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.
Follow this author on Twitter: @bradjCincy