Friday, February 19, 2010

I Wish I Were Big

Via Ezra, Kurt Anderson makes a common error about Madison and democracy, but compounds it by getting the size argument all wrong.  Anderson:
The framers worried about democratic government working in a country as large as this one, and it’s possible that we’ve finally reached the unmanageable tipping point they feared: Maybe our republic’s constitutional operating system simply can’t scale up to deal satisfactorily with a heterogeneous population of 310 million. When the Constitution was written and the Senate created, there were around 4 million people in America, or about one senator for every 150,000 people. For Congress to be as representative as it was in 1789, we’d need to elect 2,000 senators and 5,000 House members. And so I wonder, as I watch Senate leaders irresponsibly playing to the noisiest, angriest parts of the peanut gallery, if the current, possibly suicidal spectacle of anti-government “populism” in Washington isn’t connected to our bloated people-to-Congresspeople ratios. As the institution grows ever more unrepresentative, more numerically elite, members of Congress may feel irresistible pressure to act like wild and crazy small-d democrats.


  1. The Senate not only *remains* malapportioned, it's more malapportioned now than at the founding. As Sanford Levinson (and more recently James Fallows) have pointed out, CA today has 69x the population of Wyoming, whereas at the founding, most-populous VA had 10x the population of least-populous DE.

    Also, while the House is mathematically proportionate, gerrymandering may polarize the district electorates and so the candidates.

  2. Ah, we have research on these: the malapportionment in the Senate matters only a little, and gerrymandering in the House doesn't cause polarization. On the former, the way the Senate is put together does help certain interests, but not one party or the other.

    (Sorry, I'm gonna be lazy and not cite specifics. Bad blogger).

  3. i agree that federalist 10 contains a number of arguments to show that a large republic is not doomed, and may even have some advantages.

    i'm less convinced that madison himself believed these arguments.

    there were many other reasons for advancing a consolidation of the states--the loose federation had failed decisively. i do not suggest that madison was in any way insincere in advocating for the new constitution.

    but the arguments that madison advances for the alleged advantages of a larger republic strike me as half-hearted rationalizations rather than as cogent responses to the traditional worries about size.

    kid bitzer

  4. This is correct, I think, but there's a lot here that can be expanded upon. For one thing, I think it can easily be argued that Madison was flat out wrong. Toqueville and Hartz largely do that, but the better example are African Americans for whom demographic variety did little to staunch the tide of racism and discrimination of a tyrannical majority. Perhaps the better question is how parties fit into this picture. Infamously Madison doesn't really talk about that. But one role parties have, if I am remembering John Aldrich correctly, is 'simplifying' politics in some sense, by forcing issues to a single dimension. In some sense doesn't that disrupt the argument - are the multitude of interests competing in the way envisioned by Madison or is the two-party representation of that conflict too simplistic such that it falls on its face? I think this brings up the fact that Madison's argument for a larger republic is largely instrumental - he isn't arguing for size per se but for size under certain demographic conditions (and institutional ones - we can also ask why we even need separation of powers if demographics are sufficient but that's another discussion).

  5. It's interesting though that he thought a large Republic would have multiple parties. In fact there are two and everyone else is out in the cold. There are many interest groups but they tend to sort into one of the two parties at any given time and some have been locked into one political party or another for generations.


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