The Dark Side of “It’s a Republic, not a Democracy”
I couldn't help myself.
The latest entry in the rhetorical battlespace that is “we’re a republic, not a democracy” comes from Senator Mike Lee (R-UT):
I would note that the constitution promised a “republican form of government” (Article IV, Section 4) which means no king. And, I would note, that originally the House of Representatives and state government were elected (you know, representative democracy). We later added the Senate and elected the Electoral College (with all of the known problems therewith).
Especially weird, however, is stating that he is concerned about “the excessive accumulation of the power in the hands of the few” whilst decrying democracy. The precise problem we are facing at the moment is not unbridled majority rule but, rather, rule by the minority. You know, “excessive accumulation of power in the hands of the few” at least as relative to the many.
This is the kind of thing authoritarians say. And, to be fair, I have heard Lee interviewed and he actually a fairly thoughtful guy about US government, so I want to be fair in assessing his words. Still, the problem is that he is buying into a mythology that does not work the way he is arguing that it does. Worse, I think he is blinding himself to the flaws of our system because those flaws help his party.
The dark side of the “republic, not a democracy” mantra is just this: the notion that the minority knows best as to protecting certain values (often vaguely defined).
Indeed, the reason I am such a proponent of democratic governance is that it comes the closest of any other form of government humankind has attempted to protecting basic human rights and approaching some level of justice. History is replete with authoritarians who have promised that they can bring about a better life for all if only those who govern are given more power than the people.
The temptation that if my group could have more power, then all would be fine, is a serious one that has often lead to dictatorship over the centuries.
Let me stress, yet again, democracy in the modern sense always means some level of protection for minorities and always includes a set of freedoms (such as free speech and right to worship) that are not subject to majoritarian control. But let me stress also: if one really wants to say that the ends justify non-democratic means, then one is in favor of authoritarian government.
Minority protections are part of democracy.
Institutional mechanisms that require more than a simple majority decision rule to govern are often part of democratic governance.
But, minority rule vitiates democracy. And whenever “a republic, not a democracy” is used to defend minority rule it is not some high-minded appeal to the genius of the Founders, it is a plain-and-simple appeal to a form of authoritarianism.
Here are the most charitable interpretations of the “republic, not a democracy” bit:
- An acknowledgment that we do not have a direct democracy wherein all citizens get a vote.
- An acknowledgment that our system of government is not subject to a simplistic system wherein everything is subject to the preferences of 50%+1 (or to vote of the most).
- A simplistic way to acknowledge federalism and other institutional features.
- A hand-wavey way to sound smart, and to cover-up/dismiss anti-democratic elements of the system that favor the group of the person asserting “we are a republic, not a democracy”
- A vague recollection that Madison said something along these lines in the Federalist Papers.
- An acknowledgment that the Founders of the country created a country with chattel slavery, allowed property/income tests to vote, and denied women the vote.
The bottom line is that #1 never really existed (or when it did, the definition of citizenship was severely limited). Likewise, #2 is the strawiest of straw men, as no system in the world called a democracy functions like that.
#3 is what a lot of people seem to mean without realizing or fully understanding what they are saying, although many of them also are committing to #4 (their team benefits, so the inequities are okay by them).
#5 is just a misunderstanding of Madison (see various links here) as well as a misunderstanding of the way the Founders used Greek philosophy and the history of the Roman republic to shape their rhetoric (and hence quotes by the Founders decrying democracy by name).
#6 is historically true, but not a great place to hang one’s rhetorical hat, now is it? If we want to hearken back to the Founding, we have to straight-up acknowledge that the US in 1787 does not live up to contemporary standards of democracy and that we interpret the Founding as aspirational in regards to rights.
The reality, of course, is that the constitutional promise of a republican form of government meant no king and no aristocracy (the most fundamental meaning of the word “republic” in this context). And, further, Madison meant a “republic” to be “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place” (Fed 10).
A not especially charitable interpretation, a deeper version of #5, is that defenders of the phrase full well know that they are supporting minority rule. Not just living with the problems that the Senate creates for representation, or living with the occasional electoral vote/popular vote inversion, but actually endorsing their own power as the numeric minority over the majority.
And when members of government state things like the third tweet above, it starts to sound a lot more what authoritarians say when they claim that they have to thwart majority rights or majority rule in the name of some higher cause.
I would note that one of the rallying cries of the American Revolution was “no taxation without representation.” While many Republicans might be focused on the taxation part, the truly important element there was the representation part.
Indeed, some old document written at about that time noted (emphasis mine):
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government
I may just be a simple, small-town political scientist, but I a pretty sure that the name of a governmental type focused on the “consent of the governed” and that derives from the “right of the people” is democracy.
I would further note, that China is a republic. The Soviet Union was a republic (indeed, all of the Cold War era Eastern bloc were republics) and yet none of them functioned on the principle of the consent of the governed.
And, I will note, all of the leaders of those places all told their people that they knew what was best for them, and that the form of government in place was for the population’s own good, and that democracy would just mess all of that up.
Let me end with this. Let’s assume that, in fact, the Framers didn’t want the development of representative democratic rule. That they wanted minority rule. Do we want that now?