Sunday, February 27, 2011

Democracy, Republics, and Revisionist Tea Party Drivel

I've been involved in a number of discussions recently (many of them on Facebook) about how America is a Republic, not a Democracy. Proponents of this idea all seem to be Conservatives who are either involved in the Tea Party or at least smile on its activities.

The video below got posted on one of my Conservative friend's Facebook pages this morning, and it's a classic example of the sort of compost they promote. We'll look at a transcript after the video.

When Benjamin Franklin existed the Constitutional Convention he was asked by a woman "Sir, what have you given us?" His immediate response was "A republic Ma'am, if you can keep it." Yet most American's today have been persuaded that our governmental system is a democracy, and not a republic. The difference between these two is essential to understanding Americanism and the American system. Many Americans would be surprised to learn that the word "democracy" doesn't appear in the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution. Nor does it appear in any of the Constitutions of the 50 states. The founders did everything that could to keep us from having a democracy.
  • James Madison, rightly known as the Father of the Constitution, wrote in essay number 10 of the Federalist Papers, "Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulance and contention; have ever been found incompatable with personal security or the right of property, and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."
  • Alexander Hamilton agreed and he stated, "We are a Republican Government. Real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of democracy."
  • Sanuel Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, stated, "Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself."
The founders had good reason to look upon democracy with contempt because they knew that the democracies in the early Greek city-states produced some of the wildest excesses of government imaginable. In every case they ended up with mob rule and anarchy, and finally tyrrany under and oligarchy.

The problems in this text are numerous. First, I've never understood why these people want to insist that democracy is incompatable with being a republic. Asking whether we're a democracy or a republic is like asking whether an apple is red or crunchy. Usually, apples are both. The two are not mutually exclusive. And while I hear a lot today about democracy, I don't think I hear more about it than I used to - and I don't hear anything about us not being a republic.

Conservatives seem especially concerned to stress the idea that we are a constitutional republic. And so we are. But how does that, by itself, make us unique? Almost every country in the world today is either a constitutional republic or a constitutional monarchy - from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (whose current constitution was ratified in 2003) to the Republic of Zimbabwe (whose 1979 Constitution was amended for the 17th time in 2005). In fact, 124 of the world's 203 sovereign states include the word republic in their official names.

Of course, what's in a name. Brunei's name, for example, includes the dubious epitath "Abode of Peace." If a republic is a state where most decisions are made with reference to established laws, rather than the discretion of some monarch or head of state, then North Korea is a republic in little more than name and most of the world's monarchies today have become psuedo-republics, with constitutions and the rule of law being the framework for their society. The term "constitutional republic" may be emotionally packed, but it is largely redundant. Name the three most important republics that aren't governed by a constitution or some similar body of code. You can't.

Were the Founding Fathers opposed to democracy? Should good Americans have contempt for the idea of Democracy (as the video suggests)? This line of drivel seems fairly new to me. Abraham Lincoln surely didn't share it:
Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people” ~ Abraham Lincoln
Neither did Ronald Reagan.
Democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. ~ Ronald Reagan

Conservative voices in recent years haven't always embraced the message that democracy is something evil.
Despite what the pundits want us to think, contested primaries aren't civil war, they are democracy at work, and that's beautiful. ~Sarah Palin

But if there's an erosion at home, you know, Thomas Jefferson warned about a tyranny of an oligarchy and if we surrender our democracy to the tyranny of an oligarchy, we've made a terrible mistake. ~Pat Robertson

I would suggest that the Founding Fathers were concerned that America not become more of a Democracy than was necessary, and they were resigned to the idea that if had to be a democracy. The actual quotes in the video are accurate - but the video's director is cherry picking the thoughts of the Founding Fathers.

Jefferson was resigned to democracy as a component of American government.
“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” ~Thomas Jefferson
He wanted to ensure that democracy had its limits and didn't infringe too much on individual liberty. And Madison understood there was little risk of pure democracy ever replacing the republic.
A pure democracy is a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person. ~James Madison
America has never had "a small number of citizens." Madison understood that pure democracy was impossible in a country the size of America (or the size of Liechtenstein, for that matter).

As academics, the Founders were very interested in the democracy as a philosophy of government. Constitutions generally address the mechanics of government. I think the most humorous idea in the video above is that somehow James Madison's disdain for democracy was still an influential force when Oklahomans sat down to write their constitution in 1907 and Hawaiians did it in 1949. They excluded the word out of respect for the Founding Fathers? How about we say they excluded the word because it doesn't serve much functional purpose; it's not a technical term, in government. It's an ideal.

The Founding Fathers saw democracy as flawed when they looked at experiments in democracy hundred of years earlier. But that brings up a problem with the Founding Fathers' views of democracy. There simply weren't a huge number of functioning government at that time where democracy could be observed. And the Founding Fathers made the same mistake those early democracies made: they gave every citizen the vote, but greatly restricted access to citizenship so that women and slaves weren't citizens.

I know... You're going to tell me that those were the times. And you'd be right. That's why Jefferson said this in a letter to Madison on September 6, 1789.
" society can make a perpetual constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation." ~Thomas Jefferson
America is a great country - not because the Founding Fathers were right about everything (they weren't), or because we're a constitutional republic (there are plenty of people on earth who haven't been helped much by that form of government). There are many reasons America is great - among them, its work ethic (which is still pretty good) and its tolarance for pluralism (which the Tea Party sometimes appears to be trying to erode).

The Founding Fathers did not do everything that could to keep us from having a democracy. In fact, they gave us a democracy - and they framed it in a republic in order to make it function well and last.