The founding fathers of the United States possessed a great fear: Voters going berserk and electing a whack-O candidate for president.
Now, it may seem counterintuitive that our founding fathers were worried about entrusting power to voters because, after all, it was our founding fathers who created this great democracy of the United States.
As we all learned in school, our founding fathers were primarily against a government in the form of an imperial monarchy. And indeed, the American Revolutionary War was all about ridding the land of the tyrannical rule of the British King, and instead letting freedom ring by implementing a new system of democracy in which the people of the United States would govern themselves. A beautiful thing.
But once the founding fathers rolled up their sleeves and began to wade into the details of how exactly to set-up this newfangled government by the people, they ran into some problems.
It occurred to the founding fathers that a government controlled by the people harbored the potential to present an enormous problem: Mob rule.
An unruly mob certainly could not be entrusted with the power to govern. The important matters of governance could not possibly be left up to common people. Eee gads! The commoners? Of course not. They would surely bungle it. The whole thing would become a huge mess. The commoners would elect awful candidates and create terrible rules that would be disastrous for society and everything would quickly devolve into a giant calamity.
No no, the important matters of governance must be reserved to an elite group of nobles who are most capable of handling matters of such significance.
Just consider the identities of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia that produced the United States Constitution. Either all or nearly all of them were white, male, wealthy, well-educated and privileged.
These founding fathers were terrified of democracy and terrified of the notion of true power residing in the hands of the people. In fact, one of their greatest fears was that of class warfare. Even back then, wealth inequality existed in America. Only a small class of aristocrats were wealthy, and the vast majority of the population was poor or middle class.
So what would the common people do if they were suddenly given true power to govern? Well, naturally, they would use their vast voting majority to enact laws to confiscate land and wealth away from rich people, and redistribute it to the poor and middle classes.
We can't have that! Our wealthy founding fathers certainly were not about to implement a system of government that would result in dispossessing them of their own wealth and power. Not a chance.
Hm. This was a bit of a pickle. On the one hand, the founding fathers wanted to rid the nation of the tyranny of the monarchy. On the other hand, however, implementing a true democracy with power residing with the broad population would result in a tyranny of the majority.
So what did our founding fathers do? Well, they decided to implement only a partial democracy.
They carefully devised some very significant features that limited the amount of power that would be given to the people, and ensured that a substantial amount of power would remain within the upper class of the ruling elite.
Slaves could not vote. Women could not vote. And even most white men could not vote. Only those white men who owned a sufficient amount of property could vote. So right off the bat only a very small percentage of citizens were given the power to vote, namely, the ruling elite. In the first presidential election of this nation in 1788, only 1.3 percent of the population voted. And throughout the first several decades of the nation's existence, less than 5% of the total population voted.
So much for a government by the people.
Another little trick of limiting the amount of power granted to the people was to create the Constitution.
Now hold on a second here. This may seem counterintuitive because in our modern history the Constitution has been nobly used to protect disenfranchised minorities, such as recognizing equal rights for black people, gay people, and women. So the Constitution seems to function for the benefit of ordinary people. A beautiful thing.
The founding fathers, however, had something a little different in mind when they created the Constitution. They were hardly thinking that this Constitution would be used to protect the rights of slaves and women. Rather, they desired to protect their own wealth and power. They were a small minority of rich guys, and they were worried that a majority of the population would vote to take away their wealth and power. So they created the Constitution to protect this minority of the wealthy elite and restrict the majority from being able to dispossess them. As the father of the Constitution James Madison eloquently articulated, this new system of government should "protect the minority of the opulent against the majority."
Today we think of the Constitution as protecting powerless minorities against the powerful elite who would suppress and exploit them. But the founding fathers designed the Constitution to protect the minority of the wealthy elite from the dangers of the poor majority population.
Another little ploy to limit the amount of power given to the people was to create a bicameral legislature in the Congress by creating the Senate in addition to the House of Representatives. The idea here is that the House of Representatives is like the kiddie table representing the population directly, whereas the Senate is like the grown-up table representing the wealthy elite. The kiddie table of the House cannot enact any legislation without the parental permission of the Senate.
To ensure that the Senate consisted of grown-ups, the founding fathers did not entrust the general population to elect their own Senators directly. Instead, Senators of each state were elected by the politicians in the various state legislatures. It was not until over a hundred years later in 1913 under the Progressive Movement that the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution was enacted to allow the general population in each state to directly elect their Senators.
Yet another little device to limit the amount of power given to the people was to create the system of the electoral college, which still exists to this day. Contrary to popular perception, the President and Vice President of the United States are not elected by the popular vote directly. Instead, they are elected by "electors" in each state who stand in between the voters and the candidates.
The idea is that these electors are supposed to be wise and noble, and if the untrustworthy population voted for an unsuitable candidate, the electors could override the popular vote and instead vote for a more suitable candidate of their preference.
For the most part, electors have historically voted consistently with the popular vote. But nonetheless, it is rather incredible that this profound limitation exists upon the voting power of the people in what is supposedly the world's greatest democracy.
It is quite clear that the founding fathers were very worried that the general population is susceptible to electing a presidential candidate who is utterly disastrous.
And here we are today with Mr. Trump commanding a huge lead in the Republican primaries. The founding fathers, wherever they are now, must feel vindicated. One can almost hear them crying out, "We knew this would happen! We knew it! We just knew it!"
Now, some might say that the socialist Senator Bernie Sanders is the candidate whom the founding fathers would most fear because Mr. Sanders is dedicated to solving income inequality, and the founding fathers were so worried that the general population would seize and redistribute property owned by the wealthy.
But Mr. Sanders is not even close to posing any such threat and is only addressing the very real political issue of income inequality in our society. This is exactly what the political process of our democracy was designed to do. And the founding fathers themselves were also concerned about income inequality back in their day, so they would view Mr. Sanders as indeed quite a legitimate candidate.
Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is exactly what the founding fathers were worried about.
Mr. Trump is a giant megalomaniac who fails to articulate any coherent political policies, but instead generates popular support by appealing to less sophisticated people based upon nothing more than his bombastic personality and the superficiality of being a celebrity and super rich. While serious-minded people instantly recognize the nonsense in what Mr. Trump says, Mr. Trump is nonetheless able to build support by appealing to those who are less educated.
Founding father Alexander Hamilton expressed concern about "demagogues" as candidates, and founding father Elbridge Gerry declared that "demagogues are the great pests of our government, and have occasioned most of our distresses." The definition of a "demagogue" fits Mr. Trump to a T: A candidate who seeks support by "appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument."
Yep, that's Mr. Trump all right.
This type of candidate is exactly the sort of danger that the founding fathers feared. They were worried about voters going berserk and electing a candidate with great superficial appeal but who entirely lacks the substance to be president.
The good news is that it seems highly unlikely that Mr. Trump will actually be elected president. First of all, voters in the Republican primaries represent only a small fraction of the overall electorate, and the broader population is less susceptible to falling for the nonsense of Mr. Trump.
And also, Mr. Trump is unlikely to even make it out of the Republican primaries. While his 25% of support constitutes a huge lead among a wide field of sixteen candidates, as candidates drop out of the race their supporters will likely switch to candidates other than Mr. Trump. So eventually, Mr. Trump's 25% of support will constitute an inadequate minority and result in a huge loss.
But Mr. Trump's current popular frenzy is no doubt enough to give our founding fathers quite a fright.
And most of the rest of us as well.