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Port: The case for less 'we the people' and more reasoned elitism

"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion," wrote Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, whose ideas about representative democracy influenced the American revolutionaries.

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather in Washington
Police release tear gas into a crowd of pro-Trump protesters during clashes at a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 presidential election results by Congress, at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
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MINOT, N.D. — There are many things about politics we accept without question, and one of them is the idea that our elected officials ought to obey the demands of "the people."

Further, there is an oft-reached conclusion that when things are going poorly, it's a product of our leaders not being sufficiently obedient.

Sometimes this is true. When a school board in San Francisco became more interested in aligning school names with the strictures of woke politics than delivering sound education policy, they got recalled by voters who were insisting on different priorities.

That's democracy functioning ideally.

It doesn't always function that way.

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This was on my mind when I wrote about U.S. Senate candidate Rick Becker trying to bolster his primary race against incumbent Sen. John Hoeven with some rank pandering to a faction of voters who want mass arrests and executions for people they imagine to be their political enemies.

This is the sort of thing that happens when a politician goes beyond being responsive to the demands of the public and turns into a reactionary.

Democracy is the best form of government we've come up with, but it has its dangers, and one of them is the potential for a feedback loop between elected leaders and their constituencies that can spiral into something terrible.

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Somehow, Trump-aligned "conservatives" went full circle, from prudent skeptics of authoritarianism to its footsoldiers, Rob Port writes.

Like mass arrests and executions.

You can hang the "we the people" banner on a lot of movements. It can represent concerned parents bringing needed accountability to a school board or an angry mob that wants to lynch the imagined "deep state" from some lamp posts in Washington, D.C.

And yet, some fetishize populist movements, arguing that if a thing is the "will of the people" then it must be the right and just thing.

This is nonsense.

Not every popular value is a good one.

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This will earn me some hate mail, but this age of internet and social media-driven populism we're living through needs some elitism.

At least some of America's founders understood this. “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason,” James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers , referring to early Greek democracy which required an assembly of 6,000 to form a legislative quorum. “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

Mobs do not make good policy.

Mobs are not very good at protecting minority rights, such as the right to voice unpopular views, or the right to belong to an unpopular religion.

"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion," wrote Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, whose ideas about representative democracy influenced the American revolutionaries.

Hegemony is dangerous, but so too is mob rule. Our challenge is to find a happy place between rule by an aristocracy of elites and rule by the mob.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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