Note: This paper is the first in our “political foundations of state capacity” essay series. You can find the full series here.
As Benjamin Franklin purportedly quipped to an inquiring Philadelphian, the Constitutional Convention had established “a republic, if you can keep it.” In creating that republic, the Founders had deliberately chosen to empower the people. While the suffrage was limited to a subset of white men, for its time this was a radical step toward democracy. Franklin’s hesitancy about this experiment’s long-term prospects was rooted in the recognition that democracies had historically been prone to a debilitating weakness rooted in the very people to whom the Founders had just entrusted the country. The preeminent apprehension informing the Madisonian system and the Constitution was an acknowledgement that individuals are not naturally imbued with the kinds of sensibilities on which democratic republics are predicated. Specifically, the Framers worried that “the people” could quickly devolve into “the mob” and that demagogues could rise to power by exploiting internal tensions. The key to success, then, was finding a way to empower the people while tempering their susceptibility to passionate, illiberal excess. A major part of their solution was to create a set of carefully structured institutions designed to cool the passions that threatened liberal democracy. Following ratification of the Constitution, additional institutions, namely the political party system and the media, came to play a gatekeeping role that served to buttress American democracy from the pathologies of the illiberal mob and demagogues.