Analytical and Critical Thinking Study on James Madison's Democratic Theory
James Madison’s Democratic Theory
Besides having known as the former US president, James Madison is also well known as one of the most celebrated founding fathers of the American Constitution. He, also, is one of the most influential political theorists. Most of his works are now still contributing to American society especially its constitution and other political philosophers as well. Accordingly, when talking about democratic theory, it’s hard for an author to avoid James Madison’s theory.
This paper is designed specifically and significantly to make analyses on his democratic theory. This paper consists of three main sections: Madison’s view on human nature and political system and finally Madison’s separation of powers and checks and balances will also be presented. Some of the strengths and weaknesses of his theory will be revealed. It also shows some examples and case studies on how it would be for certain societies if his theory is applied.
2. James Madison Democratic Theory
2. 1. Madison’s View on Human Nature and Politics
If taking a quick look on Madison’s theory, one will think that his thought is very liberal. In fact it is not. His political philosophy is much more conservative than liberal. Even though he agreed that popularly controlled government is necessary for society, but he himself not at all believe in human quality to manage their own community and maintaining their liberty in democratic system. In other words, he is the one who encourages having a government control by the people but he not at all trust his people.
The question here why government controlled by people necessary as they cannot be trusted? Madison’s political philosophy is very Hobbesian and he tends to support indirect democracy rather than pure democracy that used to be practiced in ancient Greece. From this point of view we can say in short that Madison does not trust people in general, but he partially trusts educated and knowledgeable people who have political skills in society.
One of the best examples of Madison indirect democracy is the Electoral College system in the United States. People sometimes confuse that America is the only pure democracy in the world because it is a presidential system and the president is directly elected by the people, but in reality it is not. In an Electoral College, the president is not elected by the people but by electors who are elected in the states and these people have the obligation to elect the president. Importantly, these electors are given right to vote for the president who comes from the same party or they may vote for the other candidate from party which is not theirs. Through this example we can see explicitly that people’s participation is not pure and direct but electors, who are normally considered having strong social and political skills, play important role in this election process.
I, personally, also agree with indirect democracy and I think that pure democracy is sometimes harmful. To me for a democracy to operate well education is necessarily needed. As in the case of Cambodia, if pure democracy is implemented, it not only helps the country to get better but may create chaos in society. Most of Cambodians are uneducated. The term democracy is very brand new to them even though they have heard it for 14 years. To most of them democracy is ruled by the people but to what extent they can rule they never know. To most of them, furthermore, democracy is complete freedom but they never think that freedom itself sometimes is not free. Because of miscomprehension on democracy, people sometimes use their freedom beyond given by the state or the constitution. Then democracy is not democratic but become anarchic.
Madison’s rejection pure democracy and favor representative democracy is a reflection to his disbelief in human quality in society. When James Madison was the United States president, there were approximately 7 million people living in America and about 4 million when the US constitution was drafted and went into effect in 1788. This population is less than today’s U.S. population 42 to 75 times. With a population of 4 to 7 million is not many, why Madison and his co-constitutional founders were afraid of applying pure democracy? One important thing is that Americans in the last 200 years were not qualified as Americans in the 21st century (most of them can be access to education and the concept of democracy is not new for them). In contrary to 21st century Americans, most of 200-year-ago Americans were workers in the farms especially in South America. Black American slaves also existed at that time. Because of people’s disqualifications and miscomprehension on democracy, they cannot be trusted and their participation must also be limited, but they are allowed to express their will through elections or public opinions which give government ability to use its power.
Even though people’s participation is not direct, the government cannot be a free rider. It must depend on people’s will to use its power. Then, government is the servant of people not master. If the government abuses power and does not serve the interest of the people, according to the declaration of independence 1776, people are given right to “alter or abolish and to institute a new government.” People are also given right, as stated in amendment 2 of the American constitution, to keep and bear arm and the federal government, also, cannot deny the states the right to keep an armed militia. Thus, both people and government are dependent on one another. Government is given power to rule, but it cannot abuse power and it must serve people’s interest if not people will abolish it through elections, public opinions or they may use armed revolution in the last resort.
Madison disbelief in human quality is also similar to Plato, who argued that there are normally numerous low qualified people in any society and if they are allowed to rule, those numerous low quality will dominate the state and these people will establish a tyranny of majority government which in return destroys their popular government.
Similar to Hobbes, Madison also believes that human beings are essentially selfish. If these selfish men are allowed to rule, they will use their majority powers to dominate the minority. I also think that even though those selfish people not seek powers to rule the other, they at least seek their own satisfactions by whatever way they can. Then people will live in a condition like the natural state where the stronger is the winner. That’s why government is needed, according to Madison. As Madison has written in his federalist papers number 51 “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary …” because men are naturally selfish, greedy, and aggressive then they are not perfect, so they are not god. That’s why government is needed and necessary. In reality no country without government even religious groups also has their leaders.
Although Madison believes that government is needed and necessary, he is not totally confident on the government not to abuse power. That’s why he continued in her federalist paper number 51 that “… [I]n framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” As human beings are not god, they need government to govern them. And since the government is not god too, something must be created to control them because they are selfish as other ordinary people. According to James Madison, constitution, as he said, is needed and necessary to control the government. He continued by arguing that ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of man must be connected with the constitutional rights in the place. He believes that only the strong constitution can prevent the government from abusing power because the constitution was not something given by god and it is not created by only one person. It is regarded as the work of “many heads and many hands” which contribute to its creation. So, there is a connection here, people are governed by government and both government and people are governed by constitution and both use the constitution to check negative aspects of one another.
Although Madison is a Hobbesian political philosopher and is not confident of individual’s ability to maintain their liberty, he strongly believes that individual liberty is important in the democratic system because as mentioned above in democratic society people play actively social role and they also have the obligation to check government’s action. Individuals can check the government only when their right and liberty are respected and guaranteed by law especially the constitutional law. Theoretically speaking, it is hard for a country to declare it democratic since it does not allow people to have liberty. Individual liberty inevitably exists in democratic society. In order to guarantee individual rights and freedom Madison had committed to urge the congress to add some of basic rights for his people. These basic rights can be found in the first ten amendments of the US constitution.
2.2. Madison’s View on Political System
As already mentioned, Madison does not trust human quality but he is not also afraid of giving individual liberty. To him individual liberty is important and at the same time government is also necessary. Rationally speaking, when government is established, it is automatically for individual liberty to be reduced because people are willing to give up some of their rights and freedom to government. It is a social contract between government and its people. Madison encourages having government because men are not angels. So, government must be necessary. This does not mean that Madison trust the government but in contrary he fears it because it is a group of political individuals who are created to control and because of men are naturally selfish these people will form majority group which in return using its power to dominate the weak minority.
Democracy is sometimes dangerous. Democracy creates the majority and the minority. Strong powerful majority always oppresses and has little political tolerance on the minority. However, the importance lies in this: whether the minority get protected by law? Some countries create law which helps the minority to balance its power with the majority. One example of this is the congress election in the United States. Bush is the president from the Republican Party and his party previously controlled the congress. So, it is easy for Bush to get approval from the congress on his policies as most of representatives are from his party. In this case the minority seems having very little role and power to influence the president. That’s why in order to prevent the government from using too much power through majority in the congress, the US constitution allows the congress to have only two years term because it wants to give people opportunity to check the government’s actions in the last two years. If people are happy with the president, they may vote for his party. If not they will vote for the minority party in the congress to control and become a majority as the Democratic Party is doing now. So, Bush is not free riding. He must be dependent on Democratic Party on any decision he wants to make and to be approved.
For country like Cambodia balancing power between majority and minority is not the case. Sometimes party controlling the assembly uses its majority to abuse powers. For example, after 2003 general election there was a political deadlock for nearly one year due to the insufficiency of two third majorities in the assembly. According to Cambodian constitution the government can be formed only after the assembly born. They both cannot be created at the same time. Some politicians even refer assembly to mother and government as a child. That’s why mother must be born prior to a child. However, after one year of deadlock things have changed unexpectedly. The system of having government after the birth of assembly is not considered. Voting in secret has been changed to vote by raising hand. The new system is named package vote and has been added to the old constitution. Its separate name is “Additional Constitution”.
Eventually, this is the first time that I saw people in the assembly voting by raising their hand. Additionally, according to the new law representatives are not allowed to question on any matter during the election. It is such a very strange law. It is not only limit people’s speech but also ban people’s representatives to have no asked. This law should be called a dictator law rather than democratic law. This is the result of having majority and minority in democratic country.
Because of majority, politicians from ruling party in Cambodia keeps creating laws that benefit their own group which Madison called factions. For example, just want to defeat its political rival it creates an unnecessary law known as monogamy law which is not important for Cambodian people’s daily life. In contrast, corruption law which is being urged by people, opposition party and other foreign donors to be created, the majority group turns blind eyes on it accompanied with many pretexts. One simple reason is that the law will not only serve their own interest but will be harmful to them. Majority rule in Cambodia not only help protecting the existing constitution be effectively implemented, as Aristotle strongly believed a good constitution is the constitution that is not changed overtime, but creating new constitution to serve their interest. For them constitution is not a law but a political tool.
Besides trying to balance power between the majority and minority by using the constitution, Madison's view on political system, although he was not an economist, also center on economy. He believes that economic factor plays important role in stimulating people to get involve in political activity than any other factors. He supports the concept of competitive economic system because he believes that human beings are naturally selfish and combative, so it is better to give them chance to serve their own satisfactions. Naturally and rationally speaking, only men know what they need. The government is created just to governed them not oblige to know everything in their heart. Competitive economic system opens rooms for them.
I think that democracy cannot work well without economic development. Some people think that when having democracy, they will have everything because they use the government to work for them and serve their interests. It is not always true even though people in democratic countries believe as Abraham Lincoln said “government of the people, by the people and for the people”, but the main purpose of government is to govern and facilitate people lives not to find money for them but opportunities are opened for people from all walks of life. Those who are intelligent and active can get benefit from the system easily. Competitive economic system, which is believed by Madison as important, is created to allow people to help themselves basing on their ability, intelligence and commitment.
Related to Madison’s belief in economic factor which actively help stimulating people to political activity, there is a discussion whether economic development leads to democracy or vice versa. Answer will vary basing on from what part of the world you are from. People from the west would quickly say that democracy will leads to economic development when people from newly democratic countries tend to say appositively.
For example, China after the death of Mao Zedong, post-Mao leaders have been trying all their best to push economic growth and maintain internal peace and security. In order to achieve these ultimate objectives, for economic growth, Chinese leaders have chosen a new style of economic policy known as socialist free market, in which people are allowed to hold private firms and the state provides them opportunities to seek their own satisfactions. Infant industries are, however, subsidized by the government if they face bankruptcy because these firms are normally not able to compete with foreign firms. That’s why they must be supported by Chinese government. For politics, to maintain internal peace and security, Chinese leaders are implementing a policy known as democratic centralism. Through this brief case study on China we see that China is on the way towards democracy but it chooses to go through economic development rather than through democracy alone.
As I have mentioned above democracy needs education but education needs money, and money is from economic development. I, personally, also agree that economic development will leads to democracy easily.
2.3. Madison’s Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances
In the American political system, there are three main branches: the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary. These three branches fulfill their jobs on distinctive fields. The Legislative is further subdivided into two houses, the Senate and the Congress, which have the obligation to make laws while the Executive enforces the laws and the Judiciary finally has to interpret and adjudicate legal dispute.
As mentioned above, Madison is very Hobbesian and pessimistic about human nature. He did not trust people because they are not angels that’s why, he said, government is necessary. And because government is a combination of human beings not angels, so the constitution is necessary. Now his turn again to create a tool to control and check the three branches of the political system. He called it checks and balances. In his checks and balances he directly uses the three branches to check one another. For example, the Legislative is allowed to ratify appointments to the executive and the judicial branches while the Executive can appoint judges and veto law and the Judiciary can nullify law that against the constitution.
Although Madison’s checks and balances look good, weaknesses still exist and make the system imbalance. The first weakness lies in this: the executive is constitutionally allowed to appoint judges of the Supreme Court for life. If I were the president, who is given this right, I would choose and nominate only those judges who I think will follow my guidance and in favor of me. I think the U.S. president is the same as me. I don’t think he would appoint those persons who he does not like and trust. In return it is naturally for nominated judges to be biased in favor of the president. The president plays the role just like the master when the judge of the Supreme Court is a servant even though the law says the three branches are independent, but de facto the executive seems to dominate the judiciary.
The second weakness of checks and balances is the nomination of judges to hold their offices during good behavior. Constitutionally, the executive (president) can stay in power only two terms while the legislative term is only two years. Contrary to these two branches judges in the Supreme Court can hold position without time constraint or they will leave when their behavior is not good. The law here is not clear cut. How can we judge when a person is in good behavior and when he is not? What are the characteristics of good behavior? The law here is not only confusing but it makes people wonder whether to how many terms a judge can stay in office.
This system also discourages competition in the court. On the one hand, those who want to become a judge in the Supreme Court have to patiently wait until the old judge leaves office or dies or when his behavior is not good. On the other hand, those who want to be a next judge must get themselves being closely and friendly with the president because only the president who decides who will be the judges in the Supreme Court.
However, some people argue that judges who get appointed by the president are usually high qualified, educated and skilful in working as a judge and normally high quality people can work better than the others as Plato also believed. So, why it needed to be changed over time? I would answer this question by saying, firstly, that judges should be changed through people’s will over time. Like the legislative and executive, judges are created to serve the interest of the people as a whole. The judges should be independent and should not under the control of any branch or any individual. When judges get elected by the people, they will work for the people and they are afraid of losing their position in the next election if they cannot perform well when they are in office.
Secondly, today America is not the same as America 200 years ago when the constitution is created. There are now thousands of qualified and skilful judges in the United States. Some of them may even much better than the real judges appointed by the president. So, competition shall be opened for all. Furthermore, judges’ mandate must also be clearly written whether they should hold office for two, four, six, eight years or whatever. As mentioned above it is hard to define when a person is in good behavior. I think that good law should be clear. Good law should left no confusions.
Besides introducing separation of powers and using checks and balances to check each power after they have been separated, James Madison also encourages having checks between state government and national government. According to Madison in order to let state government be able to check national government, some powers must be granted to state government. When powers are divided between the two governments, neither government, Madison hoped, will gain too much power to dominate one another. As the United States of America gets larger and larger to 50 states, state and national government powers are further divided, so preventing a permanent majority at the national level. One of the best examples on how powers are granted to state government can be found in amendment 2 of the American constitution which states that “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” It means that the federal government cannot deny any state the right to keep an armed militia. This is a strong power given by federal government to every state.
Madison’s democratic theory is very rational and logical. His position on human nature and political system is in the middle between John Lock and Thomas Hobbes. Like Lock, he supports the idea of having individual liberty in a democratic system. Unlike Lock, but Hobbes, he is very pessimistic about human nature and their quality in maintaining their right and liberty in democratic system. He is one of the most interesting political theorists who at the same time supports popularly controlled government and popular participation, but also does not trust people. Even though Madison’s political philosophy is similar to Hobbes, there are also important differences between the two thinkers. Different from Hobbes, who thinks that people should be controlled and subordinated to government who he regarded as king and the king, furthermore, should not be bound by law because he creates the law, so he must be over the law only ordinary people, Madison does not believe in all kinds of human beings not regarding their social or natural status. Different from Hobbes, Moreover, Madison believes that both people and government must be bound by the constitution and both use the constitution to check one another. No one can sit on the constitution. According to Madison, constitution is created to check government and government is necessary for people because either of them are not angles. Different from other political thinkers, he is the only person who uses power to check power as he called separation of power and checks and balances.
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Almond, Powell, Strom, and Dalton. Comparative Politics Today. Pearson Education, 2004.
PAPERS / ARTICLES:
The Declaration of Independence, 1776
Constitutional Convention, 1787
The United States Constitution, 1788
Bill of Rights (Ten Amendments of the US Constitution) 1791
Federalist Papers by James Madison 1788
US History Timeline: War of 1812
Constitution of Cambodia, 1999 and 2004