Republic or Democracy—Does it Matter?


from the June 2022 Issue of The Compass

A teenage boy asked his father about America’s government. “Dad, what kind of government do we have? In school, our textbook says we have a democracy. Our teacher says we have a democracy, and the other day a news station said the same thing. Is that right?”

No. That is not correct. We have a constitutional republic.

How often have you heard influential people in the media, entertainment industry, business, sports, and government refer to our system of government as a democracy? Isn’t that a good thing?

To correctly answer the question, one needs to define the terms democracy, republic, and democratic processes. Reviewing America’s history helps to understand these terms and processes.

A democracy is a form of government where there is mass participation by the people in the writing of laws and the management of the affairs of the country—even the daily decisions of the country’s business.

A republic consists of independent units, provinces, or states. These states then elect representatives on many distinct levels to write laws and conduct the business of the country. The people are not involved in the day-to-day operations.

A democratic process involves a group of citizens who vote for a representative or referendum, usually a one person, one vote contest to determine the outcome. Democratic processes can and do exist within a republic such as in mayoral elections where there is mass participation by the people in the election of the town’s mayor and the town council, but then the people take a step back and allow the elected representatives to manage the town. Having democratic processes does not mean the government is a democracy. Not understanding these terms can cause people to incorrectly identity America as a democracy.

A pure democracy is workable in small groups such as families, towns, and congressional districts. Beyond that, there are serious problems with a pure democracy for larger groups. The people, most of whom are working, do not have the time to stay abreast of the issues of the day. Also, the majority soon grows tired of the constant machinations of governing and lose interest, usually leaving the business to a very few. When large numbers are involved with pure democracies, the operation of the people’s business takes on an emotional climate and becomes exceedingly difficult to manage. It becomes extremely difficult to get large numbers of people, from varying ethnic backgrounds and climes to agree on any decision. This proclivity naturally defeats the efficiency of the government.

Furthermore, the remaining few who do manage the day-to-day affairs find they can vote themselves benefits and control the direction of the nation with little regard for the individual. As history has recorded, France’s attempt at a freedom revolution failed because their pure democracy led to anarchy. It took Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor to undo the resulting chaos. Pure democracies are always just one vote away from utter bedlam.

The mechanisms devised by the Founding Fathers to avoid the chaos of a pure democracy come in three primary ways. 1) The division of power through federalism and the Checks and Balances System. This was designed to prevent a consolidation of power at any level or branch of government. 2) The method of choosing representatives, senators, and the president. The people elect congressmen and congresswomen for two years via a pure democratic vote. Senators were originally selected for six years by state legislatures, so the interests of each state could be heard at the national debate and to function as a shock absorber for the emotional nature of zealous individuals. The 17th Amendment (1913) altered the method of electing senators, ultimately upsetting the delicate balance of power between the Federal government, states, and the people. 3) The president is elected to a four-year term by the miracle of the electoral college. This protects the minority from being marginalized by the majority.

In the history of the United States, five presidents have won the presidential election without winning the popular vote, sending a clear signal that a candidate for president must appeal to both large and small states for support. This one procedure alone moderates the work of the government because all sides of any national debate must be heard and acknowledged. Of the electoral college, Alexander Hamilton said in Federalist Paper number 68, “I venture somewhat further; and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it (method of electing the president) be not perfect, it is a least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages; the union of which was to be desired.” Mr. Hamilton goes on to say that if elections are properly administered, the electoral college would prevent cabal, intrigue, and corruption. This same concept provides the foundation for our bicameral legislature. The house (voice of the people) can slow the reserved senate and the senate (voice of the states) can slow the more emotional house in questionable bills. For these reasons and others, a pure democracy was soundly rejected in favor of a republic.

What of these Founding Fathers? Were they, as some have recently conjectured, just a bunch of rich white guys trying to grab and maintain power? W. Cleon Skousen, in his book, The Making of America, gives a summary of these Founding Fathers. “These men were notable in their background and training. Two were college presidents, three were or had been college professors, four had studied law in England, thirty-one were in the legal profession with several having been judges. Nine had been born in foreign countries and knew first-hand the abuses of European style rule. Twenty-eight had served in Congress and most had served in state houses. Nineteen or more had served in the Army: seventeen as officers and four on General Washington’s staff.” Some attended church and some did not. There were pioneering country folks, and some educated members of universities. Some had land and some came from frontier poverty. All of them wanted freedom, “liberty for all,” peace, and an opportunity at prosperity. There is no evidence that any of them wanted to control the masses.

What they were aiming for was a government that could both retain democratic processes in the towns, cities, and sovereign states, and use characteristics of a republic in the federal government that had the necessary powers to conduct the business for the nation but avoid the issues of the Greek democracy which lasted only 80 years. They agreed that the only way to accomplish this was through a republic. Finally, it is worth noting that during the great discussions of the Constitutional Convention concerning the form of government they would be creating, establishing a democracy lost! A thorough reading of the Ninth and Tenth Federalist Papers bears this out. They accomplished their goals in the drafting of the United States Constitution we know today.

The Constitution had two main purposes in its construction. First was to protect the rights and freedoms they viewed as coming from their Supreme Being. These are the inalienable rights—meaning they could not be separated from us—to which Jefferson refers in the Declaration of Independence. The second was to create a free environment, both domestically and internationally, to foster and encourage a free and open market where man’s creativity and initiative would be rewarded in what they called the “pursuit of happiness.”

Originally—and intentionally—there were very few responsibilities granted by the Constitution to the federal government. These duties included things like a standing army, a standardized medium of exchange, immigration policy, post roads, and crimes of the high seas. All of these could be classified as either to protect the country or foster economic activity. These kinds of duties would certainly be better managed by a central government rather than for each state to have its own currency requiring currency exchanges between states or for each state to have its own independent standing army.

Furthermore, the Tenth Amendment in the Bill of Rights clearly states that other than the few duties specifically delegated to the central government, all others were the realm of the state and local governments. This was a clear statement that each state had its own sovereignty and that overreach by the central government was neither wanted nor would be tolerated. As stated above, this aspect of vertical separation in our system is called federalism and the horizontal separation of the executive from the legislative from the judicial is the well-known mechanism of the System of Checks and Balances. Both leave unambiguous evidence that the founders wanted to protect the people from government’s historical proclivity towards abuse of power. These protections were intended for all levels of government: federal, state, and local.

Indeed, they all agreed that it should be a republic of sovereign states—more specifically a constitutional republic—and that this form would provide the individualistic and freedom-loving, American people with the most freedom, the most liberty, the best chance for prosperity, and longevity of government.

At the close of the convention, history reports that a woman stopped Benjamin Franklin in the streets of Philadelphia and asked, “Well Mr. Franklin, what kind of government do we have?” To which Mr. Franklin replied, “A republic madam, if you can keep it!” (James McHenry journal.)

John Adams once said, “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” (Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 12 May 1780.)

If I may be so bold as to disagree with the great John Adams. No, Mr. Adams, we must ensure that every generation understands politics and war. We must be conversant about why our Founding Fathers chose to create a constitutional republic rather than a pure democracy. We need to resist the allure of false ideologies that would enslave us with promises of fairness and equity. We need citizens who understand the pitfalls of all forms of collectivist government and how they lead only to poverty and oppression—not freedom and prosperity. No, Mr. Adams, we want all young girls and boys, men and women, to internalize our freedoms and our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Long live the Republic!

Publius of Phoenix 

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