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June 04, 2018


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

Your post reminded me that Madisonian federalism is far from the ‘new’ federalism of today, the latter being historically closer to the anti-federalism of yesteryear.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

“the boozy spectacle of 18th century polling places falls far short of romanticized versions of the country’s democratic origins.”

Speaking of “romanticized versions of the country’s democratic origins,” this time with regard to democratic theory and praxis, our nation’s configuration as a comparatively “complex polity” belies the notion that democratic choice is a “form of popular sovereignty over political results.” As Russell Hardin reminds us, “this supposition is at best metaphorical,” and thus

“[i]n typical contexts, popular sovereignty is an empirically and perhaps a conceptually incoherent notion.” A constitutional regime may be ‘controlled’ only to the extent that it is constrained by mutually advantageous coordination of important groups in the polity on the maintenance of various institutions. The long-run success of constitutional government depends on such coordinated interests. [….]

It is a commonplace in the history of political thought that appeals to popular sovereignty [i.e., ‘the People’] have typically been a ruse to shore up rule by elites who were not at all beholden to the larger polity. [….] Edmund S. Morgan argues that popular sovereignty in the days of the American constitutional debates was also largely a fiction. Still today, claims of popular sovereignty serve more as rhetorical legitimization than as a description of democratic government.”

There’s a brilliant treatment of this and related topics* in the late Hardin’s somewhat (at least comparatively speaking) neglected book, Liberalism, Constitutionalism, and Democracy (Oxford University Press, 1999).

* For example, Hardin asks, “How can a constitution have accommodated two such opposing economic visions as those of Hamilton and Jefferson? Largely, it did so because the Jeffersonian plantation agrarian society and the Hamiltonian urban commercial society both required national organization of their markets and because the Constitution did not attempt to control general economic developments beyond establishing national markets.”

Incidentally, the continuing “dynamics of money in politics” (from electoral politics to lobbying) is perhaps not surprising given the predominant commercial concerns of those who coordinated (in Hardin’s sense) on the constitution, although of course as we all know, correlation is not that same as causation, although presence of the former phenomenon may provide presumptive reasons for researching the possibility of the latter phenomenon.

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