Part 1: What’s So Great About Our Constitution, Anyway?
Essay 11 – Republic vs. Democracy
“Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contentions; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
– James Madison, Federalist 10
The founders were not very fond of democracies.
“Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
– John Adams
In a pure democracy, basically, the people gather together and vote on every issue, and the majority would prevail.
Many people believe this is the way things ought to work (and some believe that is the way it is supposed to work in America). However, our system of government was created precisely to avoid that, and for very good reason.
As discussed in the previous essay, “The Problem With Factions”, majority rule leads to tyranny of the majority. And tyranny of the majority leads to the destruction of the society.
“Democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%.”
This quote is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but nobody has been able to definitively confirm that. In any case, it is a good explanation of the inherent problem of a pure democracy.
Another popular quote in this regard is,
“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”
As with the other quote, this one may also be erroneously attributed, this time to Benjamin Franklin.
Whoever made these statements, they provide us with a great way to grasp the concept.
To any reasonable, objective, clear-thinking person, it’s very easy to see how a pure democracy can quickly lead to disastrous results.
To rely on the current and often very quickly changing passions of any majority, which is susceptible to demagoguery, deceit, and shear ignorance is societal suicide. It is impossible to create and maintain a stable and tranquil environment for the long-term under such conditions.
Fortunately, the framers of our form of government were well aware of this and knew that a republic was the only way to go.
“A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking.”
– James Madison Federalist 10
The idea of a republic is that when the people from various areas elect a representative to speak for them in the whole, the problems of democracy and factions are dissipated. This is especially important when we have such a large number of people covering a vast amount of territory.
We may have special interests and factions within each represented area, but other areas will work against that problem, such that no faction would be able to become large enough to control the majority of the whole.
The structure of government that the framers ultimately created was a combination of:
1. pure democracy from the people, in how we elect our representatives for the House in congress,
2. partial democracy, in that the state legislatures (who the people elected through pure democracy) would select the Senators to represent the states at the national level,
3. again, partial democracy with the election of the President through the electoral college process,
4. and much less democracy in the selection of our Judiciary at the federal level.
This mixture in the level of democracy was very intentional and was a means to combat the problems with factions, as discussed in the previous essay.
A republican form of government was so important in our founding that it was one of the few things in the Constitution that actually directed the states to act a certain way.
Article IV, Section 4 begins,
“The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government…”
A republican form of government insures that the people have a strong voice in determining who will represent them when making the important decisions.
However, it does not mean that the representatives are intended or required to simply “take a poll” of what those people want on every issue and then cast their vote on the results of that poll.
Part of the concept of a “representative republic” is that the representatives are chosen by the people because they have the right qualifications and ethics to make good decisions. The founders knew and understood that the people, in general, did not have the time, expertise, or desire to be fully informed on every issue in order to make good, sound judgments on them.
With a representative form of government, we rely on our representatives to take that time to fully research issues and come to good decisions, even if public polling might indicate something different. The “check” in that process is frequent elections so that the people can indicate whether they want that representative to continue or not. This type of controlled representation works at different levels throughout the government.
Is it perfect? Of course not. Nothing is, and nothing can, or will, be…because we are dealing with imperfect human beings and the human nature that comes with them. But it is the best system ever devised by mankind, and the principles that it is based on are immutable.
Where we’ve gone wrong…
Most people do not understand the difference between a republic and a democracy. As well, most people believe that we are, indeed, a pure democracy.
We hear people all the time talk about how the “majority rules” and that’s as it should be.
Because most people do not understand these differences and why a pure democracy is very bad, we have made some substantial and damaging changes to our system that takes us closer to the pure democracy model, against the wise intent of the Founders.
One of those unfortunate actions was the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment changed the way we elect our Senators, such that it is now elected by popular vote (pure democracy) rather than through our elected State representatives as designed (indirect democracy).
The consequences of this are far-reaching. Most problematic is that it knocked the balance of powers between the States and the federal government out of whack, and because of that, many other parts of the system have fallen like dominoes.
We’ll discuss the 17th Amendment a bit more in a future essay concerning the Senate.
Another push towards pure democracy are the attempts to change how we elect the President. Many people foolishly want to get rid of the Electoral College and move to a purely democratic popular vote. This would further diminish the carefully crafted protections against factions and the tyranny of the majority and the ultimate problems with pure democracies.
About this series:
The People Are Sovereign! is a series of 30 essays that will be posted on a daily basis. The series will continue tomorrow with Essay 12 – Limited Government
To view the previous essay in the series, click this link: Essay 10- The Problem With Factions
To view the next essay in the series, click this link: Essay 12 – Limited Government