Ok ready, here is a government 101 quiz, answer the first thing that comes to mind for the following question: What kind of government do we have in the United States? …. I am wiling to bet, unless you are a political science buff there is a good chance you got this wrong and said “A democracy” as your first instinct. I can’t blame you, that is what everyone says. The news media, either major party’s political candidates, and even many grade school civics teachers state this everyday. They are all wrong. But who cares, right? Isn’t a republic and a democracy the same thing? While it is certainly becoming that way in popular understanding, I argue that this belief is at our own peril.
The United States government is a Constitutional Republic. Translation: We elect government officials to represent us and they must govern according to our Constitution, which purposefully limits the government’s power over the citizens. On the other hand, a true democracy would require each issue be put to popular vote with the citizens deciding directly on policy matters. It is true that we definitely use democratic elements in order to choose our government’s representatives in this system, but this distinction and understanding it is essential to being a truly effective citizen. The most important issue to understand is why our Founding Father’s opted for a republic instead of a democracy.
The answer is because they wanted to protect from a tyranny of the majority. The system is designed to insulate political decisions, which require a long-term, strategic outlook (especially in matters of foreign policy, liberty, and fiscal matters) from the emotional overreactions to the hot issue of the day. This is more important in today’s world than ever before in our history. In a world where information is transmitted in nanoseconds, not hours or even minutes the issues of the day spread unfiltered, more quickly and to more people than ever before. This media is often not vetted by a news editor to crosscheck facts and is received by the reader/viewer/listener as truthful no matter the bias of the source. So as information and misinformation becomes available to more people faster and is less tested for truth, the insulation from governmental overreaction to toxic information is more vital than ever. A democracy can provide no protection to the liberties of a minority. If the majority voted for a policy, the minority would be without any legal safeguard for their rights. So before you start thinking that maybe a lot of our problems would be solved faster if the government were a democracy and we could just vote directly on what we want, first think of any issues on which you may be in the minority.
The greatest problem that we face is the erosion of the republican (not the political party) principles of our nation. Over the past century, we have strayed further from the republic laid out in the Constitution and tended instead toward more infusions of pure democracy. The passing of the 17th Amendment to the constitution in 1913 is an example of this, which changed how we elect Senators. Starting in 1913 Senators have been elected directly by the voters of the state they represent. Previously, the Constitution had stated in Article I, section 3 that Senators were to be chosen by the legislative houses of the states they represent. Since that amendment, and maybe only coincidently, the power structure of our government has changed significantly and exponentially from favoring the legislative branch to the executive branch. In the current state of American politics the House of Representatives and the Senate have far less power than the President and the executive branch. This reluctance to exercise power has led to Congress being irrelevant on almost every issue and leading toward further legislation from the bench of the Supreme Court and through Presidential executive order and bureaucratic administrative law. The framers of our constitution wanted the Senate to be more insulated from the pressures of emotional issues of the day than the House of Representatives. However, the 17th Amendment basically made Senators the same as Representatives only with longer terms. Therefore, they are much more likely to tend toward the majority opinion of their state on a given issue regardless of what they think is right for the long-term of republic in order to be re-elected.
This shift leads to things happening like Senators fighting to keep defense projects from leaving their state even when the move would save money for the Department of Defense at large. And at the same time, the same Senator may be in favor of reducing the budget deficit due to our increasing national debt being a long-term, strategic risk to the country. They contradict their own belief in order to satisfy the immediate passion of their electorate. If a Senator truly believes that running a budget deficit and thereby further increasing national debt is a long-term, strategic threat they should be the entity insulated enough from the immediate backlash of their constituency to make a decision that benefits and protect the republic. By stripping that insulation, we made the Senator the same as the Representative, both now looking out for their re-election by stimulating the instant gratification culture above the good of the long-term needs of the republic. And this is just one example. On the other side of the aisle the issue may not be a defense project it may be a union dispute. On both sides of the aisle, we took away the forward thinking ability of our Senators by making their election more democratic and more tied to the whims of the majority.
We must understand our government in order to fix it. We must know the Constitution in order to defend it. We must stand up against the populist ideas of more democracy at the expense of our republic even though it is unpopular in our society of instant gratification. The tyranny of the majority is real, and the further from the republican form of government we stray the more susceptible we are to it.
We are not the “greatest democracy on earth” as I hear far too often. We are the greatest country on earth. And it’s because we are not a democracy, it’s because of our Constitution. It’s because of our republic. Thanks for reading.