Our History

Governments arise either out of the people, or over the people

– Thomas Paine, Rights of Man
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The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another… The proposal therefore to disfranchise any class of men is as criminal as the proposal to take away property

Thomas Paine

Democracy vs. Autocracy

Americans take democracy for granted because it is the only system of government we have known. Yet, across human history, democracy is a rare thing. Autocracy (the rule of one) or oligarchy (the rule of a few) is far more common than democracy (the rule of many). At the time of the American Revolution, democracy on a nation-state scale had never been attempted. When James Madison in Federalist No. 10 wrote that Americans could “extend the sphere” beyond the city-state and create a democratic republic on a continental scale, he was bucking both history and what thinkers from Aristotle to Montesquieu thought possible.

Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and the founders were confident that the future was theirs and that hereditary monarchy combined with an aristocracy was a terrible form of government. Influenced by John Locke, who championed the right to rebel against a bad king and argued that a peasant could think as well as any king or aristocrat, they bet on representative democracy. In so doing, they rejected Old World Europe and sought to create a society free of permanent caste and class. At its best, the United States has stood as an example of a society that celebrates liberty, equality, and democracy as its central values.

American Patriotism

American patriotism is more than simple loyalty to the nation. It is loyalty to the particular constitutional form that we call liberal democracy or constitutional democracy. Critically, the qualities admired in autocratic regimes – order, discipline, hierarchy, and authority – are not those admired in a liberal democracy: freedom, equality, rights, and consent.

Democracy Requires Accepting Defeat

Democracy requires those on the losing side to accept defeat, abide by the results of free and fair elections, and concede power. Authoritarian parties have two essential features that are profoundly un-American: They do not accept the results of democratic elections when they lose and they embrace violence to secure power.

Freedom Only Exists in a Constitutional Democracy

Americans understand that there is a close relationship between democracy and personal liberty. Constitutional democracy is the silver frame upon which the golden apple of liberty rests, Lincoln said. In autocratic and authoritarian regimes, individual rights cease to exist.

How We Got Here

Madison’s Sorrow: Today’s War on the Founders and America’s Liberal Ideal tells the story of American history as the ongoing struggle between our liberal democratic ideal and illiberal resistance. The book explores how we arrived at the Trump presidency and, drawing on the experience of other countries, what we have to fear post-January 6.

There always have been elements in America’s political culture that have vigorously defended Old World values of privilege, hierarchy, inequality, and exclusion. But as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America (1835/1840), the dominant ethos in the U.S. has been an individualistic liberalism that celebrates life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Critically, while Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were slaveholders, they crafted the Declaration (largely Jefferson’s creation) and the Constitution (largely Madison’s creation) in ways that allowed Lincoln and the Abolitionists to reject and excise slavery from the American experience.

For much of our history, the United States was fortunate that the two elements in our political culture most conflicted in their commitment to constitutional democracy (racism born from Southern slavery and radical anti-government libertarianism) were housed in separate political parties. Neither racist Southern whites in Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic Party nor right-wing business elites in Dwight Eisenhower’s Republican Party dominated their respective parties. Powerful, they were important players, but both parties included many moderate and liberal elements that tempered reactionary anti-democratic tendencies at the national level.

After the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts (1964 and 1965) were signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, Southern whites began an exodus from the Democratic Party and joined the GOP. This political realignment profoundly altered American politics. Joining forces, wealthy right-wing libertarians (exemplified by the Koch brothers) and Southern whites propelled the Republican Party in a reactionary far-right direction (epitomized by President Trump’s Supreme Court nominees). As the right grew in power, moderates and traditional conservatives were driven from Republican leadership and often out of the party.

Today, white privilege and radical anti-state libertarianism are the prime movers of a Trump-led GOP that has purged conservatives such as John McCain and Liz Cheney and put extremists in charge. Madison’s Sorrow argues that the displacement of traditional conservatives by illiberal reactionary radicals has unbalanced the American system, left millions of conservatives without a political home, and opened the door to a far-right attack on the foundations of American democracy and constitutional governance.

How the authoritarian attack on American democracy may proceed in a post-Trump era is explored by Andrew Marantz in his July 4, 2022 New Yorker article, “Does Hungary Offer a Glimpse of Our Authoritarian Future?”  Marantz writes that we must worry about a Republican Party that resembles Viktor Orbán’s political party:

… increasingly comfortable with naked power grabs, with treating all political opposition as fundamentally illegitimate, with assuming that any check on its dominance were mere inconveniences to be bypassed by any quasi-legalistic means.




Kevin C. O’Leary, Madison’s Sorrow: Today’s War on the Founders and America’s Liberal Ideal

Masha Gessen, Surviving Autocracy

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die

Juan J. Linz, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Steven B. Smith, Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes

Andrew Marantz, Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation

Stuart Stevens, It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”

Jefferson Cowie, Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power

David Pepper, Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-Up Call from Behind the Lines


Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster, “’Negative Partisanship’ Explains Everything” (Politico Magazine, September/October 2017)

Timothy Snyder, “The American Abyss” (New York Times Magazine, Jan. 9, 2021)

Barton Gellman, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun” (The Atlantic, Dec. 6, 2021)

Robert Kagan, “Our Constitutional Crisis is Already Here” (The Washington Post, Sept. 23, 2021)

Nicholas Riccardi, “’Slow-motion insurrection’: How GOP seizes election power” (Associated Press, Dec. 29, 2021)

Jane Mayer, “The Big Money Behind the Big Lie” (The New Yorker, Aug. 2, 2021)

Jennifer Szalai, “’Why We Did It’ Is a Dark Ride on the ‘Republican Road to Hell” (New York Times Review of Tim Miller’s book, Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell, June 29, 2022)

Andrew Marantz, “Does Hungary Offer a Glimpse of Our Authoritarian Future?” (The New Yorker, June 27, 2022)

David Leonhardt, “‘A Crisis Coming’: The Twin Threats to American Democracy” (New York Times, Sept. 18, 2022)

Fintan O’Toole, “Beware Prophecies of Civil War: The idea that such a catastrophe is unavoidable in America is inflammatory and corrosive” (The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2022)

David Siders, “The State Where the GOP Would Rather Lose than Change: Faith in elections has risen for most Republicans since 2020.  Not in Arizona.” (Politico Magazine, February 3, 2023)

Susan Glasser, “2024 Trump Is Even Scarier Than 2020 Trump: When the front-running ex-President campaigns on a platform of ‘retribution’ and ‘termination,’ it’s best to take him seriously” (The New Yorker, March 9, 2023)

Adrienne LaFrance, “The New Anarchy: America faces a type of extremist violence it does not know how to stop” (The Atlantic, April 2023)

Will Bunch, “GOP wages an asymmetrical war on democracy because it can’t get the votes” (The Inquirer, April 9, 2023)