The United States Is ‘Ungovernable’ by Design
Those who lament that Democrats can't get anything done ignore the genius of the Constitution's roadblocks to a "tyranny of the majority."
January 28, 2010 - 12:00 am
Matt Yglesias of Think Progress took a lot of heat from the right last month for stating that America has become ungovernable. Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey said Yglesias wasn’t making these complaints when the Democrats were in the minority and obstructing judges and social security reform. Kim Priestap of Wizbang suggested that Yglesias was trying to make excuses for Obama’s flailing agenda.
Yes, Yglesias was being hypocritical. Yes, Yglesias was making excuses. Nonetheless, Yglesias was essentially right. America is ungovernable. It has been for the better part of its history.
Regarding the U.S. Senate, Yglesias complained: “It’s a system in which the minority benefits if the government fails, and the minority has the power to ensure failure. It’s insane, and it needs to be changed.”
Yglesias hit on the left’s problem, but he stopped short. Yglesias and the left complain about the bind in which they find themselves. They can spare 4o votes on any House vote, and they have a Senate majority, but they can’t get anything done. It’s as if a genius schemed against them to thwart their efforts and require impossibly large majorities to accomplish something.
A genius did conspire against the left, but their foe isn’t Karl Rove. In fact, he’s been dead for 173 years.
By fingering the system as the problem, Yglesias identified the system’s creators as the enemy and James Madison in particular. But our founders didn’t set out to frustrate any specific people. They were concerned with one big question: how does one prevent a republic from degenerating into tyranny, as all historical republics had?
While Yglesias worries about the minority ruining a Democratic stampede, Madison worried about something else entirely. In Federalist 51 he writes:
It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. …. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.
Madison’s solution was simple.
Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.
We like to imagine we only have two factions in America: Republicans and Democrats; liberals and conservatives. Last year showed that we have all sorts of factions within the two-party system. There’s been a lot of talk about Blue Dog Democrats, but coal state Democrats opposed cap and trade, and pro-life Democrats pushed the Stupak Amendment and guaranteed that President Obama’s rhetoric about the Freedom of Choice Act will remain empty words. Right-to-work state Democrats like Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) have frustrated efforts to pass card check.