The twentieth-century is lauded politically as the age of the victory of the democratic ideal. The United States has seemingly appointed itself the dispenser of democracy worldwide, backed up by very undemocratic military force. The problem is that the US is not a democracy.
The US is a constitutional republic. And it’s not merely a matter of semantics. There are fundamental differences between a democracy and a republic. These differences are important enough that they need to be both recognized and understood. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to give the textbook answer. I will, however, attempt to offer my views on the distinction.
A democracy at its most fundamental level is mob-rule. The majority triumphs. The winner takes all. Athens and other Greek city-states operated as democracies. Aristotle was skeptical of this form of government. The framers of the Constitution knew the dangers as well and attempted to avoid the pitfalls that a pure democracy would inevitably produce.
The most obvious danger of a democracy is that men are too easily swayed by charismatic personalities. If an elegant and influential speaker can convince his hearers that his position is preferable, he can secure the majority’s vote. It is all too easy for truth and logic to be cast aside in favor of the “best” argument.
In a pure democracy there is very little to anchor policy. Laws continuously evolve according to the whims of the populace or its leaders and thus too easily morph into something completely different than was their original intent. Therefore, the unique and necessary feature of a constitutional republic is that it is firmly fixed upon the rule of law. This defining characteristic in the US is known as the Constitution (with its accompanying Bill of Rights).
Everyone from presidents to police officers takes an oath to the Constitution. Yes, government officials do represent the people, but first and foremost their job is to uphold the rule of law. Officials are not elected to to make their own renegade decisions. The Constitution offers the governmental and civil framework through which elected representatives of the people perform their duties.
The American founders were concerned that both the people and the states be represented in government. They acknowledged how crucial it is for the citizens to have a voice. They also understood that their needs to be a balance between the people’s voice, the states’ sovereignty and the rule of law. This is where the little understood electoral college comes in. Because of it, American citizens indirectly elect their government officials. The states appoint their respective electors, which, in theory, honors the power of the states without annulling the people’s desire.
Why is all of this important? A pure democracy is easy to manipulate or corrupt. A purely republican form of government, though representative, has no anchor to check and stabilize man’s perpetual propensity toward the accumulation of absolute power (tyranny). A constitutional republic, however, has as its foundation a fixed and stable constitution. A constitutional republic not only ensures representation of the people and the states, it simultaneously safeguards– through its constitution–the inalienable rights of the individual.
It is entirely possible that the American people and states no longer meaningfully exercise their legitimate authority. It is possible that the Constitution is largely ignored. And it is possible that our “elected” officials simply make their own decisions according to the desires of those who know the locations of the closets where the ugliest skeletons reside. I hope not. Yet, I fear so.
The next time someone insists the United States is a democracy, beg to differ. The Founders surely would have.