The progressive movement in late 19th to early 20th centuries is a good illustration of how populist demagogues subvert the rule of law by promoting democracy. The main rule of constitutional government is to pit opposite forces against each other and to decentralize and slow down decision-making as far as possible. When all authority is centralized in the hands of the majority or minority, government becomes a tool of despotic power, not one of justice. Popular representation per se may be beneficial for the rule of law but, if no restrictions on the popular will remain, it becomes a juggernaut that sweeps away every principle of just government and destroys society.
Progressives advocated and introduced initiatives and referenda – a tool of direct democracy intended to bypass the mechanism of checks and balances and crush any opposition by the sheer force of majority vote.
Primaries, recall elections and women’s suffrage were also tools introduced by the progressive movement to entrench the tyranny of the majority. If viewed per se, all these elements are not positive or negative factors. However, if considered collectively in the context of the constitutional change that was taking place, all of them point in the same direction – that towards unlimited majority rule, as opposed to a limited government.
As to local government, progressives were also in favor of replacing mayor-council governments, where separation of powers exists between the executive (mayor) and legislative (council) branches, with council-manager governments, with absolute authority vested in city councils. Additionally, they wanted bicameral state legislatures to be replaced with unicameral ones, reflecting the same drive for unlimited democratic power.
Attempts were also made to replace the dominant plurality voting system, which effectively ties delegates to certain territorial districts and weakens the power of nationwide (or statewide) majorities, with proportional representation, which is a more “democratic” system.
It is interesting that progressives railed against political machines and the spoils system. These institutions per se were indeed corrupt perversions of justice and common sense but they nonetheless were one of the only remaining checks on democracy, since that system of political patronage clashed with the “popular will” (I would prefer more rational checks on democracy, of course).
The progressive movement’s contribution to the rise of imperial presidency should also be considered. Unlimited democracy ushers in a void that is inevitably filled by a tyrannical populist leader . Consider the examples of early Greek tyrants, Julius Caesar, Adolf Hitler and Hugo Chavez.
The ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913 was the culmination of the democratic crusade against checks and balances. The election of senators by popular vote, as opposed to their appointment by state legislatures, weakened federalism, placed even more power in the hands of the majority and facilitated the creation of a nationwide democracy unhampered by states’ rights (these, by the way, are a positive factor only in so far as they enhance the system of checks and balances but, if states themselves became unlimited governments checked and balanced by nothing, they would become as tyrannical as the federal government is now).