Tuesday, March 23, 2010

When People Say...

"America is a republic, not a democracy" what on earth do they mean?

Can anyone who subscribes to that view please explain what on earth you mean by that statement in an explanatory, non-snarky way? I have no idea what you mean and I'd really like to know. Consider this an opportunity to educate someone.

Thank you.


Anonymous said...

You're kidding, right?
In a nutshell, a Republic is a participatory form of government framed by a Constitution which guards the rights of individuals and protects their liberties from the tyranny of majority rule -- whether that be by what the Founding fathers labeled "Omnipotent Majority" (51%) or an Elite majority.

In a Republic, direct forms of democracy such as referendums are not utilized as a method of expressing the will of "the people", since it lends to rule by the majority, undermining the concept of the Republic.

The role of a Republic is to restrain the powers of government and to uphold the rights of any minority against the tyranny of the majority.

So you can understand why many Americans are upset -- Pelosi et al are governing as if they were in a democracy and could legislate by tyranny of the majority, and Obama is happy to play along by legislating by fiat (executive orders, end runs around Congress).

Individual liberty and freedom are the most sacred things to be protected and nourished in a Republic.

Expressing the will of the majority is the goal of a Democracy.

Some would also argue that in a Republic, the viewpoint is that "rights" are endowed by the Creator, and in a Democracy, "rights" are granted by governmental edict.

This is pretty much covered by Madison in the Federalist papers, and my rough summation is just that -- a very crude and rough summation.

Liberal Arts Dude said...

Hello there Anonymous

Nope not kidding. I truly am mystified when someone invokes the "America is a Republic not a Democracy" statement whenever they object to something in an online discussion -- usually some government measure -- but do not follow up with an explanation as to what they mean.

So many thanks for your clear and succinct explanation. I really do appreciate it. I'm honestly trying to understand this so bear with me.

A couple of questions:

1) Given that the US has democratic practices and institutions in place such as voting, Congressional representation, elections, etc. is it truly fair to say America is a Republic only -- and that totally negates its democratic features? I mean, the popular will still has a role to play in the running of society, right?

2) I always thought that in a Democracy, human rights are universal. Every human has them. This isn't by government edict but the basic, inalienable rights everyone has as a human being.

3) I think the single-minded focus on government as potential source of tyranny totally ignores the power of the private sector and corporate influence in our society, government, and institutions. This is something that I bet the Founders did not anticipate in the 1700s. But I think is a hole in the "America is a Republic" line of thinking that ought to be filled. By this I mean many people concerned about government tyranny are quite silent when it comes to corporate tyranny and malfeasance in the private sector. Popular will and democratic practices are tools that can be used to combat this corporate influence so I don't think popular will is something to dismiss or regard so lightly.

Anonymous said...

Liberal Arts Dude:
Those questions quite honestly involve a very detailed answer, but I will try and be as pithy as possible due to space limitations, ergo, the short answer will have many gaping holes. (I'll treat this as a "short answer" rather than "essay" type exercise ! ;)

1. There are many ways to form a Republic. Yes, a Republic can have democratic features and the concept of checks and balances is one of them. Likewise, there are different ways of organizing a Republic: the US chose to organize as a loose federation of like-minded states; which sets up struggles (like the one we have today) over the role of federalism vs states rights.

Personally, I prefer the vigorous nature of Direct democratic states, like Switzerland. However, the negative is that for example, immigrants can be denied the right to naturalize as citizens, if a simple local majority votes in secret to deny them this right (this actually happened to the Kosovo muslim refugees who were offered sanctuary in Switzerland). This is possible in a full democracy; the check and balances (in theory) of a Republic loyal to its Constitutional underpinnings would prevent such bigotry on the part of the local Majority.

2. Not necessarily so. And there are whole treatises on what constitutes an "inalienable right" (An American term). For sake of brevity, the one constant is the right to be born free, and the right to face your accusers.
What those who stretch the Democratic side of the fence claim as "rights" is in no mean universally recognized in the Western world or in our Western tradition. Again, there's a whole body of literature scribbled out during the Enlightment period that argues all sides of the equation.

3. Again, you are mistaken in your interpetation. The Founding Fathers had a huge fear of what we would now term "corporate" takeover of our government as a source of tyranny against the people. They were quite vigorous and direct about their concerns over Central Banking, for example, and our Original Founding fathers would have had raucous debate but I feel would have over ruled the establishment of the Federal Reserve (with the exception of Hamilton, who was a proponent of central banking).

If you truly want a contrarian view and to understand how this debate over the rise of corporate America came to pass, I highly suggest Prof diLorenzo's book, "The Real Lincoln: A new look at Abraham Lincoln, his Agenda, and an Unnecessary War". It's about $10.00 on Amazon, a quick read, and will offer an explanation of how we got where we are today -- Lincoln was determined to impose what he deemed "the American system" (corporatism) on the US, and to diminish states rights and sovereignty.
Lincoln's war was not about the Union, or slaves, but about raw, overreaching power. Isn't it always about money?

As someone not born in the US and new to the South (I live not far from the Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, VA), I wanted to know "why" the States couldn't lawfully secede as provided for in the Constitution, and the perspective of my multi-generational Confederate neighbors. Prof DiLorenzo (a Libertarian) answered those questions. It also set me on a quest to lots of esoteric, out of the way small museums and archives here in the South. It changed my perspective on everything, including the concept of a Republic as the the Founders intended, not what it has morphed into today.

Hope that is at least a starting point.
(Sorry - I know I promised this would be pithy and "short answer". Doing my best!)

Liberal Arts Dude said...

Many thanks Anon! You've given me much food for thought and leads for further research and reading. I appreciate it!

Anonymous said...

Liberal Arts Dude:
Good luck on your quest!
In shorthand, think "exercise of free will" when discussing Republic, and "majority rule" when discussing Democracy.

I prefer defending my right to exercise free will and self-determination over capitulating to the whims of the simple majority -- a right I will fight for everyone else as well.

If you frame things from that perspective, a lot of so-called "social issues" become much easier to accept -- and tolerance naturally flows.

We are all born free, but not equal. We all are individuals, with different talents and aspirations. I would rather fight for your right to be true to who you need to be, than to compel you into a "one size fits all" prescriptive mold.

The Angry Independent said...

Not so fast....

The U.S. form of government is not that cut and dry.

Some would like you to believe that these are mutually exclusive concepts. The fact is, there are two general forms of Democracy that are recognized. #1). Direct Democracy - where the people are more directly involved in making decisions...such as through the referendum process. And #2). Representative Democracy (or indirect Democracy)- where citizens elect representatives to make certain decisions on their behalf.

Direct Democracies can lead to rule by majority...and there are certainly problems with these systems. But these systems can also provide safeguards like those in Republics to protect individual rights and freedoms. Again...not exactly mutually exclusive.

Representative Democracy is a form of Republic. So here... you can have both - the principles of Democracy, together with the protections of a Republic. THIS is in fact what the Founders had in mind for the United States. Not some rigid idea of a Republic with no provision for Democratic involvement. On the local and State level, there is Direct Democracy all around you, via Referendum. If the Founders were so against direct Democracy, why did they not preclude the States from having whatever form of government they wanted? Instead, they acted on faith, hoping that States would adhere to the limits in the Constitution. But we know how badly that went. Sometimes the Constitution itself is wrong and needs modification... otherwise we might still be stuck in 1864. This requires the concept of Democracy to be lived out fully. These are not mutually exclusive ideas at all... but overlapping ones.

You can also have systems that function almost as hybrids. France is a Republic... has a Constitution placing limits on power.... but it also allows for Direct Democracy via national/regional referendum.

There is something else that the Right won't tell you when they mention that the U.S. is a Republic (and it is ironic). One of the issues that the Founders were concerned with....and the reason why they wanted a Republic is because the majority (of the masses) sometimes has it wrong. Statesmen are needed as middlemen to be a moderating force in situations where the masses may not have it right...and may not have all of the necessary information to do the right thing. Now this has its upside and downside... but this is the system we have. This is why the President is Commander-in- Chief...there is no rule by committee when it comes to war...although technically only Congress has the power to make war. This completely undercuts the argument of the TeaPartiers in the Healthcare reform Debate. On one hand they are saying that majority should not rule.... but then they cite polls that say the majority of the Country is against reform.

The point is... Democracy plays a very important role in the U.S. system... Although it is a Constitutional Republic, it is not nearly as rigid as some on the Right would like you to believe. The fact is...a Representative Democracy (which is what we have in the U.S. in practical terms) can overlap with a formal Constitutional Republic (which is technically what the U.S. is). They are not mutually exclusive. You can have both at the same time.

There are all kinds of variations and combinations of these systems around the world.

Liberal Arts Dude said...

OK AI hits it right on the head on the source of my being perplexed. Those who say the US is a Republic and not a Democracy invoke it as if being a republic and democracy are mutually exclusive. Are they really?

AI thanks for pointing that out.