On one hand, the trial of Joe Lieberman in the upcoming CT primary, August 8, is a perfect example of American democracy in action (click here for some bg and context from the Wash Post). "Throw the bums out!" has been an effective rallying cry for frustrated voters since the earliest moments of American self government. James Madison et al constructed the federal government of the United States to be responsive to the desires of the people. Joe Lieberman has offended a core constituency of the citizenry of CT; therefore, Joe Lieberman must go.

However, the framers divided government into departments, and the departments into distinct institutions, making some sections of the government more responsive to the people than others. For example, the House of Representatives is elected directly by the voters every two years. That keeps representatives in the lower house on a very short leash. The House is rightly the people's conduit to government. Congressman ought to be taking polls and monitoring their phone calls and email, fittingly hyper-sensitive to the will of the people.

The President. Elected by the people every four years (albeit indirectly through the somewhat arcane institution of the electoral college), the president, traditionally, is the one person in the government empowered to represent all the people. The rest of the executive branch works for him and answers to him (or his management team) directly; the enormous executive department, sworn to uphold the Constitution and abide by federal law, answers to the people only indirectly through congressional oversight.

The Courts. Intentionally removed from the election process, judges are nominated by the President and approved by the Senate for life terms. Federal judges are only grazed by the consent of the people--and only once, during the process of nomination and confirmation.

Why all this variation?

The framers understood the need for popular consent, but they also feared the "tyranny of the majority" (a phrase that came into popular use a generation after the founding--a la Alexis de Tocqueville).

That is, Madison feared government ruled by "popular passions" and "temporary enthusiasms." What happens when the people make poor decisions? What happens when the public interest is not the same as the will of the people?

The Senate. A distinct institution within the legislative department, the Senate enjoyed certain protections from the will of the people. Only one-third of the Senate is ever up for election at one time. Conversely, two-thirds of the Senators are not facing the will of the people (as opposed to 100 percent of the House of Representatives, who are running for reelection 100 percent of the time).

More importantly, Madison et al also provided that the individual state legislatures would select their two senators, expecting experienced politcal hands to send experienced hands to the seat of the national government, providing a counsel of wise men to conduct the nation's business.

All that changed with the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, which provided for the direct election of Senators "by the people" of their states. The amendment, as well as the process of nominating party candidates through "primary" elections, both came into being during the early twentieth century, sometimes called the "Progressive Era," in which Americans opted for more democratic government in waves all across the nation.

Is there anything wrong with direct democracy? For a twenty-first century American, an answer in the affirmative would be blasphemous. Maybe it is more constructive to ask why Madison attempted to insulate statesman from the people. The Founders believed that there would be times when an elected official would need to confront and defy the will of the people. During those times, elected officials must be accorded a modicum of protection.

Back to the case of Joe Lieberman: it is fair to say that he has been accorded a modicum of protection. He has not faced re-election since 2000. Conceivably,the Senator has had plenty of time to bring the people of his state around to his view on the war and suporting the President. How much more protection should he have?

The potential tragedy of this situation is that a small group of activists, empowered by the the excesses of partisan democracy, may oust one of the real good guys of republican government.

Perhaps that is the cost of doing business in our modern democratic-republic, but it is certainly a sad story on the personal level. If Joe goes, I will miss him. And the United States Senate will be just a touch less Madisonian without him.