Professor Jared Goldstein’s Definition of Democracy Doesn’t Include the Tea Party or James Madison
The Tea Party Movement is anti-democratic, avers Roger Williams University Law Professor Jared A. Goldstein in his working paper recently posted to the Social Sciences Research Network titled The Tea Party Movement and the Contradictions of Popular Originalism. In Section C of the paper, under the subheading of “The Tea Party Movement’s Anti-Democratic Agenda”, Professor Goldstein argues that “The Tea Party movement’s constitutional agenda seeks to limit democratic power”, that “Tea Party supporters complain that the people, acting through their electoral representatives, have created a variety of regulatory programs” and that “the Tea Party emphasizes that the people lack power to adopt such programs, regardless of their support by electoral majorities”.
But Professor Goldstein relies on a narrow and extreme definition of democracy to develop his premise. Throughout the Anti-Democratic Agenda section, he casually conflates “the people” with the “Federal Government”, not exploring or even acknowledging the concept that placing limits on what the Federal Government can enact is not identical to limiting what “the people” can enact. There are governmental functions that Tea Partiers object to the Federal government carrying out that they would consider wholly legitimate if enacted at lower levels of government — and those lower levels are made up of “the people” too. Indeed, the idea that when “the people” loosely defined want something, then it must be delivered to them by the largest and most remote unit of government that they are a part of is an extreme conception of democracy that tends towards the latter end of the scale of modern governmental forms summarized concisely by the French political sociologist Raymond Aron: “representative governments restrained by the balance of power and so-called democratic governments invoking the will of the people but rejecting all limits to their authority” (though Professor Goldstein would obviously believe that governments with expansive powers can invoke the will of the people without becoming “so-called” democracies).
Less parsimoniously, in his magnum opus on democratic theory Democracy and Its Critics, the American political scientist Robert Dahl employed a dialog between (fictional) advocates of the ideas of James Madison and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose differing ideas about government and democracy form the basis of the two poles described by Aron, to work through the question of how to maintain a governing system that stays true to democratic ideals of participation while preventing individuals living in a society the size of the modern nation-state from being totally subsumed into meaninglessness. The Madisonian solution, i.e. federalism, is to divide governmental authority between different governing units of different scales, allowing citizens to deal with their common concerns within the smallest, most intimate governing unit suited to a task. This system reinforces a foundational principle of democracy that is as important as the idea of majority rule, that every citizen should have meaningful influence on the government decisions that most directly impact his or her life.
Rousseau viewed things differently, believing that the existence of more than single center of government power would ultimately only confuse the citizenry. But the views associated with his thoughts do not singularly define democracy. There is nothing essential to the idea of democracy that requires that a single unit of government be absolutely supreme in all areas of civic and political life, or that larger units of government be able to assume all of the powers of smaller ones. And unless James Madison is to be ejected from the democratic tradition (over the objections of the likes of some serious political thinkers like Robert Dahl and Raymond Aron), there is nothing inherently undemocratic about the Tea Party advocating for American-style federalism and its division of legitimate government authority between different levels of government.