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Is Democracy Killing Democracy?

February 9, 2010

Kurt Andersen in New York Magazine:

The tea-party movement takes its name from the mob of angry people in Boston who, in 1773, committed a zany criminal stunt as a protest against taxes and the distant, out-of-touch government that imposed them. Two years later, the revolution was under way and—voilà!—democracy was born out of a wild moment of populist insurrection.

Except not, because in 1787 several dozen coolheaded members of the American Establishment had to meet and debate and horse-trade for four months to do the real work of creating an apparatus to make self-government practicable—that is, to write the Constitution. And what those thoughtful, educated, well-off, well-regarded gentlemen did was invent a democracy sufficiently undemocratic to function and endure. They wanted a government run by an American elite like themselves, as James Madison wrote, “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” They wanted to make sure the mass of ordinary citizens, too easily “stimulated by some irregular passion … or misled by the artful misrepresentations” and thus prone to hysteria—like, say, the rabble who’d run amok in Boston Harbor—be kept in check. That’s why they created a Senate and a Supreme Court and didn’t allow voters to elect senators or presidents directly. By the people and for the people, definitely; of the people, not so much. [More]

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