Chris Christie Endorses the Popular Tyranny Founding Fathers Feared

Republicans have proven they will do anything they can to deprive those of whom they don’t approve of their civil rights. The list is along one, and includes atheists (whom even the relatively moderate President Bush Sr. didn’t consider American citizens), Muslims, gays and lesbians, Pagans, women in general but especially the uppity feminist type who don’t know their place (in other words, refuse to say “thank you” when raped), and of course, all those icky brown-skinned people who keep their lawns and are sometimes kept as indentured servants.

There are various ways of keeping these undesirables in their place. We’ve seen the methods of blunt-force trauma exercised in the case of the Occupy movement. That rabble should be included in the above list; they fail to say thank you when economically raped. Who do they think they are? But there are other methods, including voting disenfranchisement (an ever popular one in Republican circles), and there is also the referendum, a method growing in popularity, behind which lies the idea that we can simply vote on who has rights and who doesn’t (California Proposition 8 is a prominent example of this tactic put to use). This last method is the one appealed to by Governor Chris Christie recently.

It is also one that terrified the breeches off the Founding Fathers, who were well versed in ancient Greek history: popular tyranny. The Founding Fathers discovered, rather to their surprise, that a legislature down the street can as easily deprive a person of their rights as a king three thousand miles away. De Tocqueville observed this, writing that “ in the United States the majority…frequently displays the tastes and the propensities of a despot.”[1] Or, as Jefferson put it in 1785, “173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one.”[2]

On Tuesday, Christie came down on the side of popular tyranny, referencing a proposal to put Marriage Equality on the ballot in November instead of dealing with it via the legislative process. His problem? The legislative process is going to have, as it often does, the correct result: The same-sex marriage bill he opposes, the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act, is expected to be passed by the state legislature (he has promised to veto it). He figures he will have better luck getting his way by appealing to a majority popular vote. He even tried to justify this idea by an appeal to civil rights history and of course, as Republicans so often do, got it all wrong:

“The fact of the matter is, I think people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South.”

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If Republicans are “careless” with historical facts, Democrats are not. As the sponsor of the bill Christie opposes said in response, history has demonstrated that, on the contrary, civil rights are usually achieved through legislation. And assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said Christie needed a “history lesson.” Of course, which Republican doesn’t?

Oliver said:

“Governor — people were fighting and dying in the streets of the South for a reason. They were fighting and dying in the streets of the South because the majority refused to grant minorities equal rights by any method. It took legislative action to bring justice to all Americans, just as legislative action is the right way to bring marriage equality to all New Jerseyans.”

Christie, missing the point entirely, defended his position, saying,

“My point is, they’re trying to say the only way to deal with a civil rights issue is through legislation, and my point is that in a state like this, the fact of the matter is their own polling belies that position.”

Here is the point at which Christie needs to have some things explained to him. The idea that a majority can simply vote away the rights of a minority group – any minority, be it religious, ethnic, or otherwise – stands against the very premise of the U.S. Constitution, that all of us are equal before the law and that our rights are protected.

To simply vote away the rights of a group you don’t approve of is about as un-American as you can possibly get. Obviously, the majority will always be able to deprive the minority of rights, taking away rights previously possessed, refusing to grant rights never held.

This brings us back to the Founding Fathers. As Gordon S. Wood has noted of early American democracy, “Americans became so thoroughly democratic that much of the period’s political activity, beginning with the Constitution, was devoted to finding means and devices to tame that democracy.” [3] James Madison was one of those who realized that the Constitution was the solution needed for the “excesses of democracy”[4] then being experienced, especially the injustices of the very same state legislation now being appealed to by Governor Christie.

Madison said that the abuses of state legislatures were “so frequent and so flagrant as to alarm the most stedfast friends of Republicanism” and told Jefferson they “contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the Convention, and prepared the public mind for a general reform than those which accrued to our national character and interest from the inadequacy of the Confederation to its immediate objects.”[5] In Madison’s words, a “spirit of locality” was destroying “the aggregate interests of the community”[6]:

The appointment of Senators by districts seems to be objectionable. A spirit of locality is inseparable from that mode. The evil is fully displayed in the County representations; the members of which are every where observed to lose sight of the aggregate interests of the Community, and even to sacrifice them to the interests or prejudices of their respective constituents.

Prejudices indeed. Madison observed that “these abuses of individual rights were backed by the bulk of the electorates in each state. In the 1770s,” Wood tells us, “the Revolutionaries had not conceived of the possibility of the people becoming tyrannical.”[7] John Adams had dismissed the idea as a  contradiction in terms. As Wood explains:

But by the 1780s many leaders had come to realize that the Revolution had unleashed social and political forces that they had not anticipated and that the ‘excesses of democracy’ threatened the very essence of their republican revolution. The behavior of the state legislatures, in the despairing words of Madison, had called ‘into question the fundamental principle of republican Government, that the majority who rule in such governments are the safest Guardians both of Public Good and private rights.’[8]

In Madison’s own words:

11. Injustice of the laws of States.

If the multiplicity and mutability of laws prove a want of wisdom, their injustice betrays a defect still more alarming: more alarming not merely because it is a greater evil in itself, but because it brings more into question the fundamental principle of republican Government, that the majority who rule in such Governments, are the safest Guardians both of public Good and of private rights. To what causes is this evil to be ascribed?[9]

Almost certainly Governor Christie doesn’t care what either James Madison or Thomas Jefferson thought. Few Republicans do.  He will no more be affected by a reminder than will his constituents because what we are seeing played out before us is not only a failure to learn from history but a continuing refusal by interests of locality to subordinate their wishes to the good of the whole, the whole being not only the United States but the American people in whom power is vested, an American people who have, by Constitutional guarantee, equal rights.


[1] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Chapter 16.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (Chapel Hill, 1955), 120.

[3] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford, 2009). See especially chapter 1.

[4] Madison Debates, May 31, 1787, in the words of Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who did not sign because he opposed the document’s lack of a Bill of Rights. See Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnese, Signing Their Rights Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the United States Constitution (Quirk Books, 2011), 242.

[5] Wood (2009).  James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 24 October 1787, Papers of Jefferson, 12:276.

[7] Wood (2009)

[8] Wood (2009).

17 Replies to “Chris Christie Endorses the Popular Tyranny Founding Fathers Feared”

  1. Cue the fatphobic comments from supposedly “progressive” commenters who can’t be arsed to actually condemn what he’s saying and just want to go for a cheap shot, and….go!

    That aside: Chris Christie simply wants to seek some sort of validation for when he vetoes the equality law. THAT is why he is calling for a referendum on the issue. The historical ignorance he shows is, in my opinion, merely window-dressing in this case, designed to pander to the Fox News crowd that believe America is for straight white Christians only, and that all others need to be forcibly deported even if they’re citizens.

  2. Given recent national polls, any effort he makes, whatever the reason, will likely fail…the fact is that most Americans now support marriage equality. I think it’s too soon, like Michael Kazin in The New Republic, to use these polls to declare the end of the Christian Right (it’s been claimed before, after all) but Christie is definitely barking at a wall here.

  3. It will be a joyful day in America when the Christian right is no longer relevant to our democracy. In the first place, these people are about as ‘Christian’ as the KKK, and about as correct (right) as Hitler. They are terrified of the rich white man becoming a minority and no longer the ruling class. They hate women, kids, the poor…just about every group in this country. They hide behind the Bible they don’t read, and behind the 2nd amendment. People are, thankfully, on to the scam at last, and we are going to reclaim this nation for all of us. We are equals, Governor, all of us. And why God allowed people like you to become rich and powerful is beyond me.

  4. Basically said, the populous is always the enemy of the government in charge.

    The voting repression of the gop indicates a solid belief that no one has equal rights in this country. No matter your color or financial status, your beliefs will always be trumped by someone in power who doesn’t like them

  5. Of course, as a 21st century Republican, Chris Christie is oblivious (likely intentionally) to the fact that many of the people who were attacked and killed in the South were attacked because they were trying to get the majority to recognize the right of a minority to vote.

  6. The KKK, Opus Dei, the Nazis, the [a]moral majority, promise keepers, Westboro Baptist Church, the Superstitious Reich (Religious Right) are Christian just as you, yourself, are. The Christian Taliban are no different than their mid Eastern brothers. Its all the same mindset along with the same God. The Taliban and Christian Taliban hate US freedoms.

    As for the Bible (which is irrelevant and immaterial in a secular country) its easy to find verses which authorize a point of view, course of action, or can be twisted to read how the person wants it to read.

    By the way, people like Christie weren’t “allowed” by “God” to become wealthy and powerful. They were scripted by “God” to their position(s). Omni-science, Omni-present and Omni-powerful (except when it comes to primitive chariots on a level plain because they were made of iron). Divine Plan. God’s Plan. Greater Good, and the rest of the empty platitudes.

    As long as Christianity is deemed ‘relevant’ to the vast majority of voters (it isn’t) the abuses will continue. Until politicians, and others, are publicly held accountable for their lies and dishonesties the trend will continue.

  7. ““The fact of the matter is, I think people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South.”

    This seems to a variant of a current pernicious meme infesting Republican circles – that the Civil War was unnecessary, the South could have been bought out, there was no need for all that fighting and dying and stuff.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates shoots that one down:

  8. First off: a progressive wringing their hands over the dangers of populist democracy is like a fish complaining about too much water. The entire progressive movement is founded on knee-jerk populist sentiment. If there’s one thing you can depend on liberals to constantly decry, it’s the slow, cumbersome process of our democratic republic. In fact, we can thank progressivism for changing senators to popularly-elected officials back in your early twentieth century hayday.

    Secondly: attempting to equate gay marriage with interracial marriage is an offensive farce. The term “marriage equality” is a fallacy from the onset. Equality implies a common premise–which you can’t provide. Even the most daft gay marriage advocates should understand the fundamental difference between a man marrying a woman and a man marrying a man– whatever their skin pigmentation. You can’t remove gender from an institution whose only objective criteria has been gender without diving off a logical cliff.

  9. Yes in a way exactly like that. The only difference is we are told we are free and the middle east knows the possibility of freedom is close to nil

  10. You are just as ignorant as all the others who make arguments like yours, and your argument is based upon your own cultural norms – which are (thankfully) in the minority.

    Marriage varies greatly throughout the world. The norm is plural marriage – polygamy, with one man and multiple wives. Polyandry is also known, with one woman having multiple husbands. In some areas homosexuality is the norm, with marriage only existing for propagation and there is little contact between man and woman (indeed, hostility is reported to be the norm). In others it is a financial arrangement between two families -and in some cases that arrangement may not involve a man and a woman. There are cultures where two women will get married, with one taking on the “man’s duties” of her culture because of inheritance – that culture the land is handed down to the male offspring. Arrangements are made to provide children, usually through a relative (or relatives).

    The idea of marriage for “Love” is a rather recent one, and in many modern cultures is still looked at with scorn.

    In other words, marriage takes many forms, and throughout history gay and lesbian marriages are known. In fact, according to some sources, the Roman Catholic church used to have a ceremony for blessing such relationships.

    I also think you need to re-examine your historical sources and seek ones that are valid – those promoted by the fundamentalist/dominionist churchs are in a word LIARS. They try to simplify history into a black-and-white scenario, and it just isn’t so.

  11. Really a cool article by Coates for those who comprehend that there are parallel worlds colliding…(fast forwarding from the Founding Fathers to the civil war).

    Politicians like Christie, Ron Paul who would pretend that civil rights act can be tossed around state by state are merely pretending that the civil war was just an exercise in free market liaise-fare with some inconvenient social dynamics tagged on…that prejudicial behavior, open bigotry toward others is acceptable if that’s what the market will allow in your locale (even slavery)…nice…about 150 years too late.

    Prior to the civil war, the south had 30 years of propaganda…drumming up support to pull away and form their own federation so that the “1%” aristocracy could continue to profit by their cruelty. Those that do not see history repeating itself (colliding of parallel worlds) in acts of open defiance by current republican radicals to re-interpret the constitution for their own “profit” are not paying attention.

    I grabbed this line from a commenter quoting Lincoln prior to the secession of the South:

    “Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.

    But you will not abide the election of a [Republican]president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”

    Fast forward to the hostage takers we now have in office…like John the Orange, or this guy…”The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” –Mitch McConnell, National Journal, 2010.

    It was understood in the South that if Lincoln was elected the South would secede; 3 days later, it did. What will these republicans do if Obama is re-elected given their 30 year track record?

  12. Let’s not try to weasel out of a real argument by tossing out multicultural platitudes and sociology jargon. What I said is true, and none of your liberal indignance does anything to address it. Sexual unions have been the societal norm across every continent and (virtually?) every culture for hundreds of thousands of years because male/female relationships are rooted in biology, plural or not. If we can’t at least agree on that, then you live in a parallel universe.

    You’ve said nothing to address the simple fact that gender is the only OBJECTIVE way to define marriage, and once you move beyond that then literally anything goes. You yourself have provided some prime examples of alternate “marriages”: Polyandry, polygamy . . . For some reason you neglected to mention other cultural arrangements like incest or childhood marriage– presumably because they don’t fit within your own narrow cultural norms. Since I seriously doubt that you hold all cultural customs as equally valid, it begs the question why you would bring them up in the first place. Except to hide behind relativity in the absence of a logical argument.

    Simply put, you can’t simultaneously demand marriage equality while rendering marriage as indefinable. When you’re willing to expand the definition of marriage to include incest or child brides you can lecture me about cultural norms.

  13. now that’s hilarious

    Most rational people could define marriage as between adults of consenting age, but you don’t seem to be able to. Are you also one of the people who claim this will lead to people marrying their horse as well?

  14. “most rational people” is a pretty subjective criteria, don’t you think? As for adults, how many are you referring to? What’s the limit and who decides? Are we talking about ANY adults? Say, for example, a mother and her son?

    As for marrying a horse, I would think the dinstintion between an animal and a person would be pretty obvious. Then again, I would think most rational people could distinguish between homosexual and heterosexual relationships. You’re the social pioneer, not me.

    Really, I shouldn’t have to be the one to explain the implications of your own logic.

  15. Really?? (Really Newt?!) You’re arrogance and superiority reeks of posturing based upon social inadequacy, not social acceptance. Once again, you judge by personal limitation, not the actual reality of the human experience…which is based upon universal acceptance of our differences, culturally, sexually and socially, norms and mores outside of your religious view
    …ahhh, this must be the “implication of your own logic”. (BTW, science proves inbreeding humans isn’t viable in case you missed that one in class, or were you home schooled with “Quiverful” scholastic?)

    To argue out of one side of your mouth for more boundaries and then contradict others for placing human “norms” as boundaries speaks volumes of your biblical certainty. It’s always do as I say or die in your little, phobic, biblical world, isn’t it?

  16. Another excellent piece on politics. You’re quickly becoming my favorite writer on Politicus. I especially appreciate your allusion to the various constitutional amendments in much of your writing (like the paragraph after the Oliver-Christie exchange).

    I think what will come to light in the near future is that the Christian Right is anything but Christian and anything but Right.

    Recently a retired military commander who was well known for his anti-arab and anti-muslim flaming was asked by leaders at West Point to be a keynote speaker at a prayer event for Iraq-Afghanistan vets. Eventually he was removed from the guest list by popular vote (among attendees) but the fact that a Right-wing hate monger who used such sickening rhetoric against the race and the religion that dominates the only major theater we’ve been fighting in over the past 20 years is a complete affront to the lessons we learned from World War II: that war should be war, and not religious hate-fueled and hate-justified genocide (and that’s something everyone agreed on when we were bringing our troops home from the European campaigns). The mere idea that a Hitler-like or Saddam-like mentality would be endorsed by the men who train the “best” of our military illustrates precisely the merits of the Christian Right’s role in public policy and their desire for our military to adopt such a perverse mentality.

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