The word “aristocracy” has a funny ring to us. It bespeaks of feudal manors, corrupt Frenchmen, and individuals who unfairly rose to power because of whose son they were. If we clean the lint out of our 21st century ears, though, we can faintly hear what the founders meant when they said this word. In a letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson lauded the “natural aristocracy,” or the “aristocracy of virtue” which would lift
This idea that some citizens are most fit to lead because they have the most moral character, common sense, experience, and wisdom colored the founders’ conception of the president and the upper house, the senate. The president was neither to be the most popular man nor the man who was the most like everyone else. He was supposed to be an exemplar of virtue—a leader whose character and fortitude presented the American people with a model of virtue to emulate.
Some presidential scholars like to call this aristocracy-of-virtue presidential scheme the “traditional presidency.” For the first century of the presidency (with minor exceptions), the president never appealed directly to the people, never promised welfare benefits to secure votes, and never made campaigns about what the electorate would “get” if they elected him. He knew that popular emotions are easily whipped into a frenzy, and that pandering to these emotions was the basest form of government—it would make the president like one of the demagogues who reigned during the decline of
Around Teddy Roosevelt (eventually solidifying with FDR), a change began to creep into the president’s demeanor. When
The rhetorical president, in short, doesn’t care that Senate was originally meant to serve as a protective layer between the moment-by-moment impulses of the people and our country’s laws. The rhetorical president wants popularity and reelection, and he wants increasingly expansive agendas to be passed, dagnabit! If Congress won’t bend over and do his bidding, he’ll play to the basest emotions of the people at large: envy, fear, and greed.
As President Obama and Nancy Pelosi move to pass healthcare through the controversial “reconciliation procedure” (claiming to just fix a few changes in the bill, while in reality forcing it through with only 50 votes), this problem of the aristocratic v. the rhetorical presidency looms large.
Listen to the Obama administration’s reason for shoving the healthcare legislation through: “The President expects and believes the American people deserve an up or down vote on health reform.” In this oh-so-delicate slight of hand, the Obama administration has shifted this from being a partisan issue that cuts to the core of limited government and federalism. It now becomes a favor on behalf of the “American people.” If the Republicans resist its passage, they obviously don’t care for the welfare of the “American people.”
Yes, appealing to the people (also known as the logical fallacy of the bandwagon) is persuasive. Every voter wants to feel that they’re important enough for the government to issue legislation just to make their lives easier. Sarah Palin even met with a considerable amount of success assuring voters that she was just like Joe the Plumber. But is this what we really want? Elected officials who are no wiser, no more experienced, no more virtuous than us?
"They know that this will take courage," Nancy Pelosi said in an interview over the weekend, speaking of the Members she'll try to strong-arm. "It took courage to pass Social Security. It took courage to pass Medicare," the Speaker continued. "But the American people need it. . . “ Speaker Pelosi is right—we do need courage. But not the courage to give up more and more freedom in exchange for security and entitlements. We need the courage to silence the pride that surges up at appeals to popular emotions, the courage to act like members of an aristocracy of virtue.
This doesn’t just mean pricking up our ears at rabble-rousing claims like those of the past week (although this is certainly a component). It means resisting emotivist propaganda on either side of the party line. An aristocracy of virtue is not dead. It lives in the heart of every citizen who thinks of the future consequences of his actions, and who questions every political promise by asking, “what is the best?” instead of “what does this do for me?”
- Rachel Blum
- Rachel Blum