Deliberation vs. Democracy

In my time teaching American Government to high-schoolers, I’ve noticed one glaring fact: My kids generally understand a lot of the whats of our Constitution by the time they get to me, but not very many understand the whys. They’re quick to grasp, for example, that we have a federal government with three separate branches; what takes longer to grasp is why we have a federal government structured as we do. They understand with relative ease the fact that Congress is a bicameral legislature; it takes a little longer to help them understand the reason for that.

I say that not to knock my students, of course, nor anybody else. We all start off by understanding the what before we bother with the why; that’s just the way learning works. So, none of that really worries me.

What does worry me, however, is the fact that so many people think there’s something strange–even slightly sinister–about the idea that the Constitution didn’t create a government that is immediately responsive to every whim and desire of the people. I see this attitude evidenced both in the classroom and out, among adults as well as teenagers, and very often, among those purportedly on the right as well as those on the left.

I think maybe the confusion stems first from the fact that so many people think this country is a democracy. It’s not. It’s a republic. A democracy, by the very nature of the case, is immediately responsive to the wishes of the citizens, but a republic is not. Extrapolating from that, then, we shouldn’t be surprised when our federal government fails to follow public opinion whither it blows; we should be reassured that our system is working properly.

Also, should we really want a democratic system? The draw, of course, is that legislation that has broad popular support can be pushed through relatively quickly. But that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Not all legislation is wise, or good. True, a democracy might make it easier to repeal unwise, unfair, or just plain wicked laws, but it might also make it easier to pass unwise, unfair, or wicked laws. Then what happens to our rights and liberties? They could very well be tossed out completely, just as easily as they could be expanded.

The protection against all of that is to set up barriers to the raw will of the people, which will “filter out,” we might say, any impulses to act in the heat of the moment, without thinking the consequences through adequately. In other words, establish a system which institutionalizes deliberative decision-making, as the Framers attempted to do. Make the government accountable to the people, yes; but at the same time, force the government to play the role of the friend who advises someone against a hasty, potentially harmful action, as Willmoore Kendall put it.

That’s what our Constitution does, and it’s imperative that we defend that, whatever smears the left may bring our way.

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