Madison and the Failure of Democracies

We are living in times that would horrify James Madison.

The founding father did so much to avoid ochlocracy but here we are today.

Thomas Jefferson had sent his good friend James Madison books on failed democracies. As Madison would be drafting the constitution, he was resolute that it would prevent America being run by demagogues and passion fuelled mobs.

Reading about ancient Athens, he saw troubles in their democracy and cited reasons for its failure. The assembly in Athens where a minimum of 6,000 citizens were required, led to passionate views that would overcome the logical Enlightened thinkers.

“In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason,” he argued.

Madison believed the citizens of Athens had been swung by indecent politicians who took advantage of their emotions. People had become more aggressive towards opponents to Athens largely due to being convinced by fanatic Cleon. Some devious people were arguing for policies and changes that would not necessarily beneficial for the masses but by playing on the citizens emotions there were able to gain power. Madison believed he was starting to see this in America where there were cries for abolition of all debts which led to widespread unpleasant debates.

Mobs were being formed and he felt that fractions between people were forming with public opinion being formed and spread quickly. However, he believed that public opinion would soften over a period of time as people begin to focus on the long-term rather than short term.

“A pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction,” Madison wrote.

Madison believed he must prevent people from having a direct role in government in order to prevent public policy and liberty. The idea was to form a representative republic rather than a pure democracy where the more knowledgeable people would act for the greater good of the public. A number of measures were put in the Constitution to prevent mob-like formations so that reasonable masses would overcome them. This is precisely why the Senate was formed. Initially people can directly elect members into the House of Representatives but then the Senators could only be picked by state legislators rather than by the people. So when the Senate would have to be in agreement with the House of Representatives when attempting to pass through legislation. The idea was that the Senators would be able to offer more reason and calmness than the impassioned elected member of the House of Representatives. The seventeenth amendment of course made changes, but we can see why the founding fathers wanted that separation of powers.

Plato believed that for a self-government to work it needed to be capped at 5,040. Republics were believed to only be able to work in small populations and sizes where citizens would each other personally and have access to one another. Madison disagreed with this. He believed that the issue with small republics was how majorities could easily form whilst ignoring minorities altogether. America’s huge acres of land and large population was a reason that Madison believed passionate mobs could be prevented as tensions would decrease before involving others.

Madison explained, “Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.”

At the time, the main media outlet were newspapers which was helping to communicate across America, Madison himself would write his thoughts. Newspapers were platforms for people with substantial knowledge in their field to put across arguments. Madison felt that journalists would promote great ideas and that citizens would take out time to read these complex exchanges which would allow reason to spread across the country.

by Sunil Sharma

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