Getting There: The Messy Math of Democracy

By Neil Earle

United States Senate: We shape our buildings and then they begin to shape us. (Wikipedia)

In the end it got done.

It was done in way the founding fathers had allowed, if not preferred: by a strict up and down motion to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh as the newest Supreme Court justice.

It was exceedingly messy, it was a slog, and there were lots of losers and few winners except perhaps the Constitution but – in the end – once again, America’s representative democracy won out.

“Representative democracy” – an important phrase. There are those who claim America isn’t a democracy at all but a Republic and that the founding fathers were suspicious of democracy fearing it would degenerate into mob rule.

That is true to a point and sometimes their fears of mob rule almost seem justified. During the violent Vietnam protest era in the early 1970s President Richard Nixon fought against “foreign policy being made in the streets.” President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1999 was finally checked in the then more-temperate Senate chamber, perhaps sparing the country further wrenching public turmoil.

The plan for anti-missile deployments that stirred massive protests against President Reagan in 1982 and the monster-sized anti-Iraq War movements against the second President Bush were also signal moments, times when the emotions of millions of Americans were rubbed raw and on full public display.

Clay in the Senate – avoided the Civil War for 10 years.

A Dynamic Republic

Some are understandably confused by all this but that is why the phrase “representative democracy” is important. It is a tip-off to the way James Madison and other architects of the Constitution made ingenious provision for how an expanding, robust and often volatile people could keep expanding over time and space and yet hold together.

To my entry-level history classes I usually try to sketch the background to all the political shenanigans. “Your Senator or Congressman speaks for the interests of the majority of the people who elected her,” I would explain, by way of broaching the complex mechanics of the American system. “Sometimes he represents your views, sometimes not. This is not a perfect solution, no one always gets their own way but it ensures that at least some important things can get done and that the will of the majority can be implemented.”

That helps introduce “three-level federalism” – local, state, national. I stress the wisdom of each state getting two senators to balance out the huge states such as California and New York. This is why a Senator Susan Collins from tiny Maine could occupy such a large role at the end of the Kavanaugh discussion and why Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia could buck his party and vote the way his people wanted. The process works but is messy. The payoff is the way this design has enabled the House of Representatives and the Senate (to a lesser degree) to keep expanding for 221 years along with the growing Republic – adding more Congressional representatives as time goes along, a truly dynamic process.

By now most students have heard of the separation of powers principle, those divisions between Congress, President and Judiciary baked in to the process that, as Jay Cost of the American Enterprise Institute suggests, “makes it harder to enact bad laws even if it sometimes renders good ones impossible.” Messy math again. In 1787 Madison and his mentors had just fought a war against what they perceived to be a dictatorial power vested in King George III and his wayward cabinet. They feared an overbearing government above all and established a legislature “difficult by design” as the phrase goes.

All of this explains why we have census takers visiting us every 4 years: the math is important to help keep score and avoid national lop-sidedness. Yet it is flexible enough to finally get down to such brass tacks as the 50-48 vote for Judge Kavanaugh.

But in the end, as I explained to my young non-political gym supervisor while watching the Senate vote from my treadmill, in the end there was something impressive and reassuring about seeing it all come down to that elegant Washington chamber again. In spite of protests from the gallery the senators had to show decorum if not agreement. This, after all, is where Winston Churchill helped rally a nervous nation in the dark dark winter of 1941 and where Henry Clay of Kentucky pleaded successfully for that Compromise of 1850 which held the fracturing Union together long enough to help it survive the test of Civil War.

Flawed but Workable

Once again, in 2018 the system – flawed but workable – overrode the emotional blunders made by both sides. Both had overreached. The Democrats moved ahead on a truly heart-rending issue without adequate proof while the Republicans oversold Judge Kavanaugh as “Mr. Impeccable,” personal life and all. Vital lessons learned for both sides one can hope.

No, foreign policy was not made in the streets in 1969-70 and a President’s sexual indiscretions were not fatal for his Presidency. Messy messy stuff indeed but flexible and durable enough to allow the nation to withdraw from Vietnam in fairly good order and for an elected President to finish his term. This latest marker demonstration in the durability of American democracy to override passion and tumult. Churchill’s over quoted words come to mind regarding democracy: The worst form of government except all the others.

Even when the great talk-fest that is Congress has more and more become a sideshow for an often frenzied, irresponsible and pervasive mass media, the dignity and decorum of the final vote on Judge Kavanaugh on October 6 in full public display was good for the world – and Americans – to see.

The system held, once again. Getting to the math was a messy process but small “r” republican representative democracy lives on for another day. Somewhere James Madison must be smiling.

(Neil Earle teaches history at Grace Communion Seminary and his web site is