Uber is a good way to get around town. But it’s not a good way to govern. Trump is the latest in a long line of Presidents who have been Ubering government.
If you want to experience firsthand how disruption triggers innovation, try Uber. Before Uber, if you needed transportation in town but didn’t want to drive (or couldn’t), your options were pretty limited. Union cabs, expensive limos, or public transportation.
Uber puts the customer directly in control. They’ve taken a mobile-centric approach. So has President Trump, with his late night tweets. But he’s only the latest in a long line of Presidents who are taking democracy directly to the people—the very thing that the American founders feared.
Steeped in history, the founders recognized that democracy was inherently unstable. Greek thinkers felt it often led to mob rule. They feared direct democracy, what transpired in Athens, where every male adult citizen voted in the assembly. This was the Athens that condemned Socrates to death, rashly launched a disastrous pre-emptive war against Syracuse and barely survived repeated coups before succumbing to Macedonia.
The founders, steeped in history and scripture, opted for representative democracy, fearing the “passions of the people.” Their “great experiment” included a Senate conceived as “the saucer into which the nation’s passions are poured to cool.” There was a separation of powers to dampen the passions and “prevent the rabble from passing sweeping new legislation in response to some passion of the moment.”
In 1948, the Swiss decided to import America’s constitution, except they selected direct democracy. John Randolph Haynes, a Californian doctor, brought citywide direct democracy to Los Angeles in 1903 after a trip to Switzerland. Hiram Johnson extended the system to the whole state. There are now eight states with direct democracy.
Unlike the Swiss, California’s direct democracy was designed to be confrontational. Petitioners can call a referendum, bypassing elected representatives to launch an initiative, circumventing the legislature by letting citizens make law. The result is often disastrous. Citizens, ruled by their passions, often vote for their own self-interests. Proposition 13 is an especially egregious example. Passed in 1978, the ballot measure has shredded California’s governing structures, wrecked its educational system, and left its infrastructure to crumble. Madison and Hamilton would have been horrified.
They would have been horrified to also observe US Presidents since Woodrow Wilson. Wilson is the avatar of Uber government. He was the first president critical of the nation’s founding. He felt the constitution was too confining. Representative democracy was cumbersome. Wilson reacted by increasing executive orders—1,803 in two terms.
Executive orders are legally binding orders given by the President to direct federal agencies and officials in their execution of congressionally established laws or policies. Wilson turned them into unilateral edicts often contrary to congressional intent. Franklin Roosevelt, an alumnus of Wilson’s administration, resolved to resume Wilson’s “march along the path of real progress” by issuing even more (3,734). But let’s be fair. After a lull, Nixon issued 346, Clinton 364, George W. Bush 291, and Barack Obama, 272. Trump is likely to trump these numbers.
This is direct democracy—government with “unstinted power” (Wilson’s words), hostile to the Constitution, which, Madison said, obliges government “to control itself.” Trump is the latest in a long line of Presidents who lack self-control. He’s Ubering government. J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” tells us why so many Americans are attracted to Trump. Congress is dysfunctional and our nation’s elites are out of touch. I get it.
What’s astonishing is that 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump. It tells me they know little of the Great Experiment. They don’t think institutionally. In many ways, we’re watching the chickens coming home to roost. Evangelicals have long touted what they believe is the unalloyed good of “passion.” You can’t find that in scripture. Madison felt “passions” are “sown in the nature of man” and to be limited.
Trump seems hell bent not on disruption but destroying representative democracy. He’s “Ubered” both parties. When we think institutionally, we see this is not promising.