Our political upheaval wasn't caused by mob rule, but by institutions designed to preserve elite oversight

Even before the election of Donald Trump, America's pearl-clutching class has been invoking James Madison and his fear of "impetuous majorities" and his desire for "majority rule based on reason rather than passion," worried that the "adults" in the political halls were losing their grip and being forced into "extremism" by mob rule.

This concern is on full display in Jeffrey Rosen's latest Atlantic piece, and masterfully rebutted by Slate's Jamelle Bouie.

Bouie points out that the extremist evils of our age are the result of anti-democratic action from the very institutions created to preserve the elite veto over "mob rule."

* The Electoral College -- an anti-majoritarian institution -- put Donald Trump in the White House, trumping the majority vote.

* The Civil War -- driven by the narrow, parochial priorities of elite enslavers -- killed more Americans than any of the "populist" parties since.

* The Senate -- Congress's anti-majoritarian upper house -- is the home of the filibuster, dominated by politicians elected by a minority of the population, pursuing policies that gridlock Washington and preclude compromise on urgent issues like background checks for gun purchases, funding for public services, or immigration reform.

Yet we continue to misdiagnose America's political disease as "mob rule" rather than "elite rule." This misdiagnosis matters, because it leads to prescriptions that merely heighten the grip by elites: rather than reforming the electoral college or campaign finance, DC elites want to regulate social media and fund "civic education provided by wealthy citizens with a vested interest in defending existing institutions."

An honest examination of democratic decline would look at the ways in which our counter-majoritarian institutions are thwarting the public will—as expressed through its elected representatives—and how that can create support for truly destabilizing forces. It would account for how the Republican Party itself has made Madisonian institutions unworkable by abandoning the commitment to compromise and fair play that makes them work. The transformation of the GOP into a parliamentary-style party primarily responsive to donors, right-wing activists, and conservative media is arguably the central problem for American governance.

What declinist arguments like Rosen’s actually fear is the waning influence of elites. And what these arguments seem to seek—in voicing nostalgia for early American politics—is an era where elites could steer governance with only the cursory affirmation of a narrow and exclusive public. But if political and economic elites have lost their stature in American life, it’s only after a generation of profound mismanagement, from misguided foreign adventures to wage stagnation and broad economic collapse. Their failure, and the extent to which they’ve never been held accountable, is the shadow looming over our politics. And if we’ve seen light, it’s in those places where ordinary people have organized and begun to build new movements and new ways of democratic living, like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Fight for 15, the immigrant rights movement, and the massive mobilization of women that followed the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Democracy didn’t create our problems, but it may solve them.

The Threat to Democracy Isn’t Coming From Its People [Jamelle Bouie/Slate]

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