President Bush and other public figures love to blather on about
our “great democracy.” As others have noted, our political system
was not born a democracy, but a constitutional republic. Most of
us are well aware of Benjamin Franklin’s famous
quote after the 1787 Constitutional Convention: [We’ve created]
“a republic, if you can keep it.”
to be many different
concepts of the term “republic.” My opinion is that the primary
distinction between a republic and democracy is that a republic
is obligated to adhere to specific principles, typically in a founding
document, which place limits on government and protect individual
liberty; a democracy, on the other hand, is a simple system of “the
majority rules.” Obviously the latter can be dangerous, as it is
essentially little more than mob rule; a majority could vote to
imprison or deport everyone with red hair, for example, or to take
property from the wealthy and distribute it among themselves. Whether
for altruistic or selfish reasons, the framers were clearly fearful
of democracy, of an “everyone votes” system, and this helps explain
the now-curious circumstance that in most states, suffrage was originally
limited to white, male landowners.
We all understand
that we don’t have direct democracy in the U.S., since with the
exception of state “propositions” which appear on ballots here and
there, the population at large doesn’t vote directly on any issue.
This leads many commentators to assert that we have a “representative
democracy.” We choose our leaders, they correctly say, in a democratic
fashion: majority rules at the ballot box. Then our elected representatives
vote in Congress the way the people want them to vote. Hence, we
have a democracy, albeit an indirect one. This is the sunny, Pollyanna
version of our government that is taught to grade school students
in our state-run public schools.
that is not the real story, since, once elected, our putative representatives
vote any which way they please. They make deals, compromise their
values, deceitfully advance their careers, and so forth, always
with an eye toward getting re-elected. Sure, there is the occasional
altruist, and politicians of genuine sincerity, but once the realities
of government and power sink in, most of these are seduced into
the “dark side,” despite any initial good intentions. In short,
our elected officials will vote in such a way as to keep and further
their power, not to please the folks back home. Even if elected
representatives vote their conscience, I fail to see how it can
be claimed that any sort of democracy exists if they don’t faithfully
vote as desired by their constituents.
lacking again when one considers the meager choices available at
every election. Usually it’s just two, of course, one from each
of the major parties. Never does a ballot include, as has been brilliantly
suggested by others, “none of the above” as an option. So, if I
have a choice between two candidates, neither of whom represents
me, how is this democracy? As I noted in a previous
essay, if there are merely three black-and-white, for-or-against
issues, I would need a choice of eight possible candidates to vote
for the one whose positions match my own; settling for one-out-of-three,
or two-out-of-three is simply not good enough. Since I am denied
this choice, I fail to see how I (or the majority of our citizenry)
am living in a true representative democracy. An additional reality
is that laws made by government itself (i.e., the two major, tacitly
in cahoots parties) places harsh obstacles in the path of any outsiders
who wish to run for office.
that we do not have a democracy can readily be found in last year’s
election, as well as in ongoing weekly polls: a majority of the
American people want us out of Iraq. If we had a democracy, our
representatives would immediately begin to act on that fact. But
they don’t — not even the new (ironically enough) Democratic regime.
So they are clearly not representative of their constituents regarding
this issue. They are thus not behaving as if we live in a democracy.
They are not doing what their electors desire. How is this representative
I suppose it
could be argued that our Congressmen are acting in a “republican
manner,” that they are being true to the principles of the Constitution,
and in some avuncular way, acting in the best interest of all of
us. We elected them for their good judgement, and they are more
knowledgeable and wiser than the rest of us; in essence, they know
best. Once elected, they are free to do as they see fit, supposedly
doing what’s best for us (within the limits of the Constitution,
of course), and there is no imperative to vote in Congress according
to the wishes of their constituents.
This may be
republicanism in theory, but in the United States it has been a
far cry from reality. The government has tried since its inception
to do little else but circumvent and subvert the Constitution. Whether
or not the framers intended that vague phrases and concepts such
as “promote the general welfare” would in time be used to strengthen
federal power at the expense of the states (and the individual),
that is what has happened. Most of our venal politicians, including
Mr. Bush, care little or nothing about the principles of the Constitution.
If some real or invented “crisis” occurs and it suits the exigencies
of the moment, important principles such as habeas corpus
can simply be flung aside (following the heinous precedent set by
Abe, of course).
So, the members
of government cannot claim to be following the principles of the
republic, and if that is true, then we do not have a republic.
Note that no one in Congress is saying “we can’t follow the wishes
of our constituents and end the Iraqi war, because we’re bound by
the Constitution of our great republic.” To do so would be to invite
gales of laughter from every news anchor in the country. Obviously,
our Congressmen are not acting in accordance with the principles
of the republic (which might suggest they must end the “war,” since
it’s really a kind of “police action”), but in accordance with their
own private ends, chief of which is to secure the presidency in
is: if we don’t have a democracy, and we no longer have a republic,
what, then, do we have?
S. Fischer has worked in various fields.