George Thomas, the Burnet C. Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions at CMC, writes in the fall issue of National Affairs that the resurgence of popular democracy presents an opportunity to take a closer look at the importance James Madison and other founders put on "political leadership to refine, channel, and elevate popular wants."
Aware of the fragility of popular government, the founding generation worried about such "popular arts," where the people might be "stimulated by some irregular passion," or where they might be "misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men." Against the prevalence of simple-minded democracy, we stand to benefit from James Madison's more sophisticated — and more realistic — understanding of democracy. Madison was not only America's leading democratic and constitutional theorist, but he was also a leading political actor and statesman who brought theory and practice together in a singular manner.
Madison's thinking offers a timely antidote to populist democracy. While he began from the premise that the will of the people ultimately ought to govern us, he insisted that political institutions and intermediary civic institutions were essential to cultivating the "cool and deliberate sense of the community." And if he famously insisted that we should not design a government trusting that "enlightened statesmen" will "always be at the helm," he nevertheless thought that political leadership was essential to educating the public mind.
Revisiting Madison's thought is not best understood as an act of nostalgia, lamenting our fall. Conservatives who admire the founding are particularly prone to this sentiment, as if a recurrence to the founders would solve the contemporary problems that beset America. Indeed, I venture that a Madisonian mindset liberates us from a staid constitutional veneration and opens us to political reform. Madison viewed the Constitution in instrumental terms, and he turned to political parties as a necessary constitutional reform, a crucial means of educating popular opinion, when the constitutional system failed to work as its framers imagined. This is the sort of voice that can help us negotiate and modernize our politics, carrying forward our republican experiment in these still-early years of the 21st century.
Read Prof. Thomas' full article in National Affairs.