“The Mirror of Representation” and Federalist 68 – 70
The final portion of Rakove’s chapter on representation confronts a number of issues handily relevant to contemporary tensions in American political culture. Through the voice of the “Federal Farmer,” a moderate New York Anti-Federalist thought to be Melancton Smith, we encounter a formidable suspicion that Madison and Hamilton’s vision for a strengthened central government was as deeply rooted in idealism and perhaps innocence as it was in pragmatism and hard-earned revolutionary experience. In particular, “The casual faith that Federalists placed in the people’s ability to ‘elect good men’ struck the ‘Federal Farmer’ and Smith as naïve” (230). Another writer warns of a politician as a species of “weathercock,” swaying this way and that to suit a particular whim in the electorate. We have seen in other comments that Madison himself had doubts about the quality of recruits to the national legislature, but somehow his faith drove him on. One issue of immediate concern was the number of representatives to be fixed against a state’s population; first 30,000 and later 40,000 residents were assumed to be adequately represented by a single Congressman, a quaint figure when you consider how the pressures of population growth as well as demographic diversity have changed the stakes and the scope of representation.
Now, of course, a complicated districting process based on the census determines the number of seats in a particular state. But at the time, large districts were thought to be dangerous: “Large districts would promote improper choices by making it all to easy to scatter votes among obscure or spurious candidates, and all too difficult to gather votes in the limited number of polling places that customary practice required, and where the very act of assembling would promote a knowledgeable choice” (232). Given the rural and largely agrarian demographic landscape of the country at time – remembering too that voters were themselves all male landowners – this simple assumption about the gathering of gentlemen farmers being convenient and proper is not all that far-fetched. Needless to say, however, communications technology and demographic density have eliminated the grounds on which this calculation was originally made.
From this moderate Anti-Federalist camp, we also find interesting commentary on the true motives behind the Federalists’ rather traditionalist assumptions about representation, particularly in the belief that “the majority deserved not so much to rule as to be protected from misrule; not so much to legislate in pursuit of its interests as to be secured against statutes that would reflect the high ambitions of the privileged classes” (232). The trend of a limited republic stems from the Founders’ general admiration of Parliament’s functioning as the bulwark against unchecked monarchism in the English system, in which an elected elite protects the interest of the “general will” – to borrow Rousseau’s famous and problematic terminology – but makes no broad attempt to represent the people directly as a more populist or majoritarian system would. In other words: “As much as [the Founders’] call for broad representation anticipated the avowedly democratic politics of the next century, its aim was far less to mobilize the American people to make law than to assure that the interests of the middling classes would not be trampled upon by an aristocratic clique” (233). The ultimate goal, therefore, was to forestall the misuse of political power and economic influence not to distribute it evenly. Our system has always been pretty frank in its pursuit of that paradigm.
Rakove goes on to highlight an area of vulnerability that certainly rings true in today’s debate concerning the debt ceiling, the soaring deficit, and balancing the country’s books for the long haul: “The greater danger was not that Congress would levy onerous taxes on a docile people but that it would still lack the political will to solve the crisis of public finance” (238). Modern-day partisan politics have only exacerbated this built-in design flaw: Democrats want to preserve programs without raising taxes; Republicans want to cut taxes without eliminating programs. The result is the impasse of the status quo. In the end, we are struck with the impression of a fairly optimistic and trusting document that left a lot of variables open to historical accident and evolution when it came down to the nuts and bolts of the political process: “The Constitution made no effort to reduce or regulate the size of the national electorate; or to impose significant qualifications on eligibility for office; or even to determine how national elections were to be conducted” (243). With all the adulation the Constitution garners in today’s political rhetoric from both left and right, it’s instructive to remind ourselves just how little it actually does and says.