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Is Rule by the People Even a Good Idea?

Abraham Lincoln declared the United States to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. But to be honest, our founders weren’t all of the same mind when it came to popular control over government. Founding Father Gouverneur Morris opened the Preamble to our Constitution with the words “We the People,” but when it came time to draft the main text the framers employed many structures, such as the U.S. Senate, that were designed to keep citizens from entirely governing themselves. Instead, many framers sought to give power to an elite upper class rather than the masses. “Those who own the country ought to govern it,” said Federalist John Jay, our first Supreme Court Chief Justice.

Even today, whenever our electoral system produces results that some of my liberal friends and relatives don’t like, they tell me that they’re not so sure about democracy. People don’t have enough information to make informed decisions, they say. My friends on the right never tire of pointing out that the United States is a republic, not a direct democracy. But that shouldn’t mean a republic operating under minority rule. Rather, we are to be a democratic republic—a government where the majority elects representatives to govern on our behalf rather than making every decision ourselves.

I question the moral legitimacy of any government that wields power on any justification other than the active will of the governed. But setting philosophy aside, there are practical reasons to prefer rule by the people rather than any form of rule by experts or elites.

First, experts make mistakes. Highly educated and intelligent foreign policy experts in both major parties were convinced that the United States would be well served by entering, and deepening, wars in Iraq and Vietnam. Even in the face of contrary evidence, these experts doubled down on their analysis. It was only popular resistance, expressed through protests and elections, that eventually ended these tragic misjudgments.

Second, while the collective majority also makes mistakes, these mistakes are easier to correct. Majorities have changed their minds about topics such as banning marijuana, or prior to that prohibiting alcohol. But the elite decision-making process that recognized slavery as part of the U.S. Constitution required a civil war to correct. If you count the African slaves and white indentured servants, the majority of Americans likely never supported slavery, but the Framers devised techniques to undercount and disenfranchise many of those who lived and worked in early America. More recently, dozens of voter-approved ballot measures to limit big money in politics have been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a similar way, elite power is being wielded to squash the will of the majority, making the challenge of fixing their mistake through other means more difficult.

Third, many examples purporting to show mistakes by the people actually show that the people know more than elites. George W. Bush not only lost the popular vote in 2000, he received fewer votes in Florida than Al Gore if every ballot was correctly counted. It was not only the winner take all process that our Electoral College has evolved into (which the framers never envisioned), but an anti-democratic decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to stop a recount that lead to Bush’s placement in the White House. Further, had Al Gore’s expert attorneys prevailed, upholding the Florida Supreme Court’s order for a partial recount, Gore would still have lost. Only the accurately tallying of the will of all the people would have led to Gore’s election. Bush’s re-election in 2004 is another story, however, where he carried the popular vote by a margin of three million. Democrats would be wiser to consider why voters rejected them that year, rather than blaming voters for that outcome.

Because Donald Trump declares himself to be a populist, pundits tend to cite him as an example of voters being gullible and making bad choices. But, a majority of voters rejected Donald Trump in 2016, and majorities continue to voice their disapproval of him in public opinion polls. Moreover, there’s good reason to believe that many (but not all) people who voted for Trump knew full well what they were getting. They weren’t duped, but simply found the alternative less appealing. Americans may sharply disagree about Trump’s virtue, but his brand of politics cannot be labeled real populism when it lacks majority support. Rather, Trump’s regime is classic elite rule by a one percenter who has shrewdly, but falsely, wrapped himself in the banner of popular rule and billed himself as a fighter for the people.

Many of our current distortions come from the fact that our elections process does not accurately capture the will of the people. Instead, it reflects (within a margin of counting error that is sometimes unacceptably high) the will of the voters who show up. Government of some of the people is not the same as government of all the people.

Bottom line, if you don’t like the way the majority rules, it is better to change voters’ minds than to institute minority rule – where an oligarchy can hold power even if you do change people’s minds against them. When political parties abandon efforts to win majority support, oppressive electoral manipulation becomes their only resort. That can work in the short term, but in the long run it only further cements the party’s minority status.

This channel, The People’s Rule, operates under the premise that the United States should strive to operate as a democracy of the people, by the people, and for the people. It will offer analysis as to how our current political norms and structures are achieving it. That means expanding the electorate to accurately reflect the population, and then accurately counting their votes. Historically, the political party in power (currently the Republicans at the federal level) often has more interest in consolidating institutional power and weakening the power of the people. Hence, the reporting found here will often include sharp critiques of the party in power, rather than a false pretense of nonpartisanship that implies “both sides” are equally to blame for anti-democratic polices. However, when Democrats take positions contrary to rule by the people, we won’t hesitate to point that out.

If you prefer tyranny by the minority over popular sovereignty, this channel may not be worth your time. But if you are willing to take the pros and cons of democracy over any other form of government, I hope you’ll join us in the conversation.