What would James Madison think of Democracy today?
It seems like his fears of impassioned civilians being drawn into mob leadership has come true. The system he had created to prevent this from happening has been destroyed.
America has not been this split arguably since the Civil War with political parties and leaders now embodying the views of their most extreme members. There has been an incredible shift which the Founders wanted to elude. Presidents and senior politicians are making appeals that are based on emotion as they attempt to please crowds. This has been substantially increased with social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook being able to create new adaptations of vocal crowds. Posts that are created on passion are a lot more popular and create more noise than posts based on reason and logic. On top of this, bubbles are now being created where people surround themselves with people who have similar viewpoints. We are now in age that Madison fought so hard to prevent.
He failed to forecast how much strong political parties would become. Initially it worked well as the large scale parties were calmed and united by people who despite having different ideologies and interests were able to comprise. This has changed. Following huge social movement changes, parties started becoming stronger and more contrasting.
Political parties throughout the 19th/20th century have become more polarised with populist reforms playing a large role. Intimidation and bribery started playing a role in some of the states' selection of senators. This later led to direct election of senators and now we see politicians looking to win votes at any cost. We have seen two huge moments in recent history with Barack Obama passing the Affordable Care Act and Trump passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 without a single vote from any members of the minority party. Madison would be at odds with the concept of “executive orders” with modern presidents choosing to use them rather than discuss with Congress. This singular mentality has led to more extreme voters.
What would infuriate and worry Madison the most is how the media has helped the polarisation across the U.S. Civilians are able to surround themselves with other like-minded people creating virtual mobs with everyone reinforcing the same common beliefs. Rather than listening to the opinions of the educated, social media has allowed the spread false information which appeals to people’s emotions rather than discussions based on reason.
The future in many ways does not look great for Founding Father Madison’s vision. With Facebook declaring that they will not intervene on polarising or inaccurate information, the spread of misinformation and appeals based on emotion will continue. Any censorship or dilution are seen as an attack on free-speech, with the one of the biggest threats to democracy being the internet.
The internet has the capacity to empower and improve democracy. It has allowed the voices of minorities, women and other groups to be heard with activism becoming easier to organise. However, with the low voting turnouts, and the extremism in policies it is leading to extremely liberal or conservative candidates with extremists going on to win elections.
“Democracy is something that is only ever as good as the education system that surrounds it”
Maybe the answer lies with another Madison principle. Constitutional education. He, like his fellow founding fathers, believed the fate of government depended on how educated the average citizen was. Madison wrote , “a popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” He urged congress to create national universities with George Washington stating that “a primary object of such a national institution should be the education of our youth in the science of government.” Strong education for citizens is the best form of protection against dangerous encroachments on liberty.
We are living in precarious times.
The amount of people who say believe it is vital to live in liberal democracy is declining across the world. Dictatorial style of leadership is appealing to more and more younger people. Passion is beating reason. It is clear that we must look at constitutional principles and bring back the value of Madisonian reason to the world.