James Madison didn't intend  the Constitution to govern perfect people.

Angels Have No Place in Politics

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Let's talk about angels.

It's Constitution Day (as Dahlia Lithwick reminds us in a delightful item), and for me, angels are a highly useful way of thinking about that document, what it's supposed to do and how best to celebrate it.

I'm talking about the famous angels from James Madison's Federalist No. 51:

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

John Sides gave the standard interpretation of that passage: People aren't perfect in the way angels are. Therefore, democratic institutions must be designed to guard against imperfect humans.

That's a classical liberal reading of Madison, and it's perfectly plausible. It follows from a few general assumptions: that politics is about who-gets-what, and that democracy is a good idea because, if we design institutions properly, it will best ensure that who-gets-what will be apportioned fairly. There is, of course, plenty of room for argument about what "fairly" means -- a question that may, at least on economic matters, sum up the entire contemporary argument between liberals and conservatives in U.S. politics. But the Lockean model of politics that idea of democracy is based on -- individuals striving for what they, individually, want -- is very familiar to most of us.

I don't think the liberal reading of Madison is wrong, but another interpretation is equally valid.

Madison and the revolutionaries weren't just Lockean liberals. They were also republicans, influenced by a long stream of thought about virtue, action, fame and other concepts that are far less familiar to us. In republican thought, politics isn't about who-gets-what, or at least not only about that. Instead, politics was seen as a way toward collectively organizing one's world; it was about the possibilities for individuals of fulfilling a human capacity for public action, which can only be done within a public setting.

Hannah Arendt found the ambiguity between these two ways of thinking in Jefferson's formulation of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," in which she saw the possibility of either private happiness (the liberal kind) or public happiness (the republican kind).

I see that ambiguity, too, in Madison's angels. The republican reading asks: what do angels actually do? Granted, there are quite a few different traditions when it comes to angels, but I like to think that Madison had in mind the ones sitting on clouds, with halos and harps, doing very little other than praising God. What distinguishes humans from angels in that formulation isn't that angels are perfect and people are sinners, but that angels don't have the human capacity for action -- for creating and changing their own worlds. Angels are in heaven, which is already perfect and needs no change; humans live in a world that is improvable and constantly changing, and we have the capacity to control change. Moreover, as Madison and the others discovered in the Revolution and the subsequent rounds of Constitution-writing, involvement in politics -- fulfilling the human capacity to effect change -- was a pleasurable activity (thus "public happiness").

In this reading, Madison was hardly attempting to restrict political action through the Constitution, as has often been alleged. Instead, he was concerned about a crisis of democracy in which citizens worn out from the Revolution would retreat into purely private happiness, eschewing politics. The goal of the Constitution, then, was to re-engage people with politics, and one reason for making the system so convoluted was to ensure that voting alone would never be enough: The system of checks and balances guaranteed that the only way for people to get what they want out of the political system is for them to become actively engaged. And Madison's hope was that once engaged, many citizens would discover the joys of public action.

If this is correct, the Constitution is neither liberal or republican. It is both. But critically, it is intended to encourage participation. And it seems to have worked. There is overwhelming evidence, from Tocqueville's observations to modern surveys, that Americans are far more actively involved in politics than people in other large democracies.

So if you want to celebrate the Constitution, you must get involved in politics. We're weeks away from a lot of crucial elections, which will determine everything from control of the U.S. Senate to who will serve on some local office for some local board. If you've never been involved in a campaign, try it. Or go to a party meeting, join an interest group, attend a city council meeting, or participate in or help organize a march or a rally or a protest. Or (and I know a lot of you don't approve) write a check.

And thank Madison and the other authors of the U.S. Constitution. Flaws and all, what they did was truly amazing.

  1. It is true that by many measures Americans are less likely to vote than those in other places. But when it comes to more active forms of participation, Americans score high in international comparisons. Of course, there are problems introduced by participatory politics, not the least of which is that those who participate (including with money, but also in other ways) have a larger say than those who don't. Is that fair? The answers are quite difficult even if everyone starts with equal resources.

  2. Blame me for my reading of Madison, but my sources for understanding the Revolution and the Constitution include Gordon Wood, "The Creation of the American Republic"; Hannah Arendt's "On Revolution"; William Lee Miller, "The Business of May Next"; and Robert Dahl, "A Preface to Democratic Theory."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net