Populism, V: A bulwark against tyranny
On the structural safegaurds of the U.S. Constitution
by James Piereson
In a pre-election issue of The New Yorker, the editors placed a cartoon on the cover of the magazine depicting George Washington and Abraham Lincoln looking in horror at a television screen showing Donald Trump delivering one of his campaign speeches. The message was clear enough: Mr. Lincoln and the Founding Fathers, if they could be with us today, would be appalled at the spectacle of the billionaire mogul running for president as the authentic voice of the people. Many commentators on the left and right, and in between, joined in agreement to say that the Founders designed the Constitution precisely to prevent populist demagogues from getting anywhere near the presidency. There was considerable confusion in these circles as to whether they judged Mr. Trump to be an authentic populist or just another standard-brand candidate claiming to speak for the people—or, indeed, if they were saying nothing more than that a successful candidate who disagrees with them must be by definition a demagogue. Nevertheless, now that Mr. Trump has won the election, they are singing a slightly different tune, now relying upon the checks and balances in the Constitution to keep him from carrying out some of the policies he called for during his campaign.
It is heartening to hear these appeals to the Founding Fathers from liberals and leftists who typically scorn the Constitution as an out-of-date relic from the eighteenth century that does far too much to protect minorities and not enough to empower majorities. This is the refrain that we have been hearing for close to a century since Progressives like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt launched the modern critique of the Constitution. The separation of powers promotes gridlock and governmental ineffectiveness; the equal representation of the states in the Senate gives too much power to small states at the expense of the large ones; federalism is a tool that permits states to resist national majorities; the Supreme Court has more power than it should have in a popular system; the Constitution is far too difficult to amend and far too complex for the average citizen to understand. These critics, and there are many of them, prefer a framework of government that is less complex and more democratic or majoritarian than the one the Founders left us with, perhaps something resembling the parliamentary system in Great Britain or the initiative and referendum system for making policy used in California and in a few other states. In those systems, electoral majorities are able quickly to translate their victories into public policy without much regard for the opinions of the minority, which is the standard the critics use to measure “democracy” and “majority rule.”
Many find these arguments against the Constitution persuasive from an intellectual point of view—at least until they find themselves on the losing side of an election or two, at which point the indirect and complicated character of the Constitution looks like a political lifeboat that is conveniently available to save them from being overwhelmed by the majority. This seems to be where we are today with those in the national press or others close to the centers of power in Washington who never imagined that Mr. Trump could be elected President, much less carry his party into majorities in the House and Senate. Many who yesterday saw the Constitution as an impediment to their desires are relieved today to find that it also acts as a reciprocal impediment for their adversaries. Their credo, to paraphrase Mr. Dooley, might be summarized as, “Throw out the Constitution—on the other hand, not so fast!”
The framers of the Constitution did not use the term “populism,” but they were aware of the phenomenon it describes—that is, an uprising by the voters against what they judge to be a corrupt or out-of-touch elite. James Madison, for example, referred to something roughly similar in his extensive discussions in the Federalist of factions and “factious majorities.” To a considerable degree, the challenges posed by “populism” were front and center in the debates that eventually produced the Constitution. For better or worse, the framework Madison was instrumental in creating does not easily allow for the kind of popular referendum through which a majority of voters in Great Britain decided to pull that country out of the European Union, or the more recent referendum in Italy through which voters turned down a package of constitutional reforms. In this sense, theU.S. Constitution operates as an impediment to populism because it substitutes representation and deliberation for national referenda and direct democracy.