By the way, have I bragged about Plain Blog's commenters recently? Really worth reading, at least in my opinion. This item is brought on commenter Jeff, who frequently weighs in whenever I talk about democratic theory and the Framers. He and I, as far as I can tell, agree on some things, disagree on others -- he's well worth reading, and the specific point I'm basing this post around is only a piece of what he has to say.
With regard to my comments on Congress, democracy, and other issues, Jeff noted:
As I've said before, I have real doubts that anything we're seeing today can fairly be called "Madisonian" or imputed to the "design" of the Framers. At the very least, we have to be careful about claiming that they valued "democracy," (a) because many of them didn't, and said so ("the Democracy" was a term of abuse well into the 19th century, often used in the same sentence as "the mob" or "the rabble"), and (b) because even where we find praise of democracy in the late 18th century, we have to be carefully not to read it anachronistically in light of our own understanding of the term instead of theirs.Jeff is certainly correct that pretty much everyone in the 18th century, certainly including the Framers, hated what they called "democracy." What they wanted was something that they called a "republic." Now, the question is how to treat that.
Following Robert Dahl, I'm convinced that the two words don't usefully distinguish between two different forms of government for us. In other words, we should -- and I tend to -- use them as synonyms. Both, it seems to me, refer to a system of popular government, a system in which all (more or less) people are formally equal, and in some sense the people rule. Now, if we look back at the history of the words, what's obviously the case is that one is from Rome, the other from Greece. But that doesn't really help us very much. Rome and Athens had very different systems of government, but neither looks a lot like anything today, and neither came anywhere close to fulfilling conditions of formal equality for people. That the framers looked to Rome for their terminology is interesting, and in some ways may have mattered, but the United States Constitution isn't, in any meaningful sense, based on the actual institutions of the Roman Republic (other, I guess, than the absence of kings).
What we do want to distinguish are different forms or types of democracy: direct democracy, representative democracy, majoritarian democracy, what I call Madisonian (or anti-majoritarian) democracy, Athenian democracy, perhaps participatory democracy, and whatever others there might be. I think that's what Madison and friends were doing, just in their own language, which was far less developed than ours since there had been so little democracy to that point.
So when Madison says he doesn't like democracy but does want a republic, we need to translate that into our own usage to make sense of it, and that's going to yield something to complete this sentence: Madison didn't like [one form of] democracy but did support [another form of] democracy. Actually filling in those brackets is going to take careful reading (and perhaps careful additional research), and while I'm comfortable arguing that Madison opposed majoritarian democracy while supporting what I call, well, Madisonian democracy, I'm open to evidence that I have that wrong. I'm reasonably certain, however, that simply saying that he (or the framers) opposed democracy confuses the issue. What they were after was something in what we would consider today a part of the democratic family, even if Athens was out of fashion at that point.