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Guest Essay

Mr. Weiner is a political scientist who was a senior Senate aide to Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska.
Progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives can be forgiven their anxiety about whether Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona will support the more than $1.8 trillion Build Back Better plan. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, for example, rues the two senators’ outsize influence, while her colleague Rashida Tlaib of Michigan worries that Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema are “corporate Dems” led astray by special interests.
But if disappointed progressives are looking for a Democrat to blame, they should consider directing their ire toward one of their party’s founders: James Madison. Madison’s Constitution was built to thwart exactly what Democrats have been attempting: a race against time to impose vast policies with narrow majorities. Madison believed that one important function of the Constitution was to ensure sustained consensus before popular majorities could prevail.
Democrats do represent a popular majority now. But for Madison, that “now” is the problem: He was less interested in a snapshot of a moment in constitutional time than in a time-lapse photograph showing that a majority had cohered. The more significant its desires, Madison thought, the longer that interval of coherence should be. The monumental scale of the Build Back Better plan consequently raises a difficult Madisonian question: Is a fleeting and narrow majority enough for making history?
In this Madisonian sense, Democrats are tripping over their own boasts. Even in announcing that the spending plan had been scaled back, President Biden repeatedly called the measure “historic.” No fewer than four times in a single statement, his White House described elements of the Build Back Better framework as the most important policy innovations in “generations.” Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, called the bill the House passed last week “historic, transformative and larger than anything we have done before.”
Before the plan was trimmed from its original $3.5 trillion price tag, Democratic descriptions of it were even more grandiose. Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, called the party’s initial proposal “the most significant legislation to expand support for American families since the era of the New Deal and the Great Society. If not quite Rooseveltian in scope, it is certainly near-Rooseveltian.” Ms. Pelosi said the legislation would “stand for generations alongside the New Deal and the Great Society as pillars of economic security for working families.”
Madison might ask why legislation that will stand for generations should be enacted in months. The pragmatic answer, of course, is that Democrats may lose their majorities in the House and Senate next November. But that is part of the problem. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson passed the New Deal and Great Society with enormous, broad-based legislative majorities. The policies were so popular that they commanded at least some bipartisan support.
There is a reason Madison thought it should be that way. In evaluating public opinion, he saw two distinctions as essential. The first was whether the public’s views were based on reason or passion. The second was whether the views were settled or fluctuating.
According to Madison’s political psychology, passions were inherently short-lived. That was why he could say in Federalist 10 that factions would not overtake a geographically large republic: In the time it took for them to spread, passions would cool and dissipate. By contrast, opinions based on reason could withstand the test of time.
Madison encapsulated his theory of democracy in Federalist 63, which pertained to the unique role of the Senate in pumping the brakes on speeding majorities. He assumed that “the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers,” just as there would be unusual moments when the people would get swept up in passionate measures “which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.”
The most significant Madisonian fact is that majority rule is both a good idea and an inevitable one: Public opinion both “ought” to and “will” win out in a republic. But, crucially, it will do so “ultimately,” not immediately. One original purpose of the Senate’s six-year terms was to give its members time between elections to resist public opinion. The different electoral clocks for representatives, presidents and senators require that public opinion cohere to prevail.
In 1791, with the young Constitution in operation and nascent partisan alliances appearing, Madison wrote in a newspaper essay that the government owed deference to public opinion only when that opinion was “fixed” rather than fluctuating: “This distinction, if kept in view, would prevent or decide many debates on the respect due from the government to the sentiments of the people.”
It is difficult to identify a case in American history of sustained, broad public opinion that did not ultimately manifest itself in public policy. Americans have been thwarted or delayed with respect to vague ideas like expanding access to health care. But they have also disagreed profoundly and deeply about what form those ideas should concretely take. When Americans have settled into an enduring consensus on particulars, they have almost always prevailed.
One way proponents of particular policies encourage consensus is by appealing to public opinion. But according to Madison, the constitutional system judges majorities on their durability. A nearly $2 trillion bill that fundamentally alters relations between the government and the governed — even if in constructive and needed ways — should demonstrate broad and enduring support. A tied Senate and nearly tied House, acting in a space of months, cannot demonstrate that support on Madisonian terms.
Democrats should not be overly faulted for failing to attract Republican support. At least since Democrats took the House in 2018, and arguably for longer, Republicans have been dogmatically uncooperative and uninterested in legislating.
But omnibus bills that throw every possible priority into a single measure and their overuse make bipartisan support nearly impossible. Madison may have predicted the future of factions poorly. But his assumption was that coalitions would shift from issue to issue. A stand-alone bill on any one Democratic priority might well receive votes from across the aisle, as the recent $1 trillion infrastructure bill did. One reason for that bipartisan support is that isolating issues raises the cost of opposing them.
In addition, the fact that one of the country’s two major political parties refuses to budge and — the decisive fact — feels no pressure from its constituents to do so is evidence that the Madisonian tests of durability and fixity have not been met. If majorities of the American people truly support the Democratic approach to social policy, the party’s candidates should be able to make that case on the campaign trail. The fact that they are trying to beat the clock instead suggests they know their support is fragile. Fragility is a poor foundation for major legislation.
Polarization, especially when it falls along geographic lines, does not help. Madison, who foresaw that the enslavement from which he benefited might split the nation, warned against geographic fault lines. But to write off Republican politicians is also to write off broad swaths of voters who support them.
Similarly, to blame Mr. Manchin for obstructing Democrats, as Representative Cori Bush of Missouri did in denying his authority “to dictate the future of our country,” is to ignore the fact that a 50-50 Senate gives every member of the body that power. A broader majority would deprive Mr. Manchin or Ms. Sinema of it. But because they serve as a moderating force that ensures wider support for legislation, disempowering them also risks increasing polarization.
Devices like gerrymandering have the effect of exaggerating Republican support in the House. So does the geographic polarization reflected in the narrowly divided Senate. Consequently, Democrats’ slender margins in Congress may understate the degree of public support for their policies. But there is no constitutional means of registering public opinion other than elections. And it is equally unquestionable that the tragic flaw of many successful candidates for public office is exaggerating their mandates. The narrow majorities Democrats possess in Congress counsel caution instead. Mr. Biden’s mandate was largely for normalcy after four years of mania. It's hard to make a case for being F.D.R. without a Great Depression.
If progressive Democrats want to do more, they should demonstrate what Lincoln called “a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people.” If the people stand with them, Democrats will eventually — just not immediately — prevail.
Greg Weiner (@GregWeiner1) is a political scientist at Assumption University, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule, and the Tempo of American Politics.”
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