Little Arts of Popularity

Peter W. Schramm

December 1, 2000

December 8, 2000. Election night was a roller coaster ride. Florida to Gore, then too close to call, then finally, late, very late, given to Bush, and then, once again, too close to call. Gore phoned Bush to concede, but then called back to retract his concession. Late on election night—the early hours of the morning, actually—instead of seeing a speech by Gore, we got Bill Daley. He told a cheering crowd that because the Florida count was close, very close, there would be a re-count. That stunning announcement included Daley’s comment: "Our campaign continues."

Daley’s words were unsettling. They are logically connected to Clinton saying that as president he would run a perpetual campaign. And during his presidency Clinton has shown us that there really isn’t a difference between governing and campaigning.

Al Gore, by his own account, ran as a populist. His slogan, "I will fight for you," is pregnant with meaning. He claims to be a defender of the people, indeed, to represent the will of the people. Such a candidate must make clear that the people understand that he is going to look after their interests, their needs. If they have something coming to them that is their due, something that under the centralized welfare state they are entitled to (whether it be prescription drugs or social security or milk subsidies, etc.) he will assure them that he is the man to get it for them. Any opposition to this is mere reactionary intransigence, an attempt to oppose the people’s will.

The purpose of both campaigning and governing is, by this understanding, the same: to get the people heated up, get their passions aroused, connect their passions to their interest and tell them that you are the one who can best represent their interests. Anyone who opposes this method and formulation becomes, by definition, an enemy of the people. And if the Constitution opposes the people’s will, then the Constitution has to go.

It then makes sense—especially given that you won the majority of the votes nationally—to claim that the people’s will in Florida is not represented until you find enough votes to give you a majority. Gore said that he felt all along that more people in Florida went to the polls intending to vote for him. Those people just have to be found. The search for votes must, logically, continue.

The self-evident problem with this disposition, with this turn of mind, is that everything that prevents you from representing the people’s will—the laws and the Constitution, for example—become an inconvenience at best, or a great evil at worst; and these hurdles just have to be overcome, by whatever means necessary. Were it not for the illegal butterfly ballots in a particular county, we would have won. Were it not for the systematic attempt to disenfranchise voters, we would have won. Indeed, Jesse Jackson told us, Florida is a replay of Selma. And the Electoral College, by the way, is in the way. It will have to go.

Now this mode of argumentation is not exactly new. It has its roots in the Progressive movement, made practical through the argument and policies of the New Deal, and nailed shut by the Great Society (although a bow toward Andrew Jackson is also appropriate). But the explicit populist disposition of the contemporary Democratic Party is new, shockingly new, on a national level.

The Founders understood that on a state and local level there would be politicians with talents for low intrigue (think of Huey Long in Louisiana as one of the best examples) who practiced what Hamilton called "the little arts of popularity." These would be the politicians who would be interested in keeping the population in a continuous state of tumult, dissatisfaction, and disorder.

But Hamilton and the others thought that this was less likely to happen on the national level because of the Constitution. The Constitution’s architecture (through the separation of powers, federalism, indirect election of Senators, the Electoral College, and so on) attempted to create a certain kind of majority that wouldn’t so much represent the people’s will as it would represent the people’s reason.

The Founders knew that people’s interests and passions would be engaged; that went without saying. But they also knew that it was that direct engagement that had proven to be the death knell of all other democracies in history: all democracies before ours were short lived, and violent in their deaths. Although the Founders were erecting a popular regime, they made as certain as they could that it would be one in which the people never acted in their own name but only in the name of the Constitution. After the adoption of the Constitution, there would only be constitutional majorities. No part of the government could represent the people and no single person could ever represent the people.

A majority formed under the Constitutional intricacies will be less heated in its passions, less self-interested, less angry, and more reasonable and more moderate. It would make the possibility of majority tyranny less likely. That is why "the little arts of popularity", so tempting for politicians, are dangerous, especially on the national level.