July 4 2013: America is Not a Democracy — It's Something Even Better


In celebration of Independence Day, I'd like to ask the American people, Where has republicanism gone? Our republican tradition is a huge part of our history — the country was founded as a republic first and a democracy second. And the values of republicanism, such as individual rights, civic virtue, and putting checks on the power of the majority, are ones that we desperately need to rediscover. In short, democracy, the power of the vote, is often about giving ourselves more stuff. Republicanism is about preserving for ourselves the rights we already have.

This tradition has deep roots in American history. The Founding Fathers built up this nation by fighting off the tyrannical King George III. Having lived under the rule of an unjust king (in a foreign land, to boot), the Americans of the 18th century knew exactly what they wanted to avoid replicating upon the founding of their new nation. In one of the most beautifully written documents of all time, Thomas Jefferson and other members of Congress did not just simply declare separation from the British crown — they did so with diligence and elegance. Instead of simply writing, "We no longer owe you anything," Jefferson begins the Declaration of Independence with language of necessity, writing that there is no choice but for the states to declare independence. Jefferson not only attributes to "nature's God" his reasoning, but acknowledges the "laws of nature," meaning that his arguments do not simply rely on faith, but can also be attributed to human nature.

Jefferson's belief in innate human rights brings us to the Federalist Papers and the topic of republicanism. In one of the most well known essays produced under the pen-name "Publius," James Madison describes the necessity of government. He writes, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." But there's our problem — men are by definition not angels. So, how did the Founders plan to protect the individual rights the United States was founded on?

One of the primary arguments on protecting rights comes from the essay "Federalist 10," in which Madison writes: "When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed."

In other words, Madison is appealing to Aristotle's argument against pure democracy. Aristotle had written: "There is a fifth form of democracy, in other respects the same, is that in which, not the law, but the multitude, have the supreme power, and supersede the law by their decrees. This is a state of affairs brought about by the demagogues. For in democracies which are subject to the law the best citizens hold the first place, and there are no demagogues; but where the laws are not supreme, there demagogues spring up."

In "Federalist 10," Madison similarly attempts to weave together a balanced government to protect the American people against this dangerous type of democracy Aristotle had written about. Protecting the people from the factions is what keeps a majority from imposing its will on the minority, or in context of the Bill of Rights, the individual.

So, where does "republicanism" spring up in all of this? Let's take one more look at the Federalist Papers. In "Federalist 39," Madison lays out three principles for the American federalism-based republican regime. First, the power to govern must derive from the consent of the people. Second, elected representatives act as administrators of the government. Third, representative terms must be limited by time, good behavior, and other factors. In setting up a democratic republic, Madison (and other Founders) argued that this would be the best system in protecting individual rights —a republic of elected representatives first, and a democracy second.

So, if the Founding Fathers believed that a republic would be the best system for protecting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, why does nobody mention this fact, instead choosing to emphasize the democratic aspects of our nation? Does the term "democracy" make people feel like they are more involved in government affairs or create a more positive outlook on government? Sure, it's great we get to vote on a lot of important issues, but I'd argue that protecting free speech, the right of self defense, preventing unjust searches and seizures, and ensuring trials by jury are more important (and influence your life more) than voting on a local tax levy. These fundamental rights are protected most effectively because we live in a republic, not a democracy.

Why have we lost sight of our roots in republicanism? Why do we focus more on what the 51% can do by voting, rather than what 100% of us can do by the power of the Constitution? How can we get back to protecting the individual, socially and economically, while maintaining our system of federalism and representative government?

It seems to me that perhaps people focus on democracy because it allows society to vote on what it wants (money for public schools, taxes to pay for a new stadium, etc.) — and the most important things we care about, which cannot be voted on, get taken for granted. Perhaps positive rights, which are generally introduced through democracy, are what we as a society primarily see, while our most inherent rights, which are negative rights, often go unappreciated and unrecognized until we see them slowly fading away.