Media talking-heads, 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.”
There seem 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.
Of course, 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.
Democracy is 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.
More proof 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 democracy?
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 Dishonest 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 2008.
The question is: if we don’t have a democracy, and we no longer have a republic, what, then, do we have?
March 1, 2007
Andrew S. Fischer has worked in various fields.