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The Once and Future Perils of Popular Rule



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One of the more significant and vexing features of democracy is its foundation in majoritarianism. Few political thinkers before our Founders were willing to embrace this form of government because of its long track record of dissolution into ether majority or autocratic tyranny. Only a relative handful of government leaders before our nation’s Framers believed that the populace, even hedged about as its reach and rights originally were in our Constitution, could be trusted to self govern. Political theorists and public officials had long been convinced that individuals could not be trusted to discipline their emotions and appetites sufficiently to ensure the rights of their fellow citizens against the raw drives of self interest, ruthless desire for power, avarice and rationalization. Nonetheless, and appropriately, if not always readily, we have expanded our franchise steadily since our nation’s creation to include all of those individuals originally excluded, but the underlying challenge, not to say imperative remains: to ensure a prudential citizenry. And that aspiration is as difficult now to attain as ever. The following brief analysis treats several of the most important factors that mediate how reasoned our democratic polity might be expected to be in its choices. First, for good and ill, members of political parties govern the country, and the basic reason for the existence of those groups is to mobilize voters to secure sufficient popular support to rule. That aim, along with the widespread belief that it is better for the nation when one party enjoys sufficient legislative numbers to ensure its way, assigns a special responsibility to voters. Citizens must obtain an accurate and dispassionate measure of the parties to ensure that none takes steps to pad its future electoral fortunes at the expense of certain citizens or by using human biases, smallness and emotions to win power.

History teaches that many autocrats have won or retained power by defaming minorities in their nations, including the present regime in Myanmar, Milosevic in Serbia, ISIL in Iraq, Hitler in Germany and many more. They have done so on the basis of appeals to identity categories and emotions, including nation, tribe, ethnicity, religion, race, caste, economic status, fear, anxiety, hatred and jealousy, among others. Democracy asks much of those who would self govern by giving them responsibility to guard against their own potential proclivities to accept these sorts of appeals in favor of allegiance to more abstract, and admittedly more challenging principles calling for the preservation of individual rights and freedom. That this is difficult is demonstrated by how often citizens have succumbed to anti-democratic appeals. In our country, such calls have recently been to raw fear and prejudice against immigrants, the impoverished and governance, and through forms of racial and economic stereotyping and discrimination.

Second, this profound and ongoing challenge to democracy points to two additional factors that play key roles in determining democratic electoral outcomes. It is ironic that even as more Americans have been granted the formal right to vote, many citizens never or only fitfully exercise that opportunity. Low turnout, especially in primaries in both parties, often results in voters who support candidates with the most strident views. Primary voters’ numbers are quite small relative to the total electorate, but they play disproportionately large roles in determining party nominees and policy trajectory. Not surprisingly, they also tend to be the most ideological of the nation’s citizens.

Third, the challenge of popular rule is exacerbated by the reality that our political leaders have become ever more adept at framing issues in elections in ways designed solely to persuade. At least since the 1968 presidential contest candidates have worked closely with advisors to “package” themselves carefully around emotional as well as policy claims that reflect ideology and at least some share of their party and the general electorate’s bases’ abiding beliefs and prejudices. Campaign operatives have learned much about using anger, shame, name-calling and other basic human potentials to craft positive perspectives of “their” candidate and unflattering or negative views of their opponents. Those pressing their interests and ideological beliefs are unlikely any time soon to foreswear using “what works” to gain support and votes, whatever that entails (well-known examples include the infamous “Willie Horton” George H. W. Bush political ad and the much maligned Swiftboat campaign aimed at delegitimating the heroism of John Kerry, then a Democratic Party presidential nominee).

Moreover, in recent decades many GOP partisans have argued persistently and with increasing stridency that governance is an impediment both to individual freedom and to the market offering still more benefits to Americans. This orientation and these arguments have left some adherents of that party’s off shoots, including those identifying with the so-called Tea Party, certain, for example, that the government will soon act to take away their right to own all types of weapons, or will shortly cede the nation’s sovereignty to a supposed world government. Neither of these claims has any basis in reality, but both have been used quite effectively by advocates and campaigns to mobilize citizens to the polls to support candidates pledged to prevent these imagined likelihoods, and otherwise to do what they can to prevent effective governance, seen as the purveyor of undue regulation and personalized deprivations of freedom. These and similar groups’ belief in fabricated or exaggerated propositions, false certainty and shrillness have created a major challenge to democratic self-governance in recent years.

Fourth, the parties are not alone in their sophistication in campaign mobilization strategies. Advocacy groups of all stripes have become adroit in crafting their claims to maximize their popular appeal and often deliberately to mislead in so doing. Indeed, such organizations are now frequently the direct and indirect progeny of economic and monied interests who have been given virtually carte blanche by the U.S. Supreme Court. to use their resources in efforts to influence elections This turn has resulted in the parties becoming more reliant on a small group of individuals willing to expend vast personal sums in the name of their ideological and economic interests. The Koch Brothers, for example, billionaires with interests in petro chemicals and with deeply libertarian beliefs, have publicly indicated they and a close network of allies will spend $900 million to support a GOP presidential nominee in the coming election cycle pledged to support their views. They have already contributed strong financial support to likely Republican Party candidate Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin, and his efforts to declare unions a national “problem” and menace to economic growth. The Kochs have indicated they will provide ongoing funding to Walker, and indeed one of the brothers has already suggested that he is sure the governor will be the Republican presidential standard bearer in 2016.

In short, in the face of the foundational fragility of majoritarianism and popular rule, the need for an informed and judicious electorate has ever been significant if self-governance is to be preserved. These challenges to democracy are now as powerful as they have ever been in our nation’s history. As noted above, candidates for office at all scales now do little without the “professional” counsel of individuals aimed solely at helping them mobilize support through “smart” appeals to targeted groups. In addition, advocacy organizations have been granted virtually unfettered access to campaigns, and their fiscal and substantive contributions have reached unprecedented levels. With little effective regulation of these groups’ expenditures, much election contest support is provided without public transparency or accountability, making it significantly more difficult for voters to fashion intelligent probative choices. And there are now essentially no limits on the amounts individuals may “invest” in political campaigns, raising the specter of what those people expect for their millions, should their favorites win office. Finally, both major parties ongoing devotion to neoliberal tenets concerning the rightful primacy to be accorded the market in most social choice-making has resulted in one of those parties, the GOP, adopting the more extreme view that government itself is little more than a malevolent force in society (except for defense) that serves only to impede economic growth and individual freedom.

To all of these factors confronting continued effective popular rule I might add one more. Not only do many Americans not vote, but many more citizens are also simply uninformed about even the most basic fundaments of their nation’s regime. Too many cannot name their state or national representatives, and even fewer are aware of local elected lawmakers. Some, sadly, cannot even call the President’s name to mind.[1] Given these realities, it is difficult not to conclude that the citizenry is more susceptible than ever to manipulation, and those with interests—either in accruing power or in securing control over potential action or both—now possess resources, tools and knowledge that position them better than ever before to influence voters. Yet, it is too easy to conclude that voters should become more vigilant and informed, as there are few indicators such will occur soon. Perhaps paradoxically, for now, hope must lie with the federal courts rethinking their views on the role of money in politics, and with lawmakers themselves realizing the dangers of the current situation for the regime they were elected to serve and for popular rule, and calling for change accordingly.


[1] Annenberg Public Policy Center (2014). “Americans know surprisingly little about their government, survey finds,” Accessed June 15, 2015.

Publication Date

June 21, 2015