James Madison was a bit of a wuss. He topped out at 5-foot 4-inches and needed the weight of the republic on his shoulders to tip the scales past a hundred pounds. He spoke in a high pitched whisper, had scads of (often imagined) health problems, and could at times be a goody-goody priss. He once lost an election to the Virginia House of Delegates because he refused to “swill the planters with bumbo,” which in the modern vernacular roughly translates as declining to pick up the tab so the voters can get shitfaced.
Today these sorts of traits probably would preclude a political career. An altitude-challenged cream puff sniffling sotto voce sussurations on democratic theory? That’s not exactly a combination calculated to get the hearts of contemporary voters thumping. And more fool us, because whatever else he lacked Madison incontrovertibly had brains in copious abundance. Buckets of the stuff, great stonking piles of fizzing synapses that through some astonishing act of mental electrolysis kept precipitating republican gold from the feculent solution of politics.
And thank goodness he did, because right now pretty much the only thing standing between us and some of the more dire consequences of unchecked populism are the products of Madison’s fertile IQ factory. Let’s hope the institutional dike that brainiac put up can still hold its water because there’s some serious waves starting to hit the levee. Just this week the president of the United States bashed Congress and/or the Constitution–his splintered syntax left the precise target open to interpretation–as “an archaic system” that is “really bad for the country.” He also declared the government needed “a good shut down.” Gulp.
He also took time out from deprecating the institutions of government to launch another salvo of smoochies at his positional role model, President Andrew Jackson. This isn’t that surprising as, at least in some ways, Jackson was a man after the current president’s own heart. He ran for president as a champion of the average Joe and promising to deal with the “corrupt aristocracy” in Washington, D.C. He mistrusted pretty much all federal agencies and put the lot of them under investigation. He also is remembered for instituting the spoils system, a management method notable for staffing the executive branch with fanboys, toadies and suck-ups rather than people who actually know what the hell they are doing. Anything there sound familiar?
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America author and not a bad sort for a Frenchman, summed up Jackson by saying he craved popularity, leveraged popularity into power, having got power wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it, and ended up doing stuff no one else would dare, including pursuing sulfurous relations with most of the grownups in government and seeking to trample “on his personal enemies, whenever they cross his path, with a facility without example.” Anything there sound familiar?
That brand of politics, the sort practiced by Jackson and Trump, is exactly what Madison was trying to constrain as he labored to blueprint a system of government that, with due revisions and compromises, emerged from a 1787 mega-committee meeting as the Constitution of the United States of America. Believe it or not, the Constitution was specifically designed to create an institutional shield against populism and populist movements. Yep, the idea was to create a government that could take an incoming wave of populism and prevent it from drowning the republic.
Ever wondered why we have no direct election for president? Every wondered why the Senate has such long terms of office? Why such a massive population is represented by only 435 tribunes in the “people’s” House of Representatives? Ever wondered why the Constitution had to be amended to allow direct election of the Senate? Okay, probably not. Luckily for you, though, somebody was thinking about all this stuff before any of those parts of government existed. That dude was (mostly) James Madison.
He knew all too well that populism was a bad idea because in the late eighteenth-century state governments were giving it an enthusiastic try. The result was an economy in the crapper, an armed uprising (Shay’s rebellion) in Massachusetts, and an erosion of competence and comity in the public sphere so severe it threatened to bloom into an existential threat to the nation. Madison knew the likes of Jackson and Trump would come along because voters being voters–read the motto at the top of the page—it was inevitable that mountebanks long on we-the-people canards and short on competence were going to get elected. If you can’t rely on people–and let’s face it, you can’t–government institutions and processes needed to be sound enough to make sure things periodically don’t go smash.
The basic system he came up with was kinda complicated. It has no main spring, and to actually get the ship of state moving requires different people in different parts of the government to be cranking numerous institutional gears in synchronized harmony. That makes it damnably hard for the government to do anything. The upside is that it also makes it hard for one person or party to do anything damnably stupid with government. Madison considered that a fair trade if it gave the populist peacocks plenty of room to flash their tail feathers while preventing them from doing anything too featherbrained.
And for the most part Madison’s system has worked. Yes, all those complicated institutions and processes, and especially the people capable of mastering them, really get the goat of the Jackumps (Trumpsons?) who think running a government is sort of like getting the star turn in The Godfather. Lucky for us, though, those institutions have held. At least, they have so far. The waves coming in these days, though, look kinda scary.
I’m pretty sure the product of Jimmy boy’s nuclear noggin will continue to keep us reasonably safe from both Jackumps and ourselves. Just in case the levee falls, though, I want to go on record now as supporting a revival of swilling the planters with bumbo. I pay attention to government and voters for a living and, goddam, I could really use a drink.