The protests following President Donald Trump’s inauguration and recent protests calling for the president to release his tax returns have this in common: his the-rules-don’t-apply-to-me behavior is a presidential style rejected by both our tyranny-fearing founding fathers and the majority of voters in last November’s election.
To guard against an autocrat in the White House, our ancestors in 1787 replaced the political power once held by sovereign monarchs in Europe with a popular sovereign, placing the nation’s political power, collectively, in the hands of the people.
With this power shift, each American now shares responsibility for the manner in which political power is wielded and a civic obligation to challenge abuse of power in Washington.
Historically, engaged Americans have aimed their anger against major close-to-home issues, not anti-democracy presidents. Tax protests in the late 18th century were followed by abolition, woman’s suffrage and workplace-conditions protests in the 19th century.
By the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his famous, “Democracy in America,” wrote, “In America the principle of the sovereignty of the people is neither barren nor concealed, as it is with some other nations. … If there is a country in the world where the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people can be fairly appreciated … and where its dangers and its advantages may be judged, that country is assuredly America … [where] the people reign in the American political world as the Deity does in the universe.”
But Tocqueville also tempers this glowing account by pointing out some dangers associated with America’s rush toward mass democracy.
“It is a constant fact that at the present day the ablest men in the United States are rarely placed at the head of affairs … I hold it to be sufficiently demonstrated that universal suffrage is by no means a guarantee of the wisdom of the popular choice. Whatever its advantages may be, this is not one of them.”
Fifty years later, Princeton University professor Woodrow Wilson sized up the hectic late 19th century period of social and political change by declaring that government by the people was not working, that an elite public workforce was needed to make democracy work.
“There is,” he wrote, “scarcely a single duty of government which was once simple which is not now complex; government once had but a few masters; it now has scores of masters.” He declared none other than the founding principle of popular sovereignty of the people was standing in the way of a more efficient government.
“The very fact that we have realized popular rule in its fullness has made the task of organizing that rule just so much more difficult … An individual sovereign will adopt a simple plan and carry it out directly … But this other sovereign, the people, will have a score of differing opinions.”
The protests matter because they are a reminder that, with the election of Mr. Trump, we are once again, as a nation, engaged in a tug-of-war between autocratic efficiency and popular government.
Efficiency has never been the foremost goal of our democratic government. Rather, democracy is designed to be responsive to the values and traditions near and dear to liberty-loving citizens. Public officials who do not understand the difference do not understand democracy.
And, because it is a dangerous step toward tyranny, the office of the president is no place for an autocrat.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., is the author of a new book, “America, Democracy & YOU: Where have all the Citizens Gone?”