Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

What would James Madison make of American democracy today? | Opinion

The National Constitution Center convenes experts to discuss America's current constitutional crisis.

Independence Hall, where the Constitution was debated, drafted and signed.
Independence Hall, where the Constitution was debated, drafted and signed.Read moreHandout

What would James Madison make of American democracy today?

That's the question the National Constitution Center will ask on Nov. 28 at a series of public panels cohosted by the Atlantic magazine. Called The Constitution in Crisis: What Would the Founders Say?, the panels will convene America's leading journalists as well as America's leading scholars of James Madison known as the Madisonian Constitution for All Commission, a group that arose from a conversation Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic and I had last year about the state of American democracy.

They are a remarkable group, and the papers are illuminating.

To give a preview: Colleen Sheehan of Villanova University argues that the growth in the power of the executive, courts, and administrative agencies, and a decline in the power of Congress and the states, has resulted in "the displacement of the views of ordinary American citizens," which poses "much more of a risk to the present stability and health of the regime than the risk of majority faction."

Daniel Stid of the Hewlett Foundation proposes solutions for reviving a Madisonian Congress — one more empowered to address problems through legislation — including depolarizing our politics with reforms like rank choice voting.

And Sai Prakash of the University of Virginia explores the growth of the imperial presidency in ways that would have alarmed Madison, driven by four factors: "the advent of the popular mandate; the influence of political parties; the willingness of Congress to fund a vast bureaucracy; and the ascent of living constitutionalism."

These scholars will be joined by three of America's top journalists, who come from diverse perspectives but share the same last name: Jonah Goldberg, Michelle Goldberg, and Jeffrey Goldberg. All have thought hard about the crisis in American democracy.

Jonah Goldberg has described how Congress, instead of exercising its constitutional responsibilities to check the president and to deliberate policy, is instead operating like a "parliament of pundits." Michelle Goldberg, in her debut column for the New York Times, wrote about how, contrary to Madison's wishes, demographic changes have created an America ruled by the "tyranny of the minority." And in his introduction to the Atlantic special issue on the crisis of democracy, Jeffrey Goldberg emphasizes the way that tribalism as well as technology is threatening Madisonian ideals.

The evening will also feature a keynote conversation with Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.). Along with Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah), Coons is cochair of a national commission that the National Constitution Center has convened of American thought leaders from the left and the right. Coons, a cochair of the Madisonian Constitution for All Commission, has pledged to revive Madisonian deliberation in a polarized Senate. As his recent conversation with Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) at the Atlantic/National Constitution Center panel in Washington showed, he believes that by engaging in face-to-face deliberation, and putting the institutional interests of the Senate above immediate partisan gain, senators of both parties can further the compromise and civil dialogue that Madison thought was necessary for reason to prevail.

All of the participants in the Madisonian conversations on Wednesday recognize that civic education is key to resurrecting Madisonian reason in an impetuous world. That's why all citizens have an obligation to educate themselves about the basic principles of the Constitution and the rule of law, in order to base their judgments on reason rather than passion. Please join us on Wednesday evening for an illuminating program about how American democracy is falling short of Madisonian ideals and how they can be resurrected today.

Jeffrey Rosen is president & CEO of the National Constitution Center. He will be moderating Wednesday's program at the National Constitution Center on The Constitution in Crisis: What Would the Founders Say?