Human Nature and the Constitution

David A. Eisenberg

Current Issue

Implicit in every political ideology is a conception of human nature, even if it is only the conceit that humans have no fixed nature. Are people fundamentally good or bad? Are they intractable and incorrigible, or are they pliable, perhaps perfectible? Are they atomistic, ever intent on prioritizing their own good at the expense of others, or are they altruistic, naturally inclined to aid and support those around them? The answers to such questions will shape one's vision of government, and sustain in some the hope that a day may dawn when man no longer has any need for it.

No doubt there are insights to be gleaned from man's inability to dispose of such questions, though what those insights may be is unclear. Does that inability speak to man's ignorance or inquisitiveness? To his profundity or vacuity? To his limitations or want thereof?

Perhaps one insight to be garnered from this perennial quest for answers is that without some shared consensus, it is difficult for a people to remain united — that is, to remain a people. While conflicting views of human nature can be balanced among nations, if often only precariously, that balance becomes much more delicate when a people wars with itself over such matters of foundational import. Vexed and riven thus, a nation cannot long remain a nation.

This is ultimately because governments are reflections of the people they govern. While man's need for government may be the greatest of all reflections on human nature, different forms of government will reflect that nature differently. Oftentimes the conceptions of human nature embedded in those forms of government are done so only tacitly, but the American form does so deliberately. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 1:

[I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

In their efforts to design a government and help decide that important question, the framers were guided by a particular conception of man — a classical-liberal conception, one that cannot be reconciled with the classical (as in pre-liberal) view that antecedes it and the (post-)modern one that threatens to undo it. Whether America conserves its classical-liberal roots or propagates a post-modern rootlessness is no trifling matter; America swayed by a reconception of man would be an America reconceived.


The classical conception of human nature was rooted in a teleological view of the cosmos and man's place in it. On this understanding, all beings in nature — human ones included — have ends toward which they are naturally directed. The paradigmatic example is that of an acorn whose natural end is to become a mighty oak. An acorn that did not manage to sprout and take root would be considered deficient, on the grounds that it failed to hit its designated target or actualize its latent potentiality.

As with acorns, so too with humans. What distinguishes man from other organisms is speech, or reason and understanding. It is the development of this particular quality that is man's telos. Accordingly, the life of the mind and the life of bodily pleasure are not commensurable, since one is the distinctive way of humans and the other is indistinguishable from the ways of brutes.

Given that contemplativeness is so rarely in season, one might descry in this cosmic scheme a prodigality of astounding proportions. For just as the majority of acorns never reach their natural end, so too do the majority of humans fail to reach theirs. Perhaps the odds are never in one's favor, and so as to ensure a modicum of success, nature sows her seeds liberally and — given that the vast majority must wither — callously. Like children, nature can be cruel.

From these premises, an anti-democratic predilection logically results. As Cambridge professor Paul Cartledge observed, "ancient Greek authors who wrote...about democracy as such, or about particular democracies...wrote very consciously against democracy, either on principle or on pragmatic grounds or both." The enduring fact of the matter is that wisdom has ever been reserved for the few — a truth that the age of democracy emphatically affirms in spite of itself. Whether this is a constitutional element of humanity, as Alexis de Tocqueville would have it ("[i]ntellectual inequality comes directly from God and man cannot prevent it from existing always"), or a dispositional one, as Friedrich Nietzsche would have it ("men everywhere...have a propensity for laziness"), is, for present purposes, immaterial: The outcome is the same. Democracy is tantamount to mob rule; it entails, inevitably it would seem, that the wise be (mis)led by the unwise.

The ability to realize one's potential demands a great deal of discipline or compulsion. Insofar as nature prescribes what her children ought to be or how they ought to develop, one is not free to become whatever one likes. A teleological land is not exactly one of opportunity: To put it somewhat paradoxically, man does not reach his natural end naturally — or maybe slightly less paradoxically, automatically. What follows is that, from a teleological vantage point, democracy is deleterious, in no small part because democracies are intrinsically directionless. At the very least, they have no higher aim.

The animating principle of the democratic regime is freedom, but a negative freedom, a freedom from restraint, a freedom that amounts to license. Animated thus, democratic man flouts the natural order by contravening the hierarchy that inheres in it. In essence, then, the democratic order is a disorder, for among those whom appetite rules, there can be no rule (understood here as "measure"). In the bedlam that ensues, higher and lower are confused, if not effaced outright, and the contemplative life cedes its pride of place to the appetitive. It is hardly a coincidence that the discovery that man is in substance but a beast was reserved for the age of democracy.


The anti-democratic leanings that littered antiquity withered away with the advent of modernity. The degree to which democracy is venerated in the present day — even North Korea thinks it profitable to present itself as one — indicates how sharply modern man's perspective diverges from that of his classical predecessors.

To some extent, that divergence can be traced back to the abandonment of the teleological mindset, which coincides with the dawn of modernity — and not incidentally, but instrumentally. From the modern method, questions of purpose were excluded. Instead of conceiving man in the light of his natural end, modern thinkers began to ponder him in the light of his natural beginning. This approach was emblematized by the state-of-nature theorists who "returned" to a pre-societal world to divine what human beings would be like in the absence of government. Whether such a state ever existed is in some ways beside the point. The question that spurred their speculative endeavors was: What would humans, shorn of all societal accoutrements, look like? If society were to break down, would man reveal himself to be more angel or beast?

What they beheld — at least the early modern theorists among them — was not uplifting: At heart, man is a rapacious knave who will maltreat his fellow man to profit himself, and will cease only when his own fears and physical limitations compel him to do so. This leads to Thomas Hobbes's famous characterization of man's natural state as a bellum omnium contra omnes [war of all against all], wherein "the life of man [is] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."

From such foundational insights certain political lessons could be drawn, not least of which is that without authority there can be no peace; and not just any authority, but — in Hobbes's view, at least — an absolute one. On the face of it, this is not exactly an antidote to the anti-democratic teachings of the ancients, but Hobbes's notion of human nature had liberalizing consequences all the same. For what the Monster of Malmesbury concluded was that man's inhumanity is ineradicable. The proof was that neither the classical commitment to virtue nor the Christian exaltation of charity had done much, if anything, to ameliorate his nefarious ways — a lesson mercilessly hammered home in Hobbes's day during the Thirty Years' War, when Christian fell upon Christian with staggering savagery. Since humans evidently could not be corrected, it would be best to constrain them. And for this, in Hobbes's telling, an indivisible and absolute sovereign would be most effective.

It was John Locke who grasped the rather glaring problem with this solution — namely that giving absolute power to a sovereign possessed of the same vices that convulse those he lords over is a recipe for man's ruin, not his happiness. But Locke's teaching is not so much a repudiation of Hobbes as it is a reformation: Limited government, not absolute government, is the key to peace and prosperity.

While Locke rejects Hobbes's remedy, he accepts his premise that at bottom, man is an incurable miscreant whose avarice cannot be stamped out, but can be restrained or channeled. To mitigate the interminable discord that has pervaded history, Locke argued it would be more effective to establish institutions designed to check, rather than mend, the wicked ways of man.

What follows from this — for Hobbes no less than Locke — is that human beings should largely be left alone. That is, the state — be it absolute or limited — should posit clear bounds regarding lawful behavior, but within those bounds should leave people free to pursue their own interests as they see fit, without paying any heed to the loftiness (or lack thereof) of those pursuits.

Here lies the groundwork for classical liberalism, whose qualifier should not conceal its very modern bent. The state exists for the people, not the people for the state, and the object of the state is not to elevate or ennoble the people, but to protect the people and their elemental rights from the malign forces that perennially threaten to destroy them. Locke is typically credited with siring liberalism, but as Leo Strauss noted:

If we may call liberalism that political doctrine which regards as the fundamental political fact the rights, as distinguished from the duties, of man and which identifies the function of the state with the protection or the safeguarding of those rights, we must say that the founder of liberalism was Hobbes.


Whatever liberalism's lineage may be, a radically different vision of human nature emerged in the century that succeeded Hobbes and Locke — a vision that lent itself to a commensurately radical conception of the state.

It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who most forcefully undercut the accounts of his predecessors — both ancient and (early) modern. Rousseau accepted the reductive approach of the state-of-nature theorists, but he rejected their findings. In his view, those theorists had not gone back far enough. "The philosophers who have examined the foundations of society," he proclaimed, "have all felt the necessity of going back to the state of nature, but none of them has reached it." The being those philosophers purported to espy in the state of nature had too many of the trappings of civilization — as Rousseau put it, "they spoke of savage man but described civil man." Thinking through this experiment to its logical conclusion (or beginning), Rousseau found that man is by nature subhuman; a being with neither reason, nor speech, nor pride, nor property — features that, in various permutations, inhered in man naturally according to Hobbes and Locke, and defined who or what he is. In Rousseau's telling, man's natural state is not one of war and privation, but one of peace and plenty.

Ironically, it was only when humans quit this Arcadian world that their existence was beset by that host of ills that has been a consistent source of lamentation throughout the ages: strife, scarcity, oppression, and the like. Perhaps the most momentous takeaway from all this was that, far from being naturally bad, man was naturally good. He was not warped by nature, but by society. Yet if man was naturally good and had become bad, he could be made — or remade — to be good again. And not just good: Man could be perfected.

From this conception of human nature, a very different state — or maybe more to the point, a state with a very different raison d'être — is born. For the classical liberal, there is something stubborn in man that refuses to bend. Because it is folly to attempt to straighten what must remain crooked, the state should not concern itself with man's wayward desires, but only with those actions aroused by them that threaten the social order. A law-abiding reprobate is to be tolerated, not edified. Though himself no classical liberal, something of this spirit is reflected in Immanuel Kant's remark that the "problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent."

But for the modern (or post-modern) liberal — and under this title should be subsumed not just the welfare-state liberal, but the socialist and communist as well — there is, in effect, nothing in man that cannot be bent. Humans are prodigiously pliant; almost limitlessly so. To permit man to remain crooked when it is possible to straighten him out would be irresponsible, even unconscionable. The problems that plague people are not so much their own fault, but society's. They stem not from some irrevocable defect that lurks in the human breast, but rather from the defective social order in which people find themselves immured. To rid the world of those problems, it is enough to simply rearrange that order. Correct society, and man will follow suit.

Of course, for that Augean endeavor, a state of Herculean power is needed.


From the teleological point of view, the state is an almost tangential concern. What is required to put man on the right path — that is, the path that points toward the end to which nature (pre)disposes him — is the proper orientation of his inner world; an orientation that the state, however it is arranged, is ill-suited to effect. The ordering of his soul counts for much more than the political order under which he lives.

This is not to say that the political order is irrelevant. The likelihood that a soul might flourish and bear fruit under a tyrant who brutalizes his people is appreciably smaller than it is in a democracy where freedom abounds and all walks of life — including the highest — may be found (a saving grace of democracy in the eyes of those doggedly anti-democratic ancients). One lesson to be gleaned from Plato's Republic is that while the factionless state is a chimera, the factionless soul is not. The key to achieving that harmony or health of soul is education — not of the state-funded or state-mandated variety, but of the sort one might procure at the Academy or the Stoa Poikile (or, once upon a time, a liberal-arts college). This reading of the Republic appears not to have been lost on Rousseau, who characterized it as "the most beautiful educational treatise ever written."

Under the classical-liberal approach, the state assumes an importance it hitherto did not enjoy on account of a reconceiving of man — conceived no longer in light of his natural end, but his natural beginning. The orientation of man's inner world becomes a matter of inconsequence, while the proper administration of his external world becomes a matter of grave consequence. Or, to frame it differently, the equanimity that comes from living with a healthy soul is abandoned for the comfort that comes with living under a healthy state. Because human corruption cannot be effectively expunged, it is, pace Hobbes, vital to the stability of the state and the people who live under it that the state be limited — strong enough to rein in the people but not so strong that it can tyrannize over them. As James Madison mused in that wonderful distillation of the classical-liberal spirit:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.

This sense of resignation regarding the imperfectability of man is evident in the framers' constitutional design, which makes no effort to correct human behavior but many efforts to constrain it. It is true that the framers comprehended the existence of human greatness, no doubt recognizing that to varying degrees they partook of it, and consciously made space for that greatness in the system they constructed (e.g., by allowing for the re-eligibility of the executive, thereby providing a suitable outlet for "the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds," as Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 72). It is no less true that the system of federalism, wherein power is partitioned between a national government on the one hand and state and local governments on the other, allows for the sort of moral commitments at the local level that are neglected at the national one. But such caveats cannot conceal the passivity that is implicit in them. The constitutional design allows for greatness without promoting it, and in those laboratories of democracy that are scattered across the federal republic, people are no more obliged to tinker with virtue than they are with vice — a verity made evident in the current day when, in many of those laboratories, all manners of vice are not only indulged, but invited.

The dearth of greatness in American politics and the societal decay that is so prominently on display in many corners of the republic would have disconcerted the framers, but the fact remains that while their constitutional order did not predestine such a dénouement, it did little to forestall it. What their constitutional order did succeed in forestalling, with astonishing success, no less, was its own dissolution. The realization that human depravity was at once ineradicable (as was evident from a study of human nature and, more demonstratively, from that of history) and manageable proved pivotal to that success.

The framers' view of history inclined toward Voltaire's, which had it that history is but "the register of crimes and misfortunes" — hence their futile efforts to find a historical model to guide them in their novel undertaking: framing a democratic republic that would preserve the liberty of the people while preventing them from abusing that liberty to the point of tearing the republic (and themselves) apart. What the historical record revealed to the framers was that, for all his efforts to elevate himself — whether those efforts were made by ancient regimes dedicated to virtue or medieval ones devoted to God — man had depressingly little to show for it. In the end, the worst of man always got the better of him.

Since humans could not be purged of their depravity, prudence compelled the framers to devise a political order in such a manner that man's misdeeds could be abided without sacrificing the lofty ends of that order. The system would absorb vice without being undone by it. This approach is evident in the Madisonian republic as expounded in Federalist No. 10. What comes to light in that celebrated essay is a sober, if not somber, assessment of a human nature into which the "latent causes of faction are...sown."

Historically, factions have proven fatal for popular governments, and if that danger is but dimly felt today, it is due not to the common sense of the American people, but to the uncommon sense of those who framed their republic. For Madison, factions were not slight headaches that could be ignored until they passed, but "mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished." Plato, who lacked Madison's historical record to survey, understood the malignancy of factions not just for popular governments, but for all political orders. As he argued, the best regime was the one that was "freest from faction," for it is faction that lies at the root of all political decay. Plato's — or Socrates' — solution to this perennial problem was to construct a regime that relied on noble lies, a rigorous education of body and soul (with more rigor for the latter), a rigid stratification of society based on merit, and the marriage of wisdom and power (i.e., the rule of philosopher kings).

The infeasibility of this ideal has been lost on many readers of the Republic and has done little to thwart the ambitions of modern revolutionaries, from the French to the Russian and beyond, who have embraced the spirit of the Socratic city, if not its letter. As that revolutionary work and those historical revolutions attest, it is an oppressive spirit, one that is categorically antipathetic to freedom. (Even the Republic's philosopher kings are unfree inasmuch as they are obliged to leave behind the supernal world of eternal Forms for the subterranean world of ephemeral shadows.)

This solution to the problem of faction was not lost on Madison, who understood that "[l]iberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires." But he rejected it. In his mind, such a remedy was worse than the disease. For, in the absence of liberty, man ceases to be man; something vital in him is extinguished.

If factions could not be eliminated, they would have to be accommodated, but in such a manner that the pestiferous effects of that incurable mortal disease would be palliated. Madison's ingenious and paradoxical solution to this problem was, in part, to foster the proliferation of factions. Whereas Plato and his epigones sought (in vain) to prevent the outgrowth of faction (and by implication, transform human nature), Madison and his fellow founders encouraged that outgrowth by extending the territory, so as to multiply and diversify factions and prevent the pernicious preponderance of any one. As a result America, by its very design, signifies a rebuke to the homogeneity demanded of all orders that have sought to cure "the mischiefs of faction" by removing its causes rather than controlling its effects.

The other expedient intended to blunt faction's baleful effects can be found in America's republican, as opposed to democratic, form. And here, too, the framers' acceptance of man's incorrigibility can be detected. Democracy — understood as a social order in which the people themselves participate directly, rather than indirectly, in government — is fatally flawed, for its success depends on a transfiguration of man that cannot be effected. Even the radically egalitarian Rousseau appears to have appreciated as much: "If there were a people of gods, it would govern itself democratically," he observed. "So perfect a government is not suited to men."

As Madison suggested, "[t]heoretic politicians, who have patronized [democracy], have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions." A more penetrating grasp of human nature permitted Madison and his brethren to apprehend what those theoretic politicians could not: that liberty and inequality inevitably go hand in hand, and that, because the "faculties of men" are "different and unequal," an equality of rights invariably leads to an inequality of outcomes.

It is this inequality of outcomes — really, the "various and unequal distribution of property" — that has proven "the most common and durable source of factions." Perhaps a more enlightened race of beings would be able to put their latent differences and resulting inequalities aside and not permit their private interests to undermine the common good, but such beings would not be human. It is not so much that man is incapable of enlightenment, but that he is incapable of preventing his passions from confounding whatever enlightenment he has procured. As Hamilton observed, "[m]en are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion."

It is for this reason that humans tend to disregard the common good in pursuit of their private one, insofar as the passions that are attached to one's own good are felt much more strongly than those attached to the common one (to the extent they are felt at all). By having the interests of the people represented by elected officials who themselves do not necessarily share them, the republican form of government achieves a mediation of the passions. A man who might be "disposed to vex and oppress" others to advance or defend his own interests will be apt to behave more moderately when he is advancing or defending the interests of others.

America's constitutional system was designed to bring about an equilibrium between the antagonisms that must repose in any social order devoted to securing the blessings of liberty. It would be a poor design if the equilibrium it effected encompassed the governed but omitted those who govern — all the more so in view of the well-established correlation between corruption and power. If the corruptness of man is inborn, it would be folly to give to him too much power, for corruption feeds off power much as faction feeds off liberty. The problem is that one cannot govern effectively without power — a lesson the fledgling nation learned the hard way under the Articles of Confederation. What to do, then, about the need to deposit power in the hands of those who are liable to abuse it?

The framers' solution here mirrors their approach to the problem of faction: They constructed a system that would check human behavior without aiming to correct it. Much as the factional interests that riddle the republic would offset one another, the ambitions of those who roam the corridors of power would counteract one another. It is not simply that powers are to be separated so as to forestall the concentration of too much power in one place; rather, the officials in each repository of power must be given the incentives and the means to protect their purview from the encroachments of others. Give the legislature the power of impeachment to check the gross misconduct of federal officers; the executive a veto power to check the machinations of an overbearing legislature; the court the power of judicial review to check those legislative and executive agendas that would subvert the Constitution rather than conform to it. A system framed thus is predicated on the conviction that man cannot be trusted with the power he is given.

Indeed, the tendency to succumb to the temptations of power is so great and enduring that, for the framers, even this arrangement would not prove adequate. Accordingly, they disbursed power not only among the separate branches of the national government, but among subnational (i.e., state) governments as well. In doing so, they created a "compound republic" — a federalist system wherein the ambitions of states would counteract the ambitions of the national government and vice versa, thereby constituting a further check on the abuse of power and providing "a double the rights of the people." It is a convoluted and consternating system, one that invites friction and often prevents business from getting done with much celerity. But that is the point: Human nature being what it is, the framers thought it better to create a system that checks the misbehavior of the many than one that relies on the good behavior of the few. It is a system fit for men, not angels; for incorrigibly crooked beings who, in spite of their best efforts (and worst), never can be made straight.


Those who maintain that man's intrinsic plasticity holds the promise that he can one day be straightened reject the framers' classical-liberal approach. In the minds of (post-)modern liberals, humans in effect are angels; fallen, to be sure, though not because they have sinned, but because they have been forsaken. It is not some inward depravity that afflicts them, but material deprivation. To resurrect man's natural goodness, it is necessary to rid society, not man, of iniquities.

Thus, in the minds of (post-)modern liberals, the aim of the state is to ensure that resources are (re)distributed equitably and that every member of society has his needs and wants met. The apprehension that man might be the sort of creature whose envy is ineradicable or thirst unslakable — who always wants more the more he has — is easily dismissed by those who champion this objective because humans once lived without want and knew contentment. Humans cannot be returned to the state of nature, but because humans are malleable and remediable, a state of perpetual happiness can be restored to them. And it is the state that will deliver it to them — or them to it.

Motivated by this messianic ambition, the state and all those who serve it — whether directly or indirectly — are permitted an extraordinary latitude and scope of activity, including activity that otherwise would be considered impermissible. A classical liberal shares with his teleological precursor the conviction that human behavior needs to be constrained. The reasons for that constraint or the end for which that behavior is constrained may be different, but that there is a need for constraint is beyond dispute. "Why has government been instituted at all?" asked Hamilton rhetorically. "Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint."

That need becomes much more tenuous with the advent of modern liberalism. To paraphrase Dostoyevsky's popularized dictum, if human nature does not exist, everything is permitted. For the (post-)modern liberal, this perspective does not pave the way for nihilism, but for justice. In order to attain a state of social harmony, a tremendous amount of disharmony is sanctioned, even encouraged. This logic underlies all revolutions that persecute and purge inordinate numbers of people in the name of some putative higher good, be it equality, perpetual peace, or universal brotherhood. It is a logic that can be discerned in Thomas Jefferson's exculpatory reflections on Jacobin excess ("[m]y own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated"), as well as Eric Hobsbawm's condoning of mass murder and mass suffering. (When the Marxist historian was asked if "the loss of fifteen, twenty million people" would be justified to reach "the radiant tomorrow," Hobsbawm replied, "yes.")

And it is a logic that, in a comparatively more mild manner, is reflected in the disdain for the rule of law that is so prominent among (post-)modern liberals today. That disdain has been painfully evident in the left's condoning of the "mostly peaceful protests" that brought about widespread destruction in the summer of 2020, its failure to secure the nation's borders and disregard for the dire ramifications that result from that failure, and the blithe neglect of crime that is consuming cities across the country. No wonder Friedrich Hayek considered the prevailing commitment to social justice — that "hollow incantation" — to be "at present probably the gravest threat to [the] values of a free civilization."


With an eye to forestalling any specious retorts, let what ought to go without saying be said: Lawlessness is not the exclusive province of any one group of people. No faith, be it political or religious, can cleanse the soul of its corruption; no ideology can transmute men into angels. Indeed, that is one of the central precepts of classical liberalism. In spite of their reason and any feelings of natural sympathy they may harbor, people are, as a rule, dictated by self-interest, and will readily undermine the well-being of others to advance their own.

But that is why, in principle at least, law and order are esteemed so highly in the classical-liberal tradition — for without it, men are reduced to savage beasts. And it is why transgressions of law and order are, again, in principle, not brooked lightly, for as Hamilton cautioned, "every breach of the fundamental laws...forms a precedent for [future] breaches." It should be lost on no one that the events of January 6th, 2021, have no defenders, save perhaps for those on the proverbial fringe, while the events of the summer of 2020 have no shortage of defenders, most of them comfortably removed from any fringe.

There is an insoluble tension between these competing visions of human nature, wherein one sees man as being innately and incorrigibly flawed and the other as being inherently good and eminently perfectible. While Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was right to note that the Constitution "is made for people of fundamentally differing opinions," the ascendancy of that latter vision cannot be squared with the spirit of the Union, for there can be little doubt that as conceived, America is rooted in the classical-liberal tradition.

The Constitution, with its antipathy to change and cumbersome checks and balances, was designed to protect the people and their republic from themselves. That design is becoming increasingly insufferable to those who chafe under such restraints and who contend that, to quote H. L. Mencken, the "cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy." The anti-democratic components of America's constitutional order — from an Electoral College that marginalizes the popular vote, to a Senate that flouts the principle "one man, one vote," to an independent judiciary empowered to defy the will (and tyranny) of the majority — are fated to perish in the hands of (post-)modern liberals. But those components are not arbitrary or extraneous inclusions; they are integral to the constitutional framework. To remove them from that framework does not amount to tweaking the system, but to overturning it.

When Elizabeth Powel stopped Benjamin Franklin outside the Pennsylvania State House to inquire about the type of government that the delegates had devised, Franklin's portentous reply was, "a republic, if you can keep it." One suspects that the framers would be much more surprised by how long Americans managed to keep it than by the swelling desire to do away with it. Tragically, those who hasten the demise of the republic are galvanized by an unbending faith in the plasticity and goodness of man that history is bound to repudiate yet again. And, what is more tragic still, they do so for naught.

David A. Eisenberg is an associate professor of political science at Eureka College and the author of Nietzsche and Tocqueville on the Democratization of Humanity (Lexington Books, 2022).


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.