Trump is proof that the Founders were right to distrust democracy

H.W. Brands reminds us that the founding fathers were deeply afraid of democracy, and went to great lengths to structure a political system that constrained what they considered the likely excesses of unbridled populist politics, up to and including the undoing of the Republic. As John Adams wrote,

There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

But Brands is not speaking generally of the flaws inherent in democracy, but more specifically he is focusing our attention on the electoral college’s role in choosing the president and vice-president. The constitution puts the selection of the president and vice-president in the hands of the electors, not the populace [emphasis mine]:

H.W. Brands, How Trump Has Proved the Founders Right

And they [the founders] built the electoral college as a final barrier against the likes of Trump. Electors were expected to exercise their judgment — their reason — in selecting the best candidate for president. The founders didn’t expect, and they didn’t want, the electors to act as mere rubber stamps. They wrote a constitution making electors free agents.

Things didn’t work out that way. Parties emerged (also against the wishes of the founders), and the electors became partisan functionaries, pledged to their parties’ nominees. Rarely have electors strayed from the party line.

Yet the Constitution hasn’t changed on this matter. The electors could vote for someone other than their party’s nominee. The only constitutional restraint on electors is that they can’t vote for candidates for president and vice president both of whom are from an elector’s own state.

More to the point, the mere existence of the electors serves as a reminder of the founders’ fear of emotion running away with the republic. As often as they are honored for their wisdom and their insight into human nature, they are rarely taken seriously in their distrust of democracy. At least since Jackson, democracy has been unassailable in the public arena. When Henry Adams in 1880 published a scathing sendup of Gilded Age politics, called Democracy, he felt obliged to disguise his authorship. Candidates can hardly be expected to criticize democracy, for to do so is to risk being seen as insulting voters.

But the founders were onto something. The virtue of democracy is the legitimacy it confers on those it elects; its vice is the temptation it affords candidates like Trump to inflame the baser passions of the electorate. The founders understood the need for the system to step back and take a deep breath before conferring great power on mere mortals.

And some, like Trump, it seems, are more mortal than others.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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