The constitutional framers were uncertain about the deliberative capacities of average citizens. “It is essential to liberty that government should have a common interest with the people,” wrote James Madison, but he also worried about the “excesses of democracy.” The solution was to create a framework that could check popular impulses — a system where elites could “enlarge and refine the general will.”

Spurred on by the Corrupt Deal of 1824 — when the fact that no presidential candidate had received the majority of Electoral College votes sent the election to the U.S. House, where candidate and Speaker Henry Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams and was subsequently appointed Adams’ secretary of state — a growing belief in the wisdom of average citizens redefined our nation’s democratic character. In the decades that followed, qualifications for voting began to melt away (for white men), the number of elected posts mushroomed and average citizens came to see their role in the affairs of government as fundamental. This belief was at the heart of the Progressive movement around the turn of the 20th century. The “will of the people” would be the rudder for governance. Recurrent polls now tell us what the public “wants.”

But are average citizens up for the job these days? The dominant scholarly view has been that voters align themselves with groups — which leads to a steadfast partisan identification. Partisanship then serves as a cognitive filter.

And this was before the rise of hyperpartisan radio and cable television programs, social media, alternative facts and fake news. It was also before the rise of “negative partisanship,” where our attachment to a party is defined more by a fear and loathing of the other side than any group attachment or policy preference.

Can we break from our partisan filters to find pragmatic policy solutions, as was routine throughout much of our nation’s history? The current budget impasse has cast doubt on this possibility. Indeed, bipartisan solutions to difficult policy questions seem a relic of the past. Where are all the moderates in Congress?

Soon, special counsel Robert Mueller will wrap up his investigation. It is possible that the president will be spared from any direct incrimination. If so, will progressives retract their claws and settle into the idea of Donald Trump remaining in office for at least two more years? Or will they compel their representatives to find something, anything that can wound him, if not banish the scoundrel from the White House?

It seems more likely that Mueller’s report will document egregious acts, perhaps illegal moves by the president and his team. Impeachment, as we all now know, is a political question. Will the president’s defenders reject Mueller’s findings as a “partisan witch hunt,” believing it was cooked up to settle a score? Will they shrug off acts that, if done by Barack Obama, would have led them to call for protests, even riots in the streets?

One of the most surprising aspects of our politics is the percentage of Republicans who seem willing to ride through Trump’s missteps. An incredible 68 percent of self-identified Republicans believed he did a good job in the Helsinki news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. When Donald Trump was running for the White House, he said that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody and not lose support.

Were the apprehensions of the framers justified? Can we set aside our partisan impulses, turn away from the talking heads on television and radio, and steer clear of social media to objectively assess Mueller’s findings? We’ve reached a precarious intersection, and it may not be a stretch to say the future of our republic is at stake. Can average citizens rise to the occasion?

Daniel Shea is a professor of government at Colby College. He has written widely on American politics; his most recent book is the forthcoming “Why Vote? Essential Questions About the Future of Elections in America.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.