Russell Muirhead, a professor at Dartmouth College, spoke to students and faculty in his Jack Miller Center Constitutional Day Lecture about what power the Constitution gives to American citizens and how this power can be utilized. The lecture was sponsored the Jack Miller Center Constitutional Day Initiative and the political science department.
Muirhead is Dartmouth’s Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics and Professor of Government. He has written two books on American politics: Just Work and The Promise of Party in a Polarized Age.
Muirhead began his lecture, “What the Constitution Whispers in Our Ears,” by discussing the very first line of the Constitution, which begins with “we the people.” This phrase, he explained, tells American citizens that they have the power to rule.
“It promises us that we can rule!” he said. “It whispers to us you can rule and that sounds delicious.”
Almost immediately after introducing the concept people’s rule, Muirhead switched the topic to critiques of the Constitution. He argued that the Constitution does not provide the people with the ability to rule, but instead bestows this power among elites.
He explained that this notion of a rule by elites, or a “natural aristocracy,” was what the Federalists, such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, wanted the Constitution to establish. They believed that common, everyday citizens were not knowledgeable enough to lead the government and wanted large, diverse electoral districts so that only well-known elites would be elected.
Muirhead made a distinction between setting up a system for the people to rule through the Constitution and setting up the basis for an administration. He argued that Hamilton would claim that the Constitution’s purpose is to put an effective administration in place, not to establish citizen rule.
“This Constitution is going to give us a good administration and people are going to appreciate that, they’re not going to necessarily participate in it,” Muirhead said. “They are rather going to be administered over by a distant, very powerful central government that’s probably going to get it right and they’ll appreciate that government.”
It can be argued, Muirhead said, that since the ratification of the Constitution the American government has functioned as an administration and not as an instrument of the rule of the people. This means that the government enacted policies that were not necessarily favored by the majority of citizens at the time but turned out to greatly benefit the nation, such as social security.
After making it sound like the government as an administration is the only possible outcome from the Constitution, Muirhead turned to the chalkboard and wrote out what he called the “constitutional formula of rule.”
This formula is the key for people to take hold and rule through the government, Muirhead said, and is interpreted as a majority in the House of Representatives plus a majority in the Senate plus a majority of Electoral College votes equals the citizens’ ability to control the government.
Muirhead asserted that party politics is the key to solving the constitutional rule equation and gaining a majority in each section of the equation. If one party is able to gain a majority in both the House and the Senate and win the presidential election, that party’s interests should be unstoppable. In the recent past, there have been many times when the constitutional equation has been fulfilled but the party in power has not been able to hold on to the majority past a few years. No one has succeeded in mastering the formula, Muirhead said.
“The challenge for you is to make this Constitution work,” he said. “It’s the gravest challenge we face.”
Featured Image by Alex Gaynor / Heights Staff