The Vulgar and the Sophisticates

The Vulgar and the Sophisticates
Rob Carr/Pool Photo via AP

“One thing I've said to him directly, and I would advise my Republican friends in Congress and supporters around the country, is just make sure that as we go forward, certain norms, certain institutional traditions, don't get eroded, because there's a reason they're in place.” That was President Obama speaking about President-elect Donald Trump on 60 Minutes. One could wish for a crisper formulation, but this will do. Our highest officeholder advises his populist successor that offices matter.

Offices are formal institutions with habits and norms that they create, nourish, and promote—above all, a certain dignity and sense of responsibility. So why do we need institutions?

In a democracy, offices are institutions that enable the people to act and get what they want, but always in a certain manner, with what is called “due process.” Due process gives time and space for Congress or executive officials to act deliberately, reasonably, and legally on their own, not as mere agents of popular will. “Institutions” are the democratic response to the gravest weakness of democracy—the tendency of the people to want to lash out, regardless of the demands of due process, and punish those they consider their enemies. As James Madison's put it in Federalist 10, institutions are (mostly) constitutional powers that are supposed to “refine and enlarge” the people's will. Institutions receive heated popular demands but calm them down to produce “the cool deliberate sense of the community.”

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