Saving Us from Our Degenerate Selves

Glenn Fairman
The Founders, in the Enlightenment spirit that sought to breathe life into the sage wisdom of the ancients, intended to found a mixed regime consisting of a popularly elected House of Representatives (the "Low") and a quasi-Aristocratic body (rule of the best -- the "High") for the Senate. Their theory undergirding an indirectly elected and longer empowered Senate was that such an entity should be an aristocratic depository of wisdom and political memory and not subject to the capricious appetites and passions of the demos.

Both Aristotle and Plato informed political philosophy of the turbulence of direct democracy and its tendency towards anarchy or tyranny as the form inevitably degenerated. Consequently, the melding of both "high and low" would lead to a structure of moderation and equilibrium tending towards incremental change and stability under a rule of law in a regime of limited governmental prerogative.

As the tension between the aristoi and the demos has devolved during our history through America's gravitating tendency towards pure democratic forms, one soon recognizes a resulting fatal imbalance. By favoring the popular and passionate democratic hunger for an equality of prestige and material results arbitrated through the calculating hands of ambitious men, we witness the slide towards immoderation in economics and in our regime's pandering to short-term thinking over mature considerations of what constitutes civic prudence, regime longevity, moral virtue, and the Good Life as was traditionally understood.

In the interest of confounding the immoderation that afflicts a fallen political imagination saturated with the chimera of power, checks and balances and term limits were carefully contemplated and integrated by the Founders. In a regime of constitutionally grounded popular sovereignty where the voter is ultimately the sole determinant of the regime's character, it is the intellectual and moral quality of the citizen that determines the strength and health of the regime writ large.

No republic can withstand the onslaught of moral and civil decay in its discreet parts -- no matter how cleverly checks, balances, laws, limits or separation of powers are instituted within a once enlightened Founding. By erecting an Imperial Presidency with powers undreamed of by our political architects and having chipped away at our formidable battery of rights along with our genius of Federalism, we prove to ourselves that we have forgotten the admonitions against unmixed coalesced power that were instituted by virtuous legislators who understood the limitations of the human heart.

Moreover, this post hoc fiddling we have administered via: the 17th Amendment, the imposition of extra-constitutional term limits and the false panacea of political initiatives are but foolish patchwork attempts at injecting democratic passions into government. Misunderstanding the fully corrosive implications of untamed democracy, we have unwisely untethered our system's fundamental Constitutional tensions as a short-sighted means of saving us from our own degenerate selves. Just as a republic of angels would require little or no laws, so then a crippled republic riddled with covetous desire, material lust, moral perversion, and clamor for equality at any cost is by nature devoid of personal restraint and the spirit of self-rule. A debauched democracy fallen in its moral/political vision and virtues requires a mountain of laws to dampen its tendency towards destructive self-interest and anarchy -- and even those will prove ultimately insufficient to rescue it from collective suicide.

The Founder's incarnation of human political liberty requires a capacity for self-rule, both of the soul and in the public square. Absent this, it is impossible for a regime to retain its Founding virtues; and without this it descends into timocracy, oligarchy, or tyranny until it relearns in a crucible of abject pain the fundamental lessons that were once acquired by others in blood, treasure, and humility. 

The Founders, in the Enlightenment spirit that sought to breathe life into the sage wisdom of the ancients, intended to found a mixed regime consisting of a popularly elected House of Representatives (the "Low") and a quasi-Aristocratic body (rule of the best -- the "High") for the Senate. Their theory undergirding an indirectly elected and longer empowered Senate was that such an entity should be an aristocratic depository of wisdom and political memory and not subject to the capricious appetites and passions of the demos.

Both Aristotle and Plato informed political philosophy of the turbulence of direct democracy and its tendency towards anarchy or tyranny as the form inevitably degenerated. Consequently, the melding of both "high and low" would lead to a structure of moderation and equilibrium tending towards incremental change and stability under a rule of law in a regime of limited governmental prerogative.

As the tension between the aristoi and the demos has devolved during our history through America's gravitating tendency towards pure democratic forms, one soon recognizes a resulting fatal imbalance. By favoring the popular and passionate democratic hunger for an equality of prestige and material results arbitrated through the calculating hands of ambitious men, we witness the slide towards immoderation in economics and in our regime's pandering to short-term thinking over mature considerations of what constitutes civic prudence, regime longevity, moral virtue, and the Good Life as was traditionally understood.

In the interest of confounding the immoderation that afflicts a fallen political imagination saturated with the chimera of power, checks and balances and term limits were carefully contemplated and integrated by the Founders. In a regime of constitutionally grounded popular sovereignty where the voter is ultimately the sole determinant of the regime's character, it is the intellectual and moral quality of the citizen that determines the strength and health of the regime writ large.

No republic can withstand the onslaught of moral and civil decay in its discreet parts -- no matter how cleverly checks, balances, laws, limits or separation of powers are instituted within a once enlightened Founding. By erecting an Imperial Presidency with powers undreamed of by our political architects and having chipped away at our formidable battery of rights along with our genius of Federalism, we prove to ourselves that we have forgotten the admonitions against unmixed coalesced power that were instituted by virtuous legislators who understood the limitations of the human heart.

Moreover, this post hoc fiddling we have administered via: the 17th Amendment, the imposition of extra-constitutional term limits and the false panacea of political initiatives are but foolish patchwork attempts at injecting democratic passions into government. Misunderstanding the fully corrosive implications of untamed democracy, we have unwisely untethered our system's fundamental Constitutional tensions as a short-sighted means of saving us from our own degenerate selves. Just as a republic of angels would require little or no laws, so then a crippled republic riddled with covetous desire, material lust, moral perversion, and clamor for equality at any cost is by nature devoid of personal restraint and the spirit of self-rule. A debauched democracy fallen in its moral/political vision and virtues requires a mountain of laws to dampen its tendency towards destructive self-interest and anarchy -- and even those will prove ultimately insufficient to rescue it from collective suicide.

The Founder's incarnation of human political liberty requires a capacity for self-rule, both of the soul and in the public square. Absent this, it is impossible for a regime to retain its Founding virtues; and without this it descends into timocracy, oligarchy, or tyranny until it relearns in a crucible of abject pain the fundamental lessons that were once acquired by others in blood, treasure, and humility.