Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Democracy Or Republic?

A letter I received today from a Lake Mills resident touched on a subject that has been debated since the founding of our country and expressed a view I often hear from people who are not fond of the Democracy Campaign's work. The letter started on a positive note, saying "I like what I see and hear of your doing to get big, often crooked, money out of politics. Badly needed."

The writer continued: "But I am of the belief that we are a republic, NOT a democracy." He went on to say I seem to worship "the many" and voiced worry about what he called the "crowd culture."

Personally, I don't believe a republic and a democracy are mutually exclusive. Put another way, it is possible to be both a republic and a democracy, and I believe that is what America was intended to be.

It's worth remembering that when Benjamin Franklin emerged from Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was famously asked: "Well, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?" He was not asked: "Well, what have we got – a republic or a democracy?" A republic is the opposite of a monarchy, not the opposite of a democracy.

After reading the letter, I checked a few dictionaries. One defined a republic as "a state or country that is not led by a hereditary monarch but in which the people have impact on its government.” The word comes from the Latin res publica, which translates as "public thing" or "public matter." Another dictionary defines a republic as "a state in which the sovereign power resides in the whole body of the people, and is exercised by representatives elected by them; a commonwealth." Yet another defines it as "a political system in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them."

The term "democracy," on the other hand, is alternatively defined as "government by the people" and "rule of the majority" and "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections." Under these definitions, it is obvious that what the founders chose to create could be described as either a republic or a representative democracy or both.

It's particularly important to remember that at the time of our nation's creation, the whole idea of a "democracy" and a "republic" was radical and frightening and hard to imagine actually working, which explains why the Federalist Papers were published anonymously. The Federalist Papers made it quite clear that most of the founders wanted America to be a democracy. But many also feared the possibility that the American experiment could turn into mob rule. Some founders, such as Alexander Hamilton, advocated for a strong central government and even a monarch, with George Washington as king (something Washington resisted with great passion).

It is both safe and fair to say that in the end the consensus was that America should not become a direct democracy, but rather should have a representative form of government.

The Founding Fathers were revolutionaries and were taking a great leap of faith with no direct experience to confirm their faith that a democratic government could be established on a large scale. They had seen democracy work well in small populations, like the Greek city-states, but had no idea whether such a model could be extended to a new institution governing what was at the time a massive population.

The genius of the founders' creation was how they balanced the idea that the will of the people shall be the law of the land with strong protections for individual rights. Clearly, there are certain rights and laws that should not be disregarded at the whim of the majority. The system of checks and balances that is central to the design of American democracy was created not only to prevent any individual or any branch of government from gaining excessive power, but also to prevent a tyranny of the majority and to protect the rights of those in the minority.

I stand accused of worshipping "the many," as if democracy is a dirty word. Actually, I worship the delicate balancing act that the Founding Fathers performed to give us a system that is both a republic and a democracy. I do believe people should matter more than money in politics, and I am deeply wary of privilege – especially the political privilege that accompanies great wealth. I am concerned that too much power has been concentrated in too few hands in recent years.

That's why the Democracy Campaign and I are working to make our system more truly democratic. And more authentically republican.


Darrell said...

The "Too much power" is due our incumbents who get elected for life if they do what the "Special Interests" tell them to do.
Isn't this a form of monarchy?

DJ Dixon said...

You and me both, Mike!
This monograph is so well conceived it should be carved into granite and displayed for all to see.