I've just finished reading Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism Of The American Revolution. It's a stunning and strange history. I had no idea how different the democracy the founders created was from the republic they envisioned.
The republicanism of the pre-revolutionary period was a political philosophy based largely on the writings of the Romans Cato and Cicero. These were austere thinkers and very much critical of the Rome of their time. They laid out an ideal of citizenship which was never much followed, even by their own countrymen. The founders modeled themselves on these Roman social critics. They envisioned an elected government of educated gentlemen who would serve the common good, gentlemen of sufficient wealth to be without pecuniary interest and also sufficient leisure to govern without a salary. (Indeed, they regarded discussion of anything like a salary with disgust – to these aristocrats, working for a living was contemptible.)
Once the constitution was ratified, the system spun out of control. The founders had such limited predictive tools! Sociology, psychology, and economics had yet to be invented. They were remote from the centers of learning and their knowledge of the classical world they loved was limited and filtered through Enlightenment philosophy. Had they a better understanding of the classics, they might have foreseen it; in Rome, making money was a reason to take public office, and for every public-spirited Roman official, there were a dozen lining their pockets – these were the people Cato and Cicero inveighed against.
In any event, instead of educated gentlemen focused on the common good, representatives were elected who focused first on regional and then on monetary interests. The founders underestimated how much they were resented by the mechanics and shopkeepers of their day. Contempt for education in anything but practical skills and crafts spread through society and there was a huge outburst of evangelicalism.
This contempt for education made for a public vulnerable to demagoguery. (It still does.) This led to the election of my candidate for the worst president of the 19th century, a war hero, the genocidal racist slavemaster Andrew Jackson. As well as the ethnic cleansing of the Indian Removal Acts (yes, they were his), Jackson decided that he hated the National Bank. He destroyed it, and impoverished most of the country – but not the Southern slaveholders of which he was one – for generations. (He is also, it turns out, one of Donald Trump’s heroes.)
US democracy was a genuine gain in freedom for many. Wealth rose. People had many more social possibilities than they did in the aristocracies of Europe. Yet the young democracy had a perfect genius for putting the wrong people in positions of power. (It still does.) In the 19th century, its corruption and brutality rivaled that of any European aristocratic state. It was dominated by evangelical Christianity. Free enterprise was to lead to concentrations of wealth and extremes of poverty rivaling those of the aristocracies of Europe. And then, there was the problem of the local maximum.
Democracy has a tendency to a problem that mathematicians and data scientists know under the name of “seeking the local maximum.” In a complex optimization problem, where the “best” solution is hard to locate, it is easy to, instead, settle on a solution that is much less than the best, and to get stuck there, because the best solution is hard to locate, and all changes involve moving away from the local best, even if that is awful. In applied mathematics, this is one reason to rely on an expert. In governance, this calls for people who are genuinely knowledgeable, can see beyond the immediate situation, and can communicate their knowledge to a broad public - the disinterested republicans of the founders’ imagination. Then people willing to act on that knowledge are needed and those people need to be given the power to act, and required to act compassionately.
The US system does this job poorly. In the 19th century, possibly the most significant instance of this was the slave system. While it enriched a tiny minority, it impoverished vastly more, and was one of the cruelest social systems humans have invented. Yet there was no way to end it without struggle, and without destroying the wealth of the South, which was largely slaves. So it persisted, and when ended was replaced with Jim Crow. Examples multiply. Historically, the United States has stagnated in many political or social patterns where people of vision can see a way out, but no way to get there that does not involve some pain or loss for some group, and the general public cannot be persuaded even that a change is possible.
I’ll be writing more about the stagnations we face in our time, and how we might build a society that responds better to this problem. It has been nearly 250 years since the United States was founded. In that time we ought to have learned something.