May 8, 2015

Symptoms of a leveling spirit.

That's a phrase I just Googled because writing the previous post (about the UK elections), I was reminded of something that came up yesterday in my reading of Robert A. Caro's "Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson III":
The Framers of the Constitution feared the people’s power because they were, many of them, members of what in America constituted an aristocracy, an aristocracy of the educated, the well-born, and the well-to-do, and they mistrusted those who were not educated or well-born or well-to-do. More specifically, they feared the people’s power because, possessing, and esteeming, property, they wanted the rights of property protected against those who did not possess it. In the notes he made for a speech in the Constitutional Convention, James Madison wrote of the “real or supposed difference of interests” between “the rich and poor”—“ those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings”— and of the fact that over the ages to come the latter would come to outnumber the former. “According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the latter,” he noted. “Symptoms, of a leveling spirit, as we have understood, have sufficiently appeared in certain quarters to give notice of the future danger.”
The funny thing is, though, that the entire first 2 pages of Google results were about a record titled "Symptoms of a Leveling Spirit" by a hardcore punk band called Good Riddance. Chris Moran of Punknews said it was "without question, the definitive GR album... not the same 1,000-beats-a-minute GR you've listened to for the last several years."

On the 3rd page of results, we finally get some Madison, the Records of the Federal Convention with the full context and somebody actually talking about it in a present-day setting (which is what I was searching for). It's the old Democratic Underground — "Does the Democratic Party still have the 'levelling spirit' I wonder?" — with the idea that the leveling spirit is a good thing. On page 4, in amongst many Good Riddance references, there's some Noam Chomsky:
Madison foresaw that the threat of democracy was likely to become more severe over time because of the increase in "the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings." They might gain influence, Madison feared. He was concerned by the "symptoms of a leveling spirit" that had already appeared, and warned "of the future danger" if the right to vote would place "power over property in hands without a share in it." Those "without property, or the hope of acquiring it, cannot be expected to sympathize sufficiently with its rights," Madison explained. His solution was to keep political power in the hands of those who "come from and represent the wealth of the nation," the "more capable set of men," with the general public fragmented and disorganized...

10 comments:

Mick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jack Wayne said...

When you read the Federalist Papers, it's pretty clear that Madison, Hamilton and Jay are pretty sad politicians and people. They are revered but it's misplaced.

Coupe said...

I think it was the turn of the 20th century when the middle-class was fully developed, that the aristocrats met their match. By the 21st century, the aristocrats were back in control, having exported all the factories that supported the middle-class.

During Madison's time, they say the first 50 years of the new republic, that there was no middle-class. I believe we are now into the last 50 years of the republic. With no middle-class, the proletariat will destroy everything in a vicious cycle. At first a revolution, then anarchy, as that fails. You can't bring down a nuclear power with a long gun.

Gahrie said...

We were supposed to be a republic, not a democracy and as we have become more and more democratic, things have gotten worse.

stan said...

Madison was no better at predicting the future than anyone else. He missed it.

As Tetlock showed, even the best experts are no better than a dart-throwing chimp at predicting the future.

Mike Sylwester said...

Coupe:

... it was the turn of the 20th century when the middle-class was fully developed, that the aristocrats met their match. .... we are now into the last 50 years of the republic. With no middle-class, the proletariat will destroy everything in a vicious cycle. At first a revolution, then anarchy, as that fails. ....

Interesting comment.

mikee said...

Good Riddance?

"Good name for a rock band," as Dave Barry often noted.

tim in vermont said...

Every time I read Madison, I have the same thought. "What a first-rate mind." So, to further my education, I would love to hear what makes Madison a "sad politician" and how he "missed the future." Seems like he nailed it to me, but as I said, I am willing to learn here.

richard mcenroe said...

One the problem with Caro's take is that in America, even the common folk were owners of property,unlike, say England where even today land and buildings are commonly transferred not in outright title but in 99-year leases, so you can raise multiple generations of a family in one home and still have no permanent claim to it. So if property was the deciding factor, the small farmer with little more than a musket and a one-mule plow could stand up in the same forum with the man who owned Mt. Vernon.

Not surprisingly, we have seen in the Proglodyte Era a steady assault on the property-owning class. While the rich get richer, the owner of the individual home and the small business are being steadily ground down into the malleable and compellable state-client classes.

Qwerty Smith said...

Madison did not predict the future? On the matter at hand, he was pretty canny.

One of the reasons he wanted one house of the legislature limited to the propertied was that he predicted that a majority would one day consist of employees or renters, rather than independent farmers. Check.

He feared that under such conditions, votes would either (1) be controlled by employers and corrupt party bosses, or (2) be given to candidates who would take from the affluent in order to give free goodies to non-affluent constituents. #1 pretty much covers American politics from the 1820s to the 1920s, and #2 pretty well covers American politics since then. Check and check.

Incidentally, Madison's Report of 1800 argued that the First Amendment literally leaves Congress with no authority whatsoever to regulate speech or the press in any manner, for any reason. When he drafted the amendment to say "no law," he meant "no law." If he failed to anticipate a future in which people thought "no law" was ambiguous, who can blame him?