wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

William Riker

Liberalism against Populism

In the liberal view, the function of voting is to control officials, and no more. Madison, who is the original American spokesman for liberal democracy (or republicanism, as he called it) defined a republic as 'a government that derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by people holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, as during good behavior.' The first requirement, popularness, he called essential (that is, necessary), the second, election and limited tenure, he called sufficient. Thus his definition is logically complete, and there is nothing to add. Madison said nothing about the quality of popular decision, whether good or bad.

Since all democrats would accept the necessary condition, it is the sufficient condition that is distinctive and hence deserving of detailed explication. Why is election and limited tenure sufficient? Popularness, the necessary condition, ensures participation and equality. The sufficient condition is intended to ensure liberty. In Madison's view, the danger for liberty lies in government officials who might deprive citizens of liberty or fail as agents of citizens' participation. In either case, the liberal remedy is the next election. That is all that is needed to protect liberty; so election and limited tenure are sufficient.

To consider first the protection of citizens' liberty: The replacement of officials is, in the liberal view, the only available instrument. The liberal fear is that the force of government can easily be deployed against citizens to make them support unpopular policies that officials believe necessary. The liberal hope is that officials will be restrained from such behavior out of fear of the next election. It is true that Madison and other framers of the Constitution provided the separation of powers as auxiliary protection, but Madison regarded that protection as distinctly secondary to 'a dependence on the people.' And the contemporary liberal agrees with Madison that the defense of liberty lies in the discipline of elections.