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Letters from an Ohio Farmer

A Republican Form of Government

April 12, 2011

To the Members of the 112th Congress:

“The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.” So asserts the fourth section of Article IV of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court has had few occasions since 1789 to flesh out the meaning of that guarantee.  It is clear that the Constitution prohibits any state or locality from regressing to feudalism – no Duchess of the Dakotas or Count of Mount Kisco will exercise political power over Americans.  Beyond that, the Court said in 1849 that it was up to Congress, not the judiciary, to determine the criteria by which any state’s government could be deemed insufficiently republican.

As is true of most questions before America’s officials and citizens, the Federalist Papers are invaluable to comprehending this matter of republicanism.  In Federalist 10, James Madison discusses the problem of faction, which he defines as “a number of citizens . . . united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”  The “latent causes of faction” are “sown in the nature of man,” Madison warned, with the result that the “instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”

Madison argued that the great danger was a faction comprising a majority of the electorate – whether united by a sectional, commercial, or religious interest – because it could operate democratically, winning a series of free and fair elections, even while disdaining the concerns and curtailing the rights of all citizens not belonging to that faction.  He was more sanguine about a faction comprising a minority of the citizenry, because, he thought, the majority would be able to “defeat its sinister views by regular vote,” rendering the faction “unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution.”

Here Madison may have been too optimistic. The lessons of recent American politics suggest that minority factions can be more dangerous than he imagined.  The modern phenomenon he failed to anticipate was a government entrusted with so many responsibilities, and so much power and money, that it becomes a faction unto itself, with its own passions and interests adverse to the rights of other citizens.  Those in the control room have both the motive and means to steer the ship of state in directions advantageous to themselves, rather than ones preferred by the passengers who employ them.

The number and complexity of the issues being managed by government, at all levels, reach a point where the regular vote of the majority no longer prevails against the government faction.  California, for example, boasts some 7,000 governmental entities – cities, counties, and “special purpose districts.” Even the most responsible voters cannot possibly keep up with the daily changing minutiae being managed by these agencies.  Americans who already have lives and jobs are not in a position to turn citizenship into a full time career. Among the respects in which all men are created equal is that everyone’s week contains exactly 168 hours, regardless of how many public hearings your air quality management district schedules, or how many reports it makes available on its website.

Government employees, protected by strong unions and formidable civil service rules, have become an especially powerful and, in many cases, especially dangerous faction.  In California, the power of those unions over one of the state’s political parties is practically irresistible.  And because they devote money and resources to low-turnout elections for school boards and transit districts, public employee unions have often been able to effect a travesty of collective bargaining – vigorous representation of their interests on both sides of the negotiating table.  The recent debate about public sector unions in Wisconsin, led one chagrined citizen to reflect, “It’s not democracy when citizens lose control over the pay and benefits of the people who work for them.” Madison would agree.

Guaranteeing every state a republican form of government appears to be one of the Constitution’s less difficult assignments.  The harder part is to make sure that American government at every level is republican not just in form but in content.  Are the people’s elected representatives in charge of the government, or do life-tenured civil servants constitute a permanent government, one that can humor voters and legislators with token concessions, knowing it has all the expertise and time needed to out-maneuver and out-last intrusive voters and their representatives?  That is the constitutional question of our age.

The fury and hysteria of the demonstrators opposed to the Wisconsin restrictions on public-employee unions inadvertently revealed the permanent government’s assumption that mere politicians elected by mere voters had no moral authority to challenge the public employees’ long-standing and cozy arrangements.  The ongoing debates over public unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and several other states are about fiscal solvency but they concern, even more fundamentally, the future of the republican form of government in America.  We know from the relentless demonstrations in the streets of the Wisconsin city named after James Madison that the permanent government will go to great lengths to defend its prerogatives.  Will the citizenry do what is necessary to reclaim its sovereign control over the res publica – the matters that properly belong to the public?

Ohio Farmer