Posted by: Chris | January 13, 2011

Maggie v. Madison

One of the more noteworthy things about the National Organization for Marriage is its seeming preference to push its agenda by referendum and, moreover, to see such votes as the true arbiters of democratic legitimacy, rather than legislation passed through representative bodies.  It is certainly a thread that runs through the majority of their press releases.

However, NOM’s recently announced ad campaign in RI brings this peculiar interpretation of American democracy into sharp relief:

The ad claims that the recently elected Governor Lincoln Chafee, who won with a plurality but not a majority of votes (against a Democratic opponent who agreed with Chafee on this point, but facts are beyond the point at this stage), as well as the Democratic majorities in the state house lack the standing to legislate on this issue and thus it should be put to a general plebiscite.  According to the accompanying press release:

If legislators in Rhode Island wish to redefine marriage, they should put this issue on the ballot where the people themselves can decide if they wish to abandon one of the most fundamental institutions of society.

This is a fundamentally fallacious interpretation of the process of representative democracy.  We elect representatives specifically for them to decide these very issues, to mediate between public good and public opinion and to ensure popular sovereignty without suffering strict majoritarian rule.    This notion has been a cornerstone of American political thought and one of the motivating principles behind the construct of our Constitution.  As James Madison famously argues in Federalist 10:

When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular Government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens…

From this view of the subject, it may be concluded, that a pure Democracy, by which I mean a Society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of Government, have erroneously supposed, that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

A Republic, by which I mean a Government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure Democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure, and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

The two great points of difference, between a Democracy and a Republic, are, first, the delegation of the Government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest: Secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, 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. Under such a regulation, it may well happen, that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the People, will be more consonant to the public good, than if pronounced by the People themselves, convened for the purpose.

Madison rightly feared the capacity, in regimes of direct democracy, for demagoguery to command the passions of the majority and trample the rights of the minority and the individual.  NOM’s regular statements in favor of a pure democracy over a more republican system of representation, to borrow Publius’s distinction, and repeated end runs around institutional checks and balances through direct popular appeals, betrays a shallow and wholly unconservative interpretation of democratic governance.  It is especially strange, given the current trends, to see the organization directly flouting the intent of the Founders in favor of the Progressive referendum and initiative. 

A more cynical observer might ascribe to NOM more selfish motives: they prefer direct balloting precisely because it provides the most amenable forum for demagoguery and rabble-rousing, acceding to Madison’s logic but simply preferring the rank majoritarianism of his alternative.  One wonders where Gallagher and Co. stand on the administration of hemlock to the inquisitive.  Or perhaps they felt it better to put aside JM’s contributions to the Federalist altogether after coming across the initial French publication of the same:

A 1792 French edition ended the collective anonymity of Publius, announcing that the work had been written by “MM Hamilton, Maddisson E Gay,” citizens of the State of New York.



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