The Founding Fathers explicitly rejected democracy as a viable form of government. Instead, they opted for republican federalism. Why? Are their reasons still valid, or does federalism need an update?
Unlike most modern academics and politicians, the Founding Fathers were highly educated in the history of ancient Greece and Rome. They knew that Athens’ democracy led to disaster and that Sparta’s hierarchical militarism was too rigid and ossified to adapt to change. Rome learned from the Greeks and created the republic, which had elements of Athenian democracy and Spartan hierarchy.
The Founding Fathers adopted an updated version of the republic and added federalism as an extra layer of the division of power to protect against centralized authoritarianism. The purpose is to bring government as close as possible to the governed.
In a raw democracy, the most populous regions would determine the rest of the country’s policy. It would render large parts of the nation chronically unrepresented and subject to the whim of others.
The increased representation of sparsely populated areas in federalism is counterbalanced by reduced centralized power. Although a population minority can overrule the majority, it can mostly do so by veto. Massive change requires a super-majority.
When the Constitution was drafted in 1787, there were fewer than four million people in the United States – about as many as currently reside in the city of Los Angeles. Could the Founders have envisioned the phenomenal growth of the last couple centuries, our would a nation of more than 300 million simply be beyond their imagining? It seems quite likely they simply didn’t know they needed to worry about the scalability of the system.
The result is that the increased population has effectively created precisely the kind of democracy that the Founding Fathers warned about within each state. Take the state of Washington, for instance. President Joe Biden won only 15% of its counties in the 2020 election, but he secured the state with 52.4% of the popular vote. In effect, a few cities determined the outcome of the election.
The pattern repeats across America. Most rural counties are red, but a few urban centers flip the entire state blue. Those who favor democracy think this is the way it should be, but it is not what the Founding Fathers wanted for the country. Federalism was explicitly included to avoid power concentrations.
The conclusion from this analysis is that federalism is partially broken by population growth. Fortunately, there is a way to fix it. Each state could be organized locally as a federation with a state electoral college, which would, in turn, decide the state’s electoral vote at the national level.
This recursive form of federalism ensures that the power is most widely distributed and remains as close to the voters as possible.
The rules for segmenting the electoral votes should be predetermined by law and automatically triggered when certain conditions are satisfied. The two natural criteria are population size and the size of an area. Partitioning could be triggered when the population exceeds some threshold, say, two million people in 1,000 square miles, for example.
Such a rule would slightly favor low-density areas and ensure that urban centers would not chronically overrun the rural regions. Although this would be in the spirit of the Constitution, it is unlikely that such a system would get enough votes to be implemented in the current political environment.