Populism and elitism are each in its way a kind of politics of hubris. Each is rooted in a plainly unreasonable view about the capacity of human beings — be it a select class or the people as a whole — to make just the right governing decisions. The Constitution is plainly dubious about both sets of claims to superior judgment. It is built upon a profound skepticism about the ability of any person and any group or political arrangement to overcome the limitations of human reason and human nature, and so establishes a system of checks to prevent sudden large mistakes while enabling gradual changes supported by a broad and longstanding consensus. Experts and aristocrats should not govern, nor should the people do so directly, but rather the people’s representatives should govern in a system filled with mediating institutions and opposing interests — a system designed to force us to see problems and proposed solutions from a variety of angles simultaneously and, as Alexander Hamilton puts it in Federalist 73, “to increase the chances in favor of the community against the passing of bad laws through haste, inadvertence, or design.”
That such a system is far from populist should be obvious. In Federalist 63, James Madison says that the constitutional architecture involves “the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity” from directly governing. The more democratic elements of the Constitution are intended to be checks on the power of government, not expressions of trust in the wisdom of the public as a whole. And the more aristocratic elements are checks as well — on the tendency of representative institutions to shamelessly curry favor with the electorate at the expense of responsible government.