In 1729, the great English satirist Jonathan Swift published “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen [Burden] to the Publick.” With tongue in cheek, Swift suggested that the way to overcome Irish poverty was to fatten the children and feed them to aristocrats. He even provided recipes. Everyone wins.
Except the children.
But Swift argued that in making fun of the problem, he solved the problem of making poor children useful to the British commonwealth.
Writing recently in the New York Times, David Shribman, the former longtime executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, suggested his own “modest proposal,” borrowing, he said, Swift’s title. We all ought to lay off politics for a while, maybe until Labor Day. Meantime, let’s just continue our day-to-day work, watch sunsets, grill dinners, and just enjoy one another. Not a bad idea for August, when candidates say very little in so-called debates and make statements that tell us very little beyond their personalities.
This is a good time to remind ourselves that the U.S. is a democratic republic, not a democracy, no matter how we throw that term around. Our town meetings are true democracies, where all the residents registered to vote meet to determine annual budgets and other important matters. For the nation and our states, we elect representatives to make those decisions on our behalf.
This is the way the framers of the Constitution preferred it, because they knew through their study of history that republics were fragile and often degenerated into autocracies. The ancient Roman republic fell to the Caesars, the late 15th century Florentine republic to the Medicis, and our historic forebears, the English, claimed that they had a republic with a king. How curious is that?
So we live with divided government under the longest-serving continuous constitution in the world today. James Madison, so often called “the father of the Constitution,” held a dim view of human nature, motivations, and goals. The Constitution thus reflects his and other framers’ belief that human beings, when left alone, are interested only in themselves and seek to fulfill their own objectives, not the good of all. He famously wrote in 1788 during the ratification debate that “had every Athenian been a Socrates, the Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
Such an idea is reflected in Thomas Hobbes’s view from over a hundred years before Madison that without a government, human life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” What a thought! Hobbes, unlike Madison, thought only autocracy could control human misbehavior.
But Madison thought otherwise, helping to devise a system to channel human emotions and passions: indirectly elect the president with so-called “electors,” indirectly elect U.S. senators through state assemblies (changed only in 1913 with the 17th Amendment), and allow the people to vote only for their representatives in the House.
So we still elect our presidents indirectly, which brings me to the current crop of candidates who have so far announced for the Democratic nomination. And it is a dizzying number: to date, 24, and maybe more to come. June’s debate was hardly a debate: How can 10 people on a stage with one minute to respond to a question have a debate, despite the short fireworks that briefly erupted between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris over busing? In my judgment, there was no substance, just entertainment.
Brian Dowd of the Times recently covered Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s visit to the Island to promote his candidacy. When asked his vision of the future of America, Buttigieg replied, “Freedom, security, and democracy. That’s our message.” Well now, who could disagree with that?
Sure, some candidates have lengthy position papers, notably Senator Elizabeth Warren. But how many among us will read and absorb these papers? Who is really paying attention, especially right now? How many of us have read all 448 pages of the Mueller report?
This is why I endorse Shribman’s modest proposal (not Swift’s): Let the dust settle for a while, until it’s time to move onto the next round. And Labor Day seems to be about a good a time as any to begin again.
Jack Fruchtman, a seasonal Aquinnah resident, in June published the third edition of his book, The Supreme Court and Constitutional Law.