Last week, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin pushed back against his party’s power grab when he made clear he wants to keep the Senate filibuster. Manchin was showered with praise by level-headed Americans for “saving the Senate.” But if we really want to be honest here, saving the Senate is necessary to save our very republic from the dangers of direct democracy.
A friend of mine who also happens to be a Mountaineer, David Hoinski, is a philosophy professor at West Virginia University. We’ve been close friends since our freshman year in high school, but we’ve gone our separate ways when it comes to politics. David teaches philosophy and is an expert on Plato.
A couple of years ago, David encouraged me to read Plato’s “Republic.” The thing that hit me most was Plato’s observation that right before you have tyranny you have a pure democracy. That’s part of what Benjamin Franklin meant with the famous line he uttered after the 1787 constitutional convention: What the framers had come up with, he said, was “a republic, if you can keep it.”
We throw around the term “democracy” so loosely in reference to America, but we’re actually a republic. There is a big difference between the two. A pure democracy ends up becoming mob rule. A republic has an entire system of checks and balances to prevent that. It’s our republican form of government that makes America so durable.
What I worry about today is that we’re finally devolving into the breakup of the republic that the Founding Fathers warned us about. James Madison described this as the problem of “faction.” Writing in 1787 as New York was deciding whether or not to ratify the Constitution, Madison explained that the benefit of a republican form of government was that it would undercut faction.
Madison described faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” He surmised that there were “two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction.” The first was “removing its causes,” which he rejected because that meant “destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence” and “giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” This solution, he noted, “was worse than the disease.”
The other method of curing the mischiefs of faction was “controlling its effects.” This is why Madison and the framers of the Constitution chose to make America a republic. In fact, Madison explicitly rejected direct democracy.
If we take that road, you’re going to see a significant step toward the Founders’ nightmares. This kind of hyper-democratization of society used to be far-left, pie-in-the-sky thinking. Such conversations weren’t remotely considered part of the mainstream debate. No longer. Many Americans were talking about socialism seriously before the global pandemic and that event has encouraged some of them to push even harder for a more collectivist and pure democratic system.
Now we’re actually talking about universal basic income. It’s not a punchline. That’s where our country is. When she served in the Senate, Kamala Harris introduced a proposal that was very similar to UBI. If you combine direct democracy with universal basic income, the republic is over. If we devolve into such a sad state, the main and perhaps only purpose of the government at that point will be redistributing free stuff and suppressing those who disagree with the whims of the mob. That’s when you have a tyranny of the majority.
When you empower the mob in such a fashion, it actually brings about violence. So we are at risk. It’s disturbing. Our republic is a constant balance. If you have checks and balances, you have a system that is capable of fixing problems. If you do away with them, we’re in deep trouble.