JMC fellow John O. McGinnis argues that the best way to tame populism is to return to a federalist model of government that would increases states’ legislative jurisdiction.
To Restrain Populism, Revive Federalism
Classical political theory was concerned to blend both popular and aristocratic (or elitist) elements in a regime. A balance of these forces created a more stable political order. Too much populism risked chaos, gross mistakes, and wild policy swings. Too much elitism risked insularity and lacked mechanisms for self-correction. And regimes that were either too populist or aristocratic generated a destructive backlash from the group that was excluded.
Classical political theory thus often built different estates right into the government, with a chamber of government that was the preserve of aristocrats and another that was reserved for the plebes. The United States lacked a hereditary aristocracy and thus its structure of government does not come with mechanisms clearly demarcated as popular or elite. But there is no doubt the Framers designed the federal government to have more elite elements than the state governments of the time. The Electoral College was structured to filter the popular will to elect individuals of substantial preexisting reputation. The Senate also was indirectly elected and its long terms made it more likely that the wealthy would serve. The judiciary was the redoubt of the learned profession of lawyers, representing the cognitive form of elite that was rising in importance in the Framers’ day and has become dominant in our own.
John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the coauthor with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.
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