How Pure Is Your Democracy?

Posted on Tue 06/19/2012 by


By Julia Shaw ~

How would you rewrite the Constitution? The Daily Show writer Kevin Bleyer did that for his latest book Me the People, and he invited readers of Slate to do likewise.

Several proposals are straight out of an Occupy Wall Street drum circle: the money-is-not-speech amendment, the corporations-are-not-people amendment. Other proposals include direct election of the President and Vice President, a universal voting rights amendments, and eliminating Congress and putting the people in charge.

It’s not clear how this new Constitution would function or how long it would last. But it is clear from this exercise that we are living in the legacy of the 1912 election.

As Sidney Milks argues in his First Principles essay, the 1912 contest initiated important changes that redefined the meaning and practice of self-government in the U.S. away from representative institutions and toward a pure democracy.

This week, June 18–22, is the centennial anniversary of the GOP convention that denied former President Teddy Roosevelt the Republican presidential nomination. In response, TR bolted from the Republican Party to become the leader and presidential candidate of the new Progressive Party. Progressivism had a foothold in the states and with academics, but TR’s creation of the Progressive Party elevated the progressivism to the national scene.

An array of crusading reformers, from Jane Addams to Herbert Croly, joined the party, which favored a variety of national regulations and social welfare measures—including minimum wage and maximum hours legislation, restraints on financial markets, and national health insurance. While many reformers disagreed about these measures and the critical issue of the national government’s role in regulating the economy and society, one party doctrine unified the disparate strands of progressivism: the rule of the people.

Pure democracy meant removing the constitutional obstacles that obstructed the direct rule of the people. As Roosevelt put it in his “Confession of Faith”:

The people themselves must be the ultimate makers of their own Constitution, and where their agents differ in their interpretations of the Constitution the people themselves should be given the chance, after full and deliberate judgment, authoritatively to settle what interpretation it is that their representatives shall thereafter adopt as binding.

To achieve pure democracy, progressives pushed for several political reforms:

  • The universal use of the direct primary,
  • The ballot initiative, which would allow voters themselves to make laws,
  • The recall of public officials, which would allow voters to remove their representatives from office before their elected term had expired, and
  • Popular referenda on laws that the state courts declared unconstitutional.

The progressives also favored a strong presidency as a way to give authoritative expression to mass public opinion.

Roosevelt made the cause of popular rule the centerpiece of his insurgent presidential campaign. Roosevelt’s defense of direct democracy infused his campaign with deep constitutional significance and shaped the election so decisively that other presidential candidates were forced to speak out on the issue as well.

The Republican candidate, William Howard Taft, had been a member of TR’s cabinet. Taft had supported TR’s pragmatic progressive program within existing constitutional boundaries and with the cooperation of the Republican Party. Pure democracy, however, rejected constitutional boundaries and the party apparatus. Moreover, it was contrary to the Founders’ constitutional design.

The Founders established a republic where representatives would “refine and enlarge the public views.” Institutional devices such as the separation of powers and federalism allowed representatives to govern competently and fairly. Pure democracy meant eliminating those intermediate institutions that refined, enlarged, and channeled the people’s passions, including political parties, Congress, the states, and the Constitution. Taft would not let this happen. “The real usefulness of the Republican Party,” Taft argued, “consisted in its conservative tendencies to preserve our constitutional system and prevent its serious injury.”

Woodrow Wilson, an ardent progressive, was the Democratic candidate, and his campaign stump speech was “What Is Progress?” In TR fashion, Wilson attempted to make the presidency the embodiment of popular will and administrative agencies the stewards of the people. But he did not embrace the entire pure democracy program. Wilson was sympathetic to the decentralized state courts and political parties.

The 1912 election brought progressivism to the forefront of our national politics and challenged voters to think seriously about the Constitution. The pure democracy agenda was a fundamental departure from the decentralized republic that had prevailed since the early part of the 19th century. In a certain very real sense, Roosevelt won the election of 1912, because the causes he championed with extraordinary panache still live on today.

Julia Shaw contributes Posts at The Foundry, and she studies and writes about American political thought as a Research Associate and Program Manager at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at   The Heritage Foundation .

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