History

Even Founding Fathers Worried About Democracy

Americans might not have much confidence in the election process; the Founding Fathers wouldn't have liked it much either.

In an election season as chaotic as this one, when less than a third of Americans believe the presidential campaign process is working as it should according to a recent Gallup poll, looking back at how the Founding Fathers envisioned the course of our nation can be a helpful exercise in reasserting our values as a democracy.

But when it comes to the idea of democracy, the Founding Fathers had mixed feelings, with some outright opposing the very use of the word.

"Democracy was an epithet," said Joseph Ellis, author of the Pulitzer-winning book, "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation," in a 2012 interview. "Democracy meant mob rule. Democracy meant conceding the issue to people who don't understand it."

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Many of the Founding Fathers were instead more apt to describe the nascent government as a republic. The word "democracy" never once appears in the Declaration of Independence of the Constitution.

The Federalist Papers, specifically Federalist No. 10, written by James Madison, who would later become the fourth president of the United States, expounded on the differences between a pure democracy, defined as "a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person," which only offers no remedy for the "mischiefs of faction", and a democratic republic, which "promises the cure for which we are seeking."

Alexander Hamilton, one of the most influential voices in the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, was particularly skeptical of a pure democracy. In a speech given on June 21, 1788 at the New York convention to ratify the Constitution, Hamilton explained:

It has been observed by an honorable gentleman, that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved, that no position in politics is more false than this.The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity: When they assembled, the field of debate presented an ungovernable mob, not only incapable of deliberation, but prepared for every enormity. In these assemblies, the enemies of the people brought forward their plans of ambition systematically. They were opposed by their enemies of another party; and it became a matter of contingency, whether the people subjected themselves to be led blindly by one tyrant or by another.

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If some of the nation's founders like Hamilton found flaws with direct democracy, as practiced in ancient Greece, they almost certainly would have taken issue with a number of features of the modern political landscape, such as ballot measure and presidential primaries.

In fact, many of the nation's fathers opposed the creation of political parties at all. They had seen how wrangling by political interests in Europe affected nations across the Atlantic. In his Farewell Address in 1796, George Washington warned:

However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

Americans might not have much confidence in the election process - and the Founding Fathers likely wouldn't have liked it much either.

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At a speech in Georgetown University last week

, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who identifies as a "Democratic socialist," gave a defense of the ideology long maligned and often misunderstood in U.S. history. Invoking the legacies of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, Sanders summed up his political philosophy as rebalancing a system of government that promotes economic inequality in favor of the middle class. Sanders detailed how his ideology informs the positions he takes on domestic issues, including minimum wage, tax policy, college tuition and more. Embracing the socialist label is a gambit for any candidate, given that it is a term historically used as a political epithet. How has America's relationship with socialism evolved over our history? And how did socialism acquire such a negative connotation in American politics?

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Americans often associate socialism with European governments, particularly in Scandinavia. And in fact, socialism arrived in the United States in the 19th century as a European import, brought over by German immigrants. The earliest traces of socialism in the United States can be found in small communes, such as Brook Farm or New Harmony, the intended design of which is seen here, set up as radical social experiments. At the time, the United States was rapidly industrializing, drawing people to urban centers for work, often for low wages and in oppressive conditions. These communities offered an alternative to the social stratification common in American cities. Unfortunately for the members of these early utopian or religious socialist communes, they often found themselves rattled by financial difficulties, leadership squabbles or feuds between factions that would lead to their dissolution within a matter of years of their founding.

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Socialism within the United States first received national attention following the publication of a science fiction book by Edward Bellamy called "Looking Backward," published in 1888. The book depicts the United States as a socialist utopia in the year 2000, in which industry has been nationalized and goods are equally distributed among workers. It would go on to become the third-largest bestseller of the late 19th-century, behind "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ," and spark what were known as "Bellamy clubs" to discuss the political and economic themes explored in the book. Naturally, a book as successful as Looking Backward led to sequels, satires and sharply critical responses.

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Largely influenced by the political philosophy of Karl Marx, German immigrants arriving on American shores formed small political parties or trade unions based on socialist principles. These groups advocated for social justice, labor reforms and more. Founded in 1901, the Socialist Party of America, the product of a merger between the Socialist Labor Party and the Social Democratic Party, promoted "democratic socialism." Unlike state socialism, in which the means of production are owned by the government, democratic socialism advocates for industry under worker control. Democratic socialists also differ from Communists, who promote revolutionary socialism through militant action, and instead seek political reform through elections, which is also why democratic socialists are typically advocates of universal suffrage. The socialist movement benefited from close alliances with the labor movement, and the two were closely intertwined. This often meant that the occasionally violent tactics used in labor strikes reflected poorly on socialists due to guilt by association.

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In 1912, the socialists could count more than 100,000 party members on its rolls. At the time, Eugene V. Debs was the movement's figurehead, drawn to the movement following his involvement in a labor strike. He was a political leader with strong labor connections who would run for president five times. Debs didn't succeed in his run for the presidency in 1912, but other candidates on the socialist ticket did, including 160 councilmen, 56 mayors and even a congressman.

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In 1910, Wisconsin voters sent to the House of Representatives the first Socialist ever elected to Congress, Victor L. Berger. Born in 1860 in Austria-Hungary, Berger immigrated to the United States at 18 years old, settling in Milwaukee, becoming a teacher and later newspaper publisher. Upon reaching Congress, Berger's most notable act was authorizing a constitutional amendment to abolish the U.S. Senate. After serving in the 62nd Congress, Berger lost reelection, but returned to run again, regaining his seat in 1918, before losing it again, and regaining it once more to serve three additional terms. Berger retained his seat even as socialists were falling out of favor in national politics.

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Just as the socialist movement was finding its footing in the American electoral landscape, it made a major strategic error in opposing U.S. involvement in World War I. While this position helped boost its fortunes in 1911, it proved near fatal to the group once the war was underway. In response to the Russian revolution, which saw the deaths of millions of people and the overthrow of the government, U.S. legislators passed the Espionage Act of 1917, which urged patriotism and made it a crime to speak out against U.S. wartime actions or the draft. The penalties for violating the act could be one or two decades in jail. Prior to the act's passage, socialists often held anti-war demonstrations and encouraged draft dodging. As soon as the act passed, thousands were targeted for arrest, including Debs, who received a 10-year sentence and was stripped of his citizenship. Although Debs would run again for president in 1920 from behind bars and was eventually pardoned, his time in prison took a toll on his health and marked the end of his political career. The combination of government suppression and the Red Scare also led to the collapse of party membership numbers. Norman Thomas, pictured here, became the new party leader with Debs out of the picture, and the movement's membership increasingly became more middle class and intellectual and less tied to labor.

Although the Great Depression offered the socialists an opportunity at the ballot box, after the trouble they had connecting with the upwardly mobile middle class voter in the roaring 20s, Americans instead voted Franklin D. Roosevelt into office in 1932. Roosevelt swiftly enacted a "New Deal" program aimed at alleviating unemployment and oversaw the passage of pro-labor legislation, efforts that saw Roosevelt branded a socialist by opponents in the business and banking communities. In his book "The Road to Serfdom," economist Friedrich A. Hayek coins the term "creeping socialism" to define how increased government control over the economy and labor lead to a socialist society. Hayek lamented that this transition toward socialism was unhealthy not only for the economy but the character of the worker. Although Hayek focused on Britain, he specifically referenced the New Deal in his work.

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With the end of World War II came the Cold War, a period of political, economic and military tension between East, represented by the Soviet Union and its Communist allies, and West, including the United States and its NATO allies. Fear of Communists lingering within American communities led to the second Red Scare. This would be the era of black lists, nuclear panic and McCarthyism, named after notorious Communist witch-hunter Sen. Joseph McCarthy, pictured here. By the 1950s, socialist parties in the United States had no more than a couple thousand members, their movement politically untenable in an era of rabid anti-Communism. The nation also experienced an economic boom that made socialism far less appealing to the average middle-class American household.

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Since the 1950s, socialist movements have been associated with political extremes in the United States, particularly the far left. But policies inspired by socialist politics still exist today. Social Security, created during the Roosevelt administration, Medicare, set up during the Johnson administration, and other similarly redistributive programs provide government assistance to financially insecure citizens. With the financial crisis and increasing concerns over economic inequality, polls have suggested an increasing tolerance of socialist ideas in the American political dialogue.

According to a recent Gallup poll

, nearly half of Americans said they would vote for a socialist candidate for president, though that label tested the worst with voters among other political, religious and demographic considerations for an office-seeker.

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