Madison does us modern Americans a great service in Federalist 14 when he defines exactly what kind of government was set up under the Constitution. Progressives and conservatives would do well in reading and digesting the information because we have made a grave mistake in abolishing the constitutional checks on democracy set up by the framers. Both parties have historically looked upon expanding democracy at the national level as a good thing, hence the celebration of the 17th Amendment. But Madison takes the antifederalists to task for heaping on the republican constitution the problems and objections of democracy, that is to say that the system set up by the Constitution cannot be extended over a large extent of country like the United States because it would result in chaos. Madison gives us a clear definition of each system and then demolishes the geographic argument for a republic not a direct democracy:
in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large area.
What were we thinking when we dismantled republican elements in the Constitution? Were we so drunk with democracy tonic that we truly thought it could be extended and exercised on a national level and it would end corruption at the state level? Why do we continue to think this today? Look at the large states that have tried to govern solely on democratic principles. California, as Fareed Zakaria has pointed out in his book Future of Freedom, “is the fullest manifestation of direct democracy in the world today. And if California truly is the wave of tomorrow, then we have seen the future, and it does not work.” He mentions all the referendums, initiatives and recalls that California routinely uses and how they conflict with one another. One segment of California wants huge spending on social welfare programs, others will try to veto it. The state needs to raise taxes to pay the high salaries of its teachers but the people say no and the state issues IOUs. Again as Zakaria writes, “California has produced a political system that is as close to anarchy as any civilized society has seen.” Direct democracy as Madison points out can be effective but only “among a small number of people, living within a small compass of territory.” And this confirms what Jefferson said on the subject, “A democracy [is] the only pure republic, but impracticable beyond the limits of a town.”
Democracy should and must work on mainstreet, as if in a Rockwell painting, but it leads to division, strife and chaos “beyond the limits of a town.” In keeping with this vital understanding of democracy’s strengths and limits, Madison writes approvingly of giving power to do most functions to the states and the states to the municipalities, where democracy should flourish.
“[I]t is to be remembered that the general [federal] government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws. Its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic…[the states], which can extend their care to all those other objects which can be separately provided for, will retain their authority and activity.
Madison is reiterating that great principle of federalism, which is one of the key hallmarks of the US Constitution, a federalism that has become more unitary with each passing year. In essence he is saying that under the Constitution there will be a great balance of representation at the national level, which deals with problems of the whole people such as war, interstate commerce, or in other words the enumerated powers laid out in Article 1, Section 8 but that most other problems and needs would be addressed at the state and local levels where representation is closer to the people and democracy is more practical and effective. He also reassures his readers that “Were it proposed by the plan of the convention to abolish the governments of the States, its adversaries would have some ground for their objection”. That was true then but today the states do have grounds for redress. The states in many, many areas have had their authority abolished or made null and void through federal mandates; everything from wolves in Idaho to national DUI laws and No Child Left Behind.
We have done the very things Madison warned us not to do: abolish or severely circumscribe state power and expand democracy at a national level; and we did all of that with one single amendment–No. 17. Let us bring back republican government through restoration amendments and start teaching our children that democracy is not a panacea for all the evils in the world.
(*proposed restoration amendments include: repeal of the 16th & 17th Amendments and a congressional term limit amendment)