Belly Up to the Bar

During the recent budget battle, each side tried to make an offer voters could not refuse. Democrats offered subsidized child care and more Medicare. Republicans promptly countered by offering to cut voters' taxes. Some of our lawmakers may have sincerely thought that these "goodies" were good for America. But at the risk of sounding cynical, I suggest that these proposals may have also been attempts to buy the public's affection—and their votes. While giving the people what they want may be good politics, it’s not what the Founders had in mind as the purpose of government. As a youthful James Madison learned in an early bid for elective office, self-government often demands that leaders disregard what the people want. In 1777, Madison ran for the Virginia General Assembly against two far less capable opponents. Madison should have won easily. But Colonial America had imported the English custom known as "treating"—buying the voters drinks on election day. The treating custom often resulted in a drunken electorate, and so Madison refused to go along with the practice. As he explained, the "reputation and success of representative government depend[s] on the purity of popular elections." I’d like to report that Madison’s integrity was rewarded, but it wasn't. He finished an embarrassing third. Two hundred years later, politicians still feel compelled to treat voters. But these days, instead of inviting voters to belly up to the bar, politicians invite us to line up at the trough. And their methods are more sophisticated: They consult with their pollsters to find out exactly what "treats" the voters want most. Today's politicians need to be reminded of what our Founders thought of all this. Madison knew that the greater good often required going against popular opinion. He explained the dangers of pandering to popular opinion in The Federalist Papers. "There are moments in public affairs," Madison wrote, "when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage… may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn." Madison’s answer to human frailty was republicanism with a small "r." In a republican form of government the people don’t decide important questions directly. Instead, they elect leaders who decide on their behalf—leaders, Madison said, who should be endowed with virtue and wisdom. The idea was that representatives, unaffected by the demands of "irregular passions," could take a long-term view of problems. They would sift popular passions through a process of reasoned and principled debate, until a consensus was reached. That's why senators were appointed, not elected. The Founders designed this safeguard against human sinfulness because they were heirs to the Christian tradition with its belief in fallen human nature. Today, Americans love to bemoan the lack of leadership while simultaneously complaining that politicians don't listen to them. We Christians need to remind our neighbors that if we want realleaders, we ought to take our cue from James Madison. We must elect and encourage wise and virtuous leaders—who have the courage to resist momentary political temptations. Otherwise, we’ll have to settle for the politics of bellying up to the bar and lining up at the trough—and we will deserve the kind of leadership that those tactics earn.


Chuck Colson


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