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?
A minority comprised of Trump supporters? No.
Hello! The Edit function reappears. First time I’ve seen it today.
Can’t say that I would agree to rule by a cabal of computer programmers/coders either.
There is no mystery why Lee and other Republicans are pushing this line right now…they know they are about to lose a lot of power and they are salting the earth before the Democrats take charge, this entitlement that Republicans have, like they should naturally be in power and no one else should be, is authoritarian…also, perhaps they’re scared that the Democrats will mistreat them while they are in the minority just as they mistreated the Democrats when they were in the minority…even though the Democrats probably don’t have the guts enough to be that ruthless…
Also, this is usually the best way to get An-Cap (and adjacent) Libertarians to admit they do not support democracy is to raise this issue.
Democratic systems demand a mixed economy. Not to beat a horse I flog regularly, but separating economics from politics is what allowed this particular idea to take hold.
Once economics became “the most scientific of the social sciences,” it was only a matter of time before people started looking at politics as a constraint on nature.
Once it’s actually dead, I’ll put down my whip.
Utah Republicans ought to be getting nervous. Utah’s voters can place statutory initiatives on the ballot. Two years ago, those voters approved an independent redistricting commission, the ACA expansion of Medicaid, and medical marijuana. The state legislature has been actively overturning/restricting all of those, since there’s no limits on the legislature’s ability to modify initiative statutes (as opposed to Arizona, where the elected legislature can’t touch such statutes for five years, or California and Colorado, where it’s almost as easy to embed such things in the state constitution as to do statutes).
When the Dems take power in January, one of the first items on the agenda should be to propose a constitutional amendment that guarantees citizens, of legal age, the right to vote and deny government, federal and state the authority to encumber that right. It won’t pass, but it will give Dem candidates a club to beat R’s with that will put them in a situation where it will be difficult to explain why they oppose the right to vote.
The bumper sticker campaign would be easy to make and understandable even by the most daft.
It’s not just Utah Republicans. There is recently circulating footage of the Kansas Senate President talking about the need to maintain a Republican Supermajority in order to gerrymander the state to ensure minority rule.
The current nationwide Republican attack on voting access and rights is an attempt to ensure ongoing minority rule. We are experiencing what happens when one party becomes fundamentally undemocratic out of ethnonationalist fears.
@Kurtz: Could you speak more about the politics/economics overlap/divide? Or provide some resources? I’ve never heard that argument before and I’m interested in it.
The ethnonationalism isn’t the reason for the anti-majoritarianism, it’s part of the faux populism used to con the rubes into supporting the anti-majoritarianism.
Having recently read Hacker and Pierson’s Let Them Eat Tweets I’m on a kick of arguing that the faux populist face of the Republican Party is the visible tip of a plutocratic iceberg.
Like abolishion and civil rights and LGB+ rights?
All of those were values held by the minority.
Yep. On all sides of the matrix. And many of the most authoritarian, most brutal, and most deadly were on the left end of the spectrum.
Right now the right to worship is subject to authoritarian control.
I agree with all the CDC recommendation regarding social distancing, and major denominations are following them. But when churches come up with solutions that follow the rules (socially distanced services, “drive-in” services”) and the government says “No”–and enforces it–that’s not protecting the right to worship.
It most certainly is not. It’s an oppressive dictatorship. I don’t give a rat’s ass what the official name says–and if that’s your argument, I’m severely disappointed in you.
Where’s the representation for Hong Kong? Where’s the representation for Tibet? Where’s the representation for Xinjiang?
China is a party-level dictatorship. Full stop.
There is zero representation of the people. Municipal, County, Provincial, and Federal party members are chosen by the party not the people.
I lived there for six years. I kept my mouth shut for six years–because I knew the cost of speaking out.
A good friend of mine from China got her BA and MA in the UK. She learned what it meant to live in a country that respects the will of the people. When she returned home, she was put in a psych ward until she admitted that she believed in the CCP (her father is a mid-level member). I talked with her on video-chat while she was in the hospital and she insisted “I can’t speak Chinese”–we had to speak only in English so nobody in the room would know what we were saying. And yet she kept repeating “I believe in the CCP! I do!” … while looking at her mother and breaking down in tears. And all I could do was talk about trivialities for fear that anything I said would be used against her.
I watched someone I care about deeply being brainwashed in front of my eyes to make sure that she was loyal to the ruling party.
If you think that’s a republic, then… I’ve lost all respect for you*.
* Replace this last phrase with the aggressive, vulgarity-laden tirade you would expect.
You’re being obtuse. Perhaps deliberately.
“Republic” is also used as a term for a form of government that is not a hereditary monarchy.
It is absolutely clear that this limited sense was how the original article understood the concept of “republic:”
Of course, it also possible to understand “republic” in a more expansive sense: as a form of government in which the administration of the realm is a “public” matter, a res publica, as the Romans said.
But that didn’t mean that every citizen had an equal stake in the government. And while it is true that “republics,” historically, protected the rights of the minority, this was always to protect the minority of the wealthy and powerful against the poor and (relatively) powerless masses.
So when you write:
You’re pulling a bait and switch.
A “republic” – in the classical sense of the word – did most certainly not protect the weak against the strong. Instead, it protected the strong against the masses, who, individually, were weak.
Historically speaking, your concept of “republic” always was a vehicle for minority rule. To pretend that your “republic” was ever meant to protected the weak against the strong is a bald-faced lie.
And I’m pretty sure you know that.
Mr. Hitler and Mr. Pinochet, among others, would like to have a word with you…
Oh do unpack that one…
As so often seems to be the case (and for reasons I do not really understand) you are giving what I am writing an extremely unfair reading.
Further, you are ignoring the way I clearly defined the terms in the post (and have defined it elsewhere): a republic is a government without a king or aristocracy (that is what the Framers meant in the Constitution).
Indeed, you are really missing the point that the thing that protects rights is democracy not republicanism.
I would far prefer to live in the non-republics of the UK, Japan, and Spain (to name three) because they are democracies. But the non-democratic People’s Republic of China, which is indeed a brutal dictatorship, is a non-democracy and hence the lack of civil rights and liberties.
@Mu Yixiao: As to other aspects of your post:
Like I said in the OP (and have repeatedly noted elsewhere):
There is a difference between protecting fundamental rights, often of the minority and letting the minority govern.
To wit: if a group of freinds is going to vote on what to eat for dinner, a democratic decision rule would mean if 3 want pizza and 2 want burgers, that pizza wins.
But if one of the friends is Muslim, it would be unkind and unfair to order pork products on the pizza, even if everyone else wanted it.
If I need to elaborate on that, please let me know.
This is unequivicoally true. I am not sure, however, what that has to do with my post.
This, to me, debatable. For one thing, worship itself is not being stopped. No one is being persecuted for their beliefs.
Also: this is clearly a temporary action balanced off by public health concerns, as you note.
I am open to the notion that the regulation is inappropriate. But, again, I am not sure what it has to do with my post.
@Mu Yixiao: “But when churches come up with solutions that follow the rules (socially distanced services, “drive-in” services”) and the government says “No”–and enforces it–that’s not protecting the right to worship.”
Wow. That’s right up there with putting Uighurs in concentration camps. No wonder those brave patriots of the right decided it was time to murder the governor of Michigan.
It’s a completely nonsensical and un-factual assertion.
The republic not democracy is simply a version of minority rule authoritarianism, it has nothing in particularly to do with your assertion (which I would not even call true).
?? This is simply a non sequitur. As it happens in modern economies it is probably more successful to have what you think of as a mixed economy, but it’s a fatuous assertion to write ‘demand’ (when one can understand rather it is your political preference, which is fine but self-deluding to label a systematic necessity of democratic systems).
@Steven L. Taylor: ” No one is being persecuted for their beliefs.”
Now you’re the one being obtuse. It is without question that the most horrific form of tyranny is to ask a right-winger to change their behavior in the tiniest way to protect the common good — or in fact to prevent any right-winger from doing exactly the thing he wants to do at exactly the moment he wants to do it. That is taking away their FREEDOMM!!!!! and makes you either a communist or a fascist, depending on how many syllables the accuser is capable of.
I just noticed this as I was deleting the e-mail notification.
Republican government does not guarantee representation. Democracy does.
Look, we can certainly split hairs about terms, but even if we look at the Greek and Roman concepts of republicanism, they do not guarantee representation.
I am not going to defend either the PRC nor the USSR, but from the POVs of their founders and subsequent rulers, they thought that they had derived power via the people (via revolutions) and that the Party represented the people.
Moreover, the Chinese ousted an Emperor, and the Russians a Czar. They literally replaced hereditary monarchies with non-artistocracies. In other words: they replaced monarchies with republics in the basic senses of the terms.
Now, there is plenty to be said, normatively, about those regimes, but that is a different discussion.
@mattbernius: We are experiencing what happens when one party becomes fundamentally undemocratic out of ethnonationalist fears.
Yes precisely. In essence you are going through an American version of the late Weimar Republic.
This is a very dangerous moment for you as it’s quite apparent from the Trump adminstration that your system has some profound weaknesses that have hitherto been disguised by a reasonably robust governing tradition. But that tradition is dissolving in the face of a white supremacist reactionary fringe that has taken over one of the Parties, enabled by the Fox New media (one can expect this only to change if Murdoch Père dies and Liz allies with the Younger son in family coup).
Really quite dangerous and needing systematic responses – that is institutional strengthening, and limitations on the Presidential power to short-circuit oversight and engage in unilateral action.
Republic not a democracy is a dangerous phrase (as well as a nonsensical one analytically of course).
I found this today while doing a memory check.
I’ll post a more comprehensive description of my view later tonight.
I am eagerly awaiting the companion piece entitled “The Light Side of ‘Its a Republic Not A Democracy’”.
I also propose that the US be renamed “The Frequently Democratic Republic of the United States of America”
The question for me is why someone like Lee doesn’t make the argument this way rather than the bullshit he tweeted.
I suspect it’s because it exposes the difference between a genetic/immutable characteristic minority and an economic one.
From the point of view of a monarchist conservative socialist (maybe):
Slavery would have been democratically affirmed by the Confederacy.
Odds on antisemitism would have been democratically affirmed in the Third Reich.
etc. etc. etc.
That the majority support something is no guarantee that it is ethically sound.
Nor is there any automatic mechanism that prevents a morally dubious policy being supported by the majority.
If the majority were in favour of an idiotic and/or immoral policy would that make it sane? Would that make it moral?
Is there any mechanism that prevents a majority from adopting such policies?
A dynamic balance of democracy, inherent rights, considered opinion, expertise, legalism etc is the best we can hope for.
Which is why there is great peril when “conservatives” abandon practice to pander to populism.
Or when “liberals” assume that that the majority of the people are saints. Or sinners.
Both are dangerous assumptions.
Nor am I arguing that to be the case. Not in the least.
Serious question: how am I failing to convey this? I ask so as to better hone my presentation.
As for Senator Lee; his argumentation is lightweight piffle.
I suppose I should be sad that a United State Senator is not past this level.
It is like the arguments of some “libertarians” that monarchy with a legal basis is superior to democracy as more secure for property and free markets.
Entirely overlooking the reality that no monarch since bloody Enmebaragesi of Kish has been able to rule without a court and “elite” class.
And that NOTHING is as insecure as property in the face of a court elite.
Lee assumes that a non-democratic system with property rights (and other subsidiary liberties) is inherently stable in relation to both an excluded majority (LOL’ery given Trumpian “we is so hard done by” populism) and potentially predatory financial elite.
@Steven L. Taylor:
It’s Saturday evening, I’ve been listening to The Chieftains and drinking wine!
(Most of a bottle of Pinot Noir has been guzzled)
Maybe I should get back when more sober. LOL.
Thing is, we are starting from very different, ehh, starting points?
I think that very different political bases can produce stable polities, and ones entirely compatible with modern society.
(They can also have underlying flaws that may be fatal long term contemporary China? US pre-Civil War)
I’m not so sure it’s the formal rules that are key as the informal conventions.
The problem is when people are willing to blast clear through the “not so much rules as guidelines” even a nominally formal system like the US has trouble.
A less formal one like the UK is is in Titanic territory .
So far all I have is “I don’t know what a the formal definition of a failing state is, but I know what it smells like.”
And: neither surly majority nor self-validated minority is automatically “righteous”.
Throw down the sword.
(Then sneakily stab the fascists/bolsheviks in the back!)
@JohnSF: Certainly all of what you are noting is the case, but isn’t that why Aristotle (IIRC) distinguished between monarchs and despots, oligarchs and aristarchs, and polities and democracies? It always comes down to the choice between ruling in “my” interests and ruling in the interest of others also. The social contract doesn’t guarantee this (as Locke among others pointed out), the people living the contract do. Currently, one side in what appears to be most Western democracies is covertly–and in some cases overtly–siding with the despots, oligarchs, and mob.
It is perfectly possible to be a republic and not a democracy.
See most republics from Ancient Levant onward.
Thing is, who should rule, and how, if not the majority?
What are the limits on the majority and on the rulers, if differing?
Is the rule law bound or “tyrannic” in the ancient Greek sense?
How is such law modified and by whom?
In some respects we have not moved on much beyond the ancient Greek problematic of democats vs oligarchs with the exception that perhaps we now see that even the ancient democrats were perfectly OK with slavery, external conquest, and internal exploitation.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Serious guess: you stated that democracy involves protecting the rights of the minority, but you offered no specific concrete supporting examples of how it has done that historically, and how those examples rely on structural features not cultural norms.
@Just nutha ignint cracker:
But if you look at Aristotle, and other Greek commentators (who we must remember were very much a privileged group) sometimes the “dictators/tyrants/depots” were the benevolent rulers compared to either the oligarchs OR the democrats.
Also, that the entire monarch/oligarch/tyrant/democrat comparison was “internal” and entirely omitted the slave, metics, “natives”.
In the wider picture “despots” or “oligarchs” in the Classical sense are not necessarily (always) villains.
The “populus” are not necessarily always good or wise.
But ignoring, or overriding, or exploiting, said people is both unwise (you cannot ultimately rule a civil society by decree & force) and probably not good either.
Also, the mob might just be having fun.
Which might be good, bad or indifferent.
Indeed. But, again, I never made such a claim. Indeed, I asserted no test for righteousness.
I am asserting a superiority to a system that takes into account majority sentiment over a system that only takes into account minority sentiment.
It is true that in the classics rule by the few is not always better than rule by the masses. However, Plato and Aristotle both did not like despots or oligarchs.
More on that in a post that I will finish in the morning.
In their purest form, seizing the means of production (State Communism) or shielding private industry from any government action (An-Cap) are both anti-democratic in that they restrict the majority from coalescing to solve a harm through law.
I would wager that you and I do not view property rights from the same perspective–that exerts quite a bit of influence on how we see the relationship between politics and economics.
Feel free to give an example of a non-mixed economy that functions as a Democratic Republic.
But I don’t think that you’re accounting for the difference between property rights (something that requires recognition by third parties irrespective of the existence of the State) and rights that need not pierce the personal bubble to be exercised.
True. And testing for righteousness; well, that’s the tricky thing. 🙂
But; take account of “sentiment” as much as you like.
Still comes down to “who, whom” IYAM.
And more importantly, how to arrange the political and social rules and conventions so as to avoid “who, whom” coming to a knife fight.
I’d argue Plato was just fine with despots, so long as they were Platonic despots; and Aristotle’s issue with oligarchs was not so much philosophical as the contemporary evidence that they tended to be stupid b@st@rtds.
I usually stay out of this discussion, simply because it’s too exhausting. It generally descends into one of those pointless semantic arguments at which the American right excels as an alternative to an examination of the substance of an issue.
But I have found that asking strident ‘republic not democracy’ advocates to explain why a country cannot be both, tends to stop them in their tracks. The rare person who tries to develop a coherent position inevitably turns out to be interpreting ‘democracy’ as ‘direct democracy’, a system where all citizens get to vote on every government decision. The concept of ‘representative democracy’ is dismissed with a sneer as something I just invented to support a floundering argument.
I am fairly certain that whatever arch armchair philosophical abstractions you wish to ramble on about, they’re quite boring and irrelevant to the subject, and it’s a boring attempt at shoehorning some tedious pet subject in.
Feel free to give a precise definition of what you mean by “mixed economy” as well as any actual example in a real world historical or current context of anything that is not “mixed”
Silly fatuous and irrelevant posturing, with an absurd pretension that such is relevant to the utilization of the phrase “Republic not a democracy.”
Indeed it really is a most boring and peculiarly empty semantic demarche as it’s not a particularly new concept, democracy as distinguishable between direct democracy (which in any case anyone with a basic education knows there is essentially no historical example larger than city state, given the pure impracticality) and representative democracy.
It’s rather something of a Know Nothing reversion to some early 18th century or even 17th century terminologic game playing by anti-democratic aristos and rather requires a virtually deliberate ignorance (or maybe plainly a deliberate ignorance).
Of course it’s rather transparently as Bernius has stated the vessel for a ethno-nationalist reaction to justify anti-democratic minority rule on the part of a declining ethno-political faction (not that motivated minority factions claiming majority power is something novel, voir bolshevik, menshevik)
Sometimes I think you get a bad rap around here, then you let posts like this into the wild.
Hint #1: scroll up to my original post. There you will find why I made the assertion on this particular post.
Hint #2: I have spoken to many American Libertarians. Now, understand that because I am American, I have a slightly better grip on how Americans think and behave than you do. We have a completely off-the-rails segment of the population who has extreme ideas about government and economics.
Hint #3: I’m not ‘posturing.’ What was that about shoehorning, asshole?
Hint #4: actually understand the point being made before responding. You don’t, because you don’t even try.
Snide and inappropriately arrogant, the Lounsbury way.
I’ll ask again, tell me how extreme economic ideologies (go read my post again, because you didn’t the first time) fit with democracy of any kind. They don’t.