Thomas Jefferson was super-smart and all, but honestly, that guy had his head so far up his ass his wig powder must have doubled as dentifrice. I say this as a nostalgic fanboy, a special place kept in my heart for his declaration that, “the sapling of liberty periodically needs irrigating with blood, preferably with the miracle grow gore sourced from the plebs and not from compost-spouting, Monticello-building aristos like me.” Well, maybe not an exact quote, but the gist is accurate enough.
Jefferson is sort of like the Sex Pistols. You know, the band that not only scared the crap out of your parents, but just because you bought their albums and cranked them up to 11 they made you, a pimply teenage oik of no particular worth or provenance, kind of scary too. You might have to make a generational adjustment on the band to make that analogy work. So feel free to insert Eminem or the Satanic Sheep Shaggers of Doom or whatever auditory toxin leaks out of ear buds on college quads these days. The labeling and melodious specifics are ultimately irrelevant. As long as it intimidates middle-aged college profs into taking the long way to the latte bar it’s golden. You get the idea. Immature proto-adults like stuff that gives grownups the vapors, because that gets the grownups’ attention.
And that’s Jefferson. He gives Founding Father cred to people power, periodic revolution, and the general idea that having the lower orders drop kick the elites in the nads every now and then is a salutary tonic for the republic. It reminds everyone who’s really in charge. A little mob-led communal bloodletting on the republican oak, or at least an angry communal widdle into the potted plant of the commonweal, clears the air. Exactly how periodically flicking all these body fluids around the arboretum of democracy achieves this is beyond me, so don’t ask. The point is, Jefferson says it is okay for the sassy masses to have a good hissy now and then. Scares the grownups.
Well, the electorate clearly just had a Jefferson and it’s certainly got the grownups’ attention. The accession of the heir with hair to the highest office has the sober and staid guardians of keeping the machine running panicked. “This isn’t going to end well,” you can hear them warning in strangled castrati sopranos, nether regions still smarting from having the hoi polloi punt their daddy tackle right over their polling forecasts. What makes it all particularly painful for that crowd is that the ultimate republican grownup assured us this sort of thing would, if not never happen, at least be kept to the absolute bare minimum.
In contrast to Jefferson, James Madison was decidedly leery about treating the people as responsible sovereigns. Sure, he thought they should hold the ultimate lock box to power, but that was only because he couldn’t figure out a better place to stash the stuff. And if the people had the power, he was dead set on making sure they’d have to work damn hard to actually use it. As he famously put it in Federalist No. 10, “Listen, I love the people too, but criminy, they’re suckers for all sorts of shinola trafficked by ripesucks and mountebanks. And, let’s face it, half of them are wackaloons anyway. If they ask for access to the vault, for chrissake let’s only give them half the combination. We don’t want that lot getting in there without adult supervision.” Well, now that I think of it, I might have lifted that quote from Federalist No. 51.
Regardless, Madison’s point was you couldn’t trust the people any more than you could trust the elites. You had to break up power like a jigsaw puzzle. The idea was that anyone really trying to be in charge was perennially going to be at least one piece short of a full picture. Oh, the proles might get into a tizz and catapult a few angry kindergartners into the House. No matter, the Senate will make sure that after their temper tantrums they’d eat their republican veggies and take legislative naps at the appropriate times. And if the children broke into the Senate, no matter, the prez will be there, like some sort of national junior high principal armed with tardy slip vetoes to keep them in line. And if even the Electoral College somehow falls to populist plunder, no worries, we’ve got the strict grannies of the Supreme Court to keep the kiddies in line. The only way the machine really breaks down is if the bully boys take over all of these institutions and, seriously, how likely is that?
The current reply, as grownups speaking through clenched teeth and in tones still an octave high might put it: “A sight more likely than we thought.” We have the semi-extraordinary situation of a president winning on a technicality (popular vote loser, that’s, like, bigly yuge, believe me), heading a party that actually took a legislative electoral hit (Republican lost seats in Congress), and between them suddenly unleashing a motley group of populist piffle-mongers to plunder as much power in all three branches as they can grab. It’s like Johnny Rotten getting license to sit as speaker in Parliament, ceding the floor only to the MPs gobbing in the aisles and sporting knitting needles through their noses. Jefferson might approve, but dignified it ain’t, and the needle on the RPM counter above Madison’s grave must be buried deep into the red.
Somewhere Alexander Hamilton is probably watching all this with an I-told-you-so smirk. Hamilton made a career out of driving both Jefferson and Madison batty with his barely concealed distaste for tugging a forelock at popular sovereignty. Hamilton famously summed up his philosophy of republican governance by saying that, “The people should just shut the hell up and let those of us who actually know what they’re doing get on with it.” Well, I might be paraphrasing a bit, but you get the idea. Hamilton more or less only wanted the grownups to govern.
And who were the grownups? Good question. Hamilton was pretty picky about designating grownups. The party he helped birth, the Federalist Party, basically went extinct because they didn’t want to let anyone into their club who had even the faintest whiff of infantile populism about them. Problem was, even back then, the stink of the masses smelt more like roses the closer they got to the ballot box. This was a problem for deep thinking scolds like Hamilton and John Adams who were deeply committed to representative democracy and representative democratic principles, but infinitely regretted that such commitments meant having to deal with, ugh, voters. The electorate, they firmly believed, could too easily be gulled into giving full-throated support to bluffers and fantasists who, if they were actually given power, would drop all of us two fathoms full into the shite.
Hamilton never did manage to square the democracy-run-by-elites circle, so power was connected to the people by the institutional gears, switches, and pulleys designed by Madison. And that Rubik’s cube of a transmission has kept the republic more or less humming along in drive ever since. The problem is, every once in a while, the people get tempted to chuck a wrench in there when they really, really want a change in direction. Of course, blowing up your transmission is not something the adults recommend as the best means to achieve a right or left turn, but what can the adults do? Madison might have written the operating manual, but everyone knows Jefferson was okay with tossing that over your shoulder and just giving everything a really good bash now and then. And the voters just had a major Jefferson. It’s giving the grownups a serious case of the Hamiltons.