assemblies of citizens voted on all political decisions. Such a system was only practical in polities with a compact territory and relatively small population. Larger polities would find direct democracy unworkable, hence citizens had to cede decision-making power to other institutions, which might be more representative (the House of Representatives) or less (the U.S. Senate, especially before the Seventeenth Amendment).
One of many classical influences on Madison’s thought was a work from the second century BC, The Histories by Polybius, particularly Book VI, which outlined the mixed constitution of the Roman Republic. The government of Rome, as Polybius saw it, contained democratic, aristocratic, and monarchic elements that balanced out one another, enabling the republic to avoid political extremes and the resultant instability.
Polybius believed that if any state became excessively democratic, it would degenerate into mob rule (ochlokratia in Greek). This transition, Polybius said, occurs when wealthy men, “unable to obtain [political office] by their own unassisted efforts and their own merits,” incite the passions of the commoners in order to bring about “a government of violence and the strong hand.”
The Roman Republic was an exception to this because, although it allowed citizens to participate in government through popular assemblies, other institutions ensured that political decisions were never completely in the hands of the citizenry. Rome’s elected heads of state, the consuls, wielded powers that Polybius categorized as monarchic, as they directed the military without having to consult the citizens.
Rome’s aristocracy kept the popular will in check through the institution of the Senate. Although it shares its name with the upper house of Congress, the Roman Senate was not a legislative body, nor did its authority derive from elections. Instead, its membership was hereditary, limited to those heads of household who lived off of amassed wealth rather than engaging in trade. This allowed them to participate full-time in the Senate, the role of which was more advisory than official. As a private club organized for the public good, the Senate groomed candidates for Rome’s elected offices and provided appointees for its bureaucracy.
The Roman system recognized that the needs of the state were not always the same as the wants of the people, and the Senate played a role in mediating between those two spheres. While the consuls had their own independent military budget, the Senate funded the provisioning of infrastructure, including the great road network used by both the army and the citizenry. The fact that the Senate straddled both public and private spheres also gave it a judicial role, namely the responsibility to impartially try crimes against the state.
If Polybius were to analyze the U.S. government, he would see the presidency wielding monarchical power through its role as commander-in-chief, while the aristocratic role of the Roman Senate would belong to the major political parties. Like the Roman Senate, political parties are private clubs organized for the public good. They nominate candidates for public office and their platforms help shape officeholders’ agendas, but they operate outside the governing structure provided for by the U.S. Constitution. Unlike the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, political parties have no constitutional mandate that determines how they are organized or must operate.
Before the 1970s, neither Republicans nor Democrats gave much weight to voters in the nominating process. Most delegates to the national conventions that nominated presidential candidates were selected by closed-door state and local conventions rather than at the ballot box. These conventions were dominated by political bosses, lifelong officeholders, and professional party operatives. Though the party leadership limited popular participation in the nominating process, they still had to produce candidates who would be competitive among a broad national electorate.
The Democrats were the first to dismantle that system following the violence at their 1968 national convention in Chicago. Republicans soon followed suit. Over the past four decades, the power-brokers who once controlled the nominating process in both parties have yielded their influence to a popular vote. Pragmatic deal-makers who hoped to groom a viable general election candidate have given way to the primary voter who demands that candidates respond to their ideological passions. Voter turnout has declined, polarization has overtaken the national electorate, and factionalization is deepening within both parties. The future of the Republican Party is now in doubt, and Democrats may find themselves in a similar position within an election cycle or two.
It is difficult for most Americans to imagine what kind of political system might emerge to fill the void should one or both major parties collapse, but more than 2000 years ago, Polybius considered what would happen when a republic’s political aristocracy abdicated its role in constraining the popular will. The result was ochlokratia — mob rule. Such a government no longer works to secure the public good, but to carry out factional grievances. Thus begins the republic’s descent into anarchy. And the only road out of anarchy is despotism.
I hesitate to guess how far down the path to mob rule we’ve already gone, but when I hear candidates and commentators alike venting about “superdelegates” and “the establishment,” I fear that the current two-party system is on the verge of collapse. If the country wants to get back to “the old ways,” then lessening popular influence on the nominating process might be a good place to start. We might once again see candidates who would rather build a national consensus than stoke the passions of their factional base. In that case, we might find that our government will become more representative even if it becomes less democratic.