Are the principles of democracy and liberty self-reinforcing, or do they stand in tension? Should the U.S. president be chosen by the people, or by a professional Constitutional-geared search committee?
In the original vision for America it was the latter. We often forget that the American Founders believed democracy could be as big a threat to liberty as governmental tyranny, and so they designed only one sixth of the federal government — half of the legislative branch, namely the House of Representatives — to be voted in democratically. Senators were chosen by their state legislatures (until 1913), Supreme Court justices were appointed by the president (and still are today), and the president was chosen by an electoral college (or by the House of Representatives if no candidate got votes from a majority of the electors). In the Founders’ vision only Representatives (Congressmen) were chosen by popular elections.
In the case of presidential elections, the Founders intended the electoral college to function essentially as a search committee that would forward a list of their top candidates for the presidency to the House. The Congressmen would then choose the president except in cases where there was a consensus among electors. The system never ended up working that way, but that was the original vision. In the nation’s first decades, the methods used by states to select their electors kept changing so that rather than having state legislatures choose them, they were chosen by the people directly. So in effect there was popular voting for the president despite the process outlined in the Constitution.
It was the seventh president Andrew Jackson (1829-37) who did the most by far to make presidential elections democratic in the way we think of them today. He is usually praised for this, but the catch is that popular opinion can be as treacherous as governmental tyranny. This has obviously been proven in the recent Brexit and Trump votes. (In America’s case, Trump lost the true popular vote, but the point is that in the hands of an electoral college operating in a manner envisioned by the Founders, someone like Trump would have never been nominated let alone win an election.) Jackson was a rather terrible president himself, though chosen and loved by “the masses”. It’s the story as old as Rome: democracy is a poisoned chalice. The historian Randall Holcombe says:
“What Andrew Jackson did not anticipate was that by making government officials more accountable to the general public, they would be more inclined to make decisions that pandered to popular opinion rather than sticking to the guidelines of the Constitution. The Founders had good reason for trying to insulate the actions of the federal government from the demands of popular opinion, but Jackson wanted to remove that insulation, making the federal government more accountable to the electorate. Jackson was successful, and his most lasting legacy is that he made the federal government more democratic and thus more oriented toward satisfying the demands of the voters than protecting their liberty.
“Jackson believed that liberty could be protected only by allowing the people to govern through majority rule. He saw democracy and liberty as self-reinforcing, because democratic oversight of the government would guard against its being taken over by a political elite and would prevent the elite government from pursuing policies that would benefit the elite few at the expense of the masses. The Founders felt otherwise, for two reasons. First, they did not believe that most people had the capacity to make thoughtful and informed decisions about their government. Second, they believed that rule by majority could be just as tyrannical as rule by a king, or rule by any elite group. Thus, they designed the government to be run by a political elite, constrained in its actions by the limiting powers of the Constitution.”
This cuts to the heart of my own duality. On the one hand I have a misanthropic streak favoring elitism. It may be a contemptuous thing to say, but people by and large are stupid and poorly informed and can be counted on to give up their liberties and/or vote against their own interests without realizing it. On the other hand I cherish the idea that every individual, no matter how ignorant, should have a say in who governs and leads them, and that they should participate in the voting process accordingly.
“With little imagination,” says Holcombe, “one can envision how American politics would be different today if the president were chosen by a search committee of knowledgeable electors not committed to any candidate, rather than by popular voting.” Certainly we wouldn’t have a disastrous Trump presidency. In any case, Andrew Jackson is the one largely to thank for the double-edged sword of our democratic presidential elections.