The Madisonian Mean

Donald Trump does not say things that are unpopular. Every time we see him speaking in front of an audience, that audience is clapping. He says things that anger elites and about which, often, events seem to confirm the seeds of his base’s opinions. It should therefore be unsurprising that the elite’s rejection and disdain inflame rather than calm the Trump phenomenon. The contemptuous response is not useful. The Madisonian one is.

Madison stands as a mean between two views of the politician’s role. The Burkean view is that the statesman looks outward to an objective standard of the public good accessible to his reason and for which he is morally—and personally—accountable.  In his “Speech to the Electors of Bristol,” Burke, denying that he could be bound by instructions from his constituents, observes that it would be nice if the elected leader enjoyed “the strictest union” with voters. But:

his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you; to any man, or to any sett of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the Law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable.

That is not to say Burke rejects public opinion or, for that matter, what he calls “the little arts and devices of popularity,” which, he explains in the Reflections, “facilitate the carrying of many points of moment … keep the people together … refresh the mind in its exertions; and … diffuse occasional gaiety over the severe brow of moral freedom.” But note, in the Bristol address, that the politician’s perspective is ultimately directed toward a public good extrinsic to public views and for which “he”—the politician in his personal moral capacity—is answerable to Providence.

This is the tack that elites are taking with Trump, only without those softening devices of popularity. Their straightforward reproach condemns not just him but the substantial strain of popular opinion he represents. Burke would have done it more skillfully and less superciliously, while doubtless sympathizing with the underlying idea that what the leaders judge to be wrong should ultimately be rejected in accordance with that judgment.

This contrasts sharply with, at the other extreme, the mode of representation emphasized in the Anti-Federalist tradition in American thought. This is the tradition that sees the representative as a mirror held up to the people, who does what they would do were it practical for them to assemble in full.

Melancton Smith thus declared in the New York Ratifying Convention that the proposed House of Representatives—which Madison had written ought not be too large so as to make it properly deliberative—was too small to be properly representative:

The idea that naturally suggests itself to our minds, when we speak of representatives is, that they resemble those they represent; they should be a true picture of the people; possess the knowledge of their circumstances and their wants; sympathize in all their distresses, and be disposed to seek their true interests.

On Smith’s account, to be sure, the representative must still seek his constituent’s “true” interests. But Smith proceeds to suggest that even natural differences in “talents” should not be a basis for elevating some to the rank of representative. What is needed is rather the “yeoman of sense and discernment.”

That hardly makes Smith, one of the most important New Yorkers of the early republic, a proto-Trump. But Trump’s constant invocation of popular opinion as authority for his own—even as authority for his misstatements, such as those Tweets that he claimed validated him on the mythical, tailgating Muslims of Jersey City—places him far more in this Anti-Federalist tradition. He sees the leader’s function as reflective, not in the sense of being thoughtful but in the sense of mirroring the will of the people.

Between these poles lies the Madisonian mean. Madison’s Tenth Federalist emphasized the “great points of difference, between a democracy and a republic.” The main one was representation, whose effect was

to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.

Call this the “refractive” rather than the “reflective” mode of representation. Its purpose is to focus the public’s views. Commentators who interpret Madison as an aristocrat neglect the fact that refining and enlarging the public views assumes that these are the raw materials on which politics should be based.

And this is the assumption of republicanism itself. If Aristotle is wrong in 3.11 of The Politics—that “the many, of whom each individual is but an ordinary person, when they meet together may very likely be better than the few good”—then republicanism is a doomed project. Madison’s insight is that public opinion is raw. It needs formation, and this is the statesman’s task: not to evaluate it for acceptance or rejection, but rather to focus it and give it shape.

This is what the Trump moment—and it is, historically speaking, but a moment—demands: a Jeffersonian “decent respect” that takes public opinion seriously, including its fears, but filters and enhances that opinion. This demands a prudence and statesmanship absent in the extremes of reaction to Trump: excoriation on the one hand, indulgence on the other.

Trump’s supporters are right to be afraid of Islamic extremism. They need something more than Trump’s braying, but more than establishment bromides, too. Their concerns about the non-enforcement of immigration laws are not unreasonable. They need something other than Trump’s anger, but other than elite stigmatization as well.

Elites would thus benefit from a Madisonian reminder that Trump, in all his ugliness, bigotry, and demagoguery, is not the issue. His attractiveness to individuals who are not all uneducated, uncouth, or unhinged is. Rejecting their views will not dampen Trump’s appeal. Refining and enlarging them might.

Reader Discussion

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on December 14, 2015 at 10:33:16 am


Fair enough! Yet:

"to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations."

Madison was a brilliant theoretician (and not bad in the practical sense as well). However, I have come to believe that he severely underestimated the potential for venal, self-serving "representatives" to exercise control and influence over the "public views" - or for that matter their willingness to completely disregard those views, some of which, as you say, are not at all unreasonable.

Madison's construct was (is still) dependent upon a high quotient of "virtue, both in the public AND the governing branches. It would appear that this attribute is absent in both segments.

Perhaps, another way of viewing THE TRUMPSTER'S popularity is to grant him credit for (yes, in a "Jeffersonian or "Paine-ian" sense) attempting to *reflect* public dissatisfaction with the absence of virtue so prevalent amongst the Republic's aristocracy. Does he do this well? - No, clearly not!

Do the elected ones "refine and enlarge" the public views in a manner that a) educates / informs or elevates the public or b) reflects positively upon themselves and their virtuous efforts to secure the public good? I think the answer here is also clearly NO!!!
And the continued rise in allegiance to THE TRUMPSTER after each and every attack by the elected aristocracy is proof of the failure of elected leaders to refine and enlarge the public view.
Quite simply, they are asking for "virtue" and a clear statement / prescription by these same leaders that would give the appearance that a) they are respectful and recognize the *not unreasonable* concerns of the public and b) are serious about engaging with the public on policy proposals and prescriptions.

Until such time as that is done, there is a market for the blustering buffoonery of TRUMPSTERS and his ilk.

The Little Virginian must be rolling over in his grave. I would offer some of my prilosec - unfortunately, it only calms one's stomach - it does not induce virtuous behavior.

take care

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Image of gabe
on December 14, 2015 at 12:15:39 pm

And from today's headlines, another indication of the failure of our elected (and appointed) leadership has failed to exercise prudence in pursuit of the public good:


Any wonder why folks support THE TRUMPSTER and his buffoonery (or is that *lampoon-ery*?).

In short, what is the public to do when leadership fails to listen and ultimately *refine* public sentiment. Screaming (via TRUMPSTER) appears to be the one remaining option.

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Image of gabe
on December 14, 2015 at 13:06:01 pm

Despite the facts (or perhaps in consideration of the facts) that federal government is now a centralized Administrative State rather than a Constitutionally delineated union of States, largely from 40 or 50 (or more)years of dysfunctional legislatures, perhaps we should keep in better focus the distinctions and differences in the delegations of powers to the Executive from those to the legislators.

It does seem that the electorate (those who do vote and those who wage influence) are still aware of the difference in the powers delegated to the Executive from those delegated to a member of a legislative assembly.

This seems especially true at the federal level where legislative "power" is diffuse, requiring combinations of various kinds for "delegation" to have any effects.

That is not the case with the Executive (particularly in the Administrative State) where the Electorate expect (and observe) the exercise of concentrated power delegated.

To some extent, this probably accounts for candidates for that delegation to purport potential to exercise concentrated powers over matters such as taxation that are in the realm of the diffuse legislative prerogatives.

In a parliamentary format, where the legislative provides the executive functions, the "Burkean" and Madison analogies may be more apt than they are to our Executive electoral actions.

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R Richard Schweizter

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