Photo by Michael Righi , via Flickr

September 23, 2017 Brad Johnson 7Comment

A democracy, the United States is not.

Almost daily, an error which many may deem insignificant is made. Whether in the classroom, on talk shows, or just on social media, there is a constant misidentification of America’s system of government; America is a constitutional republic, not a democracy. Many brush this off as trivial or a distinction without a difference. But in reality, the importance of such a distinction is extraordinary. The misclassification of our system as a democracy carries along with it unintended consequences that many are either unaware of, or couldn’t care less about.

Upon victory over the British in the Revolutionary War, the debate as to what to replace  the previous governance system with ensued. The Articles of Confederation became law following America’s victory — a document creating a confederation of States in which a national Congress was elected, but had little-to-no governing authority. This brought along with it a host of issues. But not considered among the options was instituting a democracy. The Founders recognized that, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his Democracy in America, democracy would lead to “the concentration of power and [that] the subjection of individuals will increase among democratic nations, not only in the same proportion as their equality, but in the same proportion as their ignorance.” Democracy yields dominion to the inherently chaotic winds of public opinion. If a simple-majority is all that is needed to govern, individual rights are certain to be trampled.

This notion reigned paramount throughout the summer of 1787. Every available effort was made to balance decision-making power between three groups: the Federal Government, the States, and the people. That is the crux of our system, and one which democracy could never hope to achieve. Indeed, the largest threats to our republic have arisen from increasingly democratic passions. For instance, the 17th Amendment robbed the States of their seat at the federal table. It turned the Senate from a change-resistant body to a decidedly populist one.

In Federalist 63, Hamilton and Madison wrote that the appointment of Senators by State governments “[gives] such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure authority of the former, and may form a convenient link between the two systems.” In the House of Representatives, individuals are represented by their own respective Congressmen, and Senators were meant to serve as the like for their respective States. Yet the progressive movement of the early 20th century despised this check on centralized power and thus pursued the reform that would become the 17th Amendment. This effort was excused as many had lost understanding of why the appointment of Senators was so important.

“To pretend that the concerns of an Iowa Blue-Dog are akin to those of a California Progressive is like saying cats and dogs are the same as both are domesticated.”

That attitude continues to this day as the populists condemn the Electoral College as outdated. Without the existence of the Electoral College, the only areas that would matter in the presidential election are  coastal population centers. About 62.7% of the nation’s population lives in urban areas. This alone is more than enough to decide a presidential election based on popular vote. But if that were the case, priorities of rural areas — regardless of partisan leaning — would be ignored.

To pretend that the concerns of an Iowa Blue-Dog are akin to those of a California Progressive is like saying cats and dogs are the same as both are domesticated. It is a ludicrous proposition entrenched in collectivist thought. With a government becoming ever more centralized with power, tyranny of the majority would surely ensue should we remove checks such as the Electoral College. But thanks in part to the Electoral College, and other federalist checks, this execution has been stayed. Yet the clamoring against the Electoral College has perhaps never been greater. It is directly linked to the ignorance, or malice, exhibited in regards to our Constitutional system.

When just one in four Americans can name more than one of the freedoms the First Amendment grants, you can bet the house on an insane amount who fail to understand how a bill is passed into law, or why the 60-vote threshold in the Senate matters. The death of civics in our education system has spurred a lurch towards majority-rule politics, and with it comes the centralization of power and usurpation of individual rights by the government. The issues that come along with believing our system to be democratic are numerous and quite significant. Misunderstanding the functionality of the system breeds legislation that is antithetical to its underlying principle and counterintuitive to its continued success. Revolutionary France saw what happens when majority-rule democracy is employed, and the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were rendered obsolete in favor of death, tyranny, and the endowment of misery. 

When exiting Independence Hall at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin was asked what kind of government had been decided upon. He replied with “A republic, if you can keep it.” Promoting the idea that our Constitution instituted democracy will ensure the republic, and the individual rights it protects, are thrown out like the baby with the bath water.

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  • toto

    Being a constitutional republic does not mean we should not and cannot guarantee the election of the presidential candidate with the most popular votes. The candidate with the most votes wins in every other election in the country.

    Guaranteeing the election of the presidential candidate with the most popular votes and the majority of Electoral College votes (as the National Popular Vote bill would) would not make us a pure democracy.

    Pure democracy is a form of government in which people vote on all policy initiatives directly.

    Popular election of the chief executive does not determine whether a government is a republic or pure democracy.

    The presidential election system, using the 48 state winner-take-all method or district winner method of awarding electoral votes used by 2 states, that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers. It is the product of decades of change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by states of winner-take-all or district winner laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution

    The Constitution does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for how to award a state’s electoral votes

    • Brad Johnson

      The Constitution is a set of rules by which to govern. Of course it does not project feelings towards procedure, but the men who created it certainly disapproved of a national popular vote. And in parliamentary systems, you vote for the party, not the candidate. Where in the article did I say it makes us a “pure democracy?” I’ll save you the time, I did not. But it certainly moves us in that direction.

      The Presidency is unlike any other elected position in our system. Therefore, it deserves extra scrutiny in deciding electoral procedure. The Founders understood this, and is why a popular vote was not implemented.

      And I concur! I’d like to see the electoral process go back to how it was originally written. Just because a majority of people favor a popular vote doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do… Might does not equal right. The popular vote would be bad for the separation of powers, and just because lots of people think otherwise, doesn’t make it not so.

    • Cliff_Skridlow

      The point that is being missed, whether by design or accident, is that in a constitutional representative system, the INDIVIDUAL is protected from the Majority, by Rule of Law. Throwing away the Electoral College will only lead to the splintering and destruction of the Union…most likely violently.

      The answers to virtually ALL of our problems/situations are right in front of us – in the Constitution. If only we had the wisdom and fortitude to implement them (again.)

  • toto

    A survey of Ohio voters in 2008 showed 70% overall support for a national popular vote for President.
    By political affiliation, support for a national popular vote was 81% for a national popular vote among Democrats, 65% among Republicans, and 61% among Others.

    A survey of Iowa voters showed 75% overall support for a national popular vote for President.
    By political affiliation, support for a national popular vote for President was 82% among Democrats, 63% among Republicans, and 77% among others.

    A survey of California voters in 2008, showed 70% of residents and likely voters would support this change,
    By political affiliation, support was 76% among Democrats, 61% among Republicans, and 74% among Independents.

    In Gallup polls since they started asking in 1944 until this election, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states) (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided).

    Support for a national popular vote for President has been strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in every state surveyed. In the 41 red, blue, and purple states surveyed, overall support has been in the 67-81% range – in rural states, in small states, in Southern and border states, in big states, and in other states polled.

    Most Americans don’t ultimately care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state or district. Voters want to know, that no matter where they live, even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was equally counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans think it is wrong that the candidate with the most popular votes can lose. We don’t allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

    The National Popular Vote bill was approved in 2016 by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).
    Since 2006, the bill has passed 35 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, Democratic, Republican and purple states with 261 electoral votes, including one house in Arizona (11), Arkansas (6), Maine (4), Michigan (16), Nevada (6), New Mexico (5), North Carolina (15), and Oklahoma (7), and both houses in Colorado (9) and New Mexico (5).


    • Peoples Law

      When Senate was elected by the popular vote two things happen. 1)The state no longer had representation in the U.S. Senate
      2) The Senator only went to high population areas to get re-elected. And the other areas of the state were no longer represented.
      This all lead to the U.S. Senate making policy decisions on the basis of putting big donors and Corporate welfare first.All this after they changed U.S. Senators elected by the popular vote and not by the State legislature.
      That’s why we have a Republic and not a democracy. Otherwise we would never had a Constitution. Smaller states would loose representation in the Federal government. The same thing would happen if the President was elected by a popular vote instead of the electoral college

  • Peoples Law

    People might not know exactly what amendment covers which rights. But they all agree Federal government should not be taking them away. Great article on how a Republic secures the rights and a Democracy gives them away

  • Jon Picking

    Keep the electoral college, fine. But make the representation proportional. The first amendment of the originally proposed bill of rights would have set a maximum size for congressional districts and compelled an increase in the number of representatives to keep pace. The framers recognised that population growth necessitated a corresponding increase in the number of representatives in order to maintain proportional representation. It was and is an issue that the constitution does not specify limits on the population of congressional districts. Capping the number of representatives at 435 punishes citizens for moving from rural areas with no opportunity to cities by diluting their vote for president and their representation in Congress. It’s intellectually dishonest to claim that the republic is working as intended when we no longer have proportional representation as it was designed.