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Why we are not, technically, a democracy

April 25, 2012

People of all political stripes are fond of saying that we live in a democracy. This is, of course, not strictly true, and that was a conscious decision of the Framers of the US Constitution.

The spirited debates surrounding the ratification of the Constitution demonstrate a struggle within the peoples of the US to decide just how much power should be given over to a central government. As I’ve noted before, reading the Anti-Federalist Papers today is just as enlightening as it is to read the Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers were posted in newspapers of the day as a way to argue in favor of a stronger Federal government and for ratification of the Constitution. The Anti-Federalist papers cautioned us about the dangers of concentrating power in the hands of a few.

Today we tend to dismiss the arguments against the Constitution, and I think even among liberals it’s not politically correct to outwardly dismiss the Constitution, no matter how much they try to talk about it as a “living document.” However, the Anti-Federalists were arguing against ratification for completely the opposite reason as liberals today…they felt the Constitution gave the Federal government too much power and did too little to protect individual rights. In fact, it was the arguments of the Anti-Federalists, in part, that forced the Framers to add the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

Ratification was close. Americans were aware that the Articles of Confederation were not working well, but they sent their representatives to Philadelphia to refine the Articles, not to completely throw them out in favor of a new document. Many were shocked when the details of the Constitution were announced. James Madison, John Jay and especially Alexander Hamilton argued strongly for the Constitutional form of government in 85 articles that were published separately in newspapers and also later in a single document.

Reading both sets of papers should be required of all Americans. First, it would demonstrate that Americans of the eighteenth century were expected to follow fairly complex logical arguments if they were to participate in the running of their national affairs, and it also demonstrated that in those days Americans were not spoken down to by their leaders.

But back to the title of this piece. By definition, a democracy is simply government by majority rule. Practically anyone who has been on the losing side of a vote for any issue has had the same concern – what happens to me now? By strict use of democratic principles, there is no redress for damage to individuals based on the rule of the majority.

A particularly appropriate example is that of slavery – and not just of one particular ethnic group. Throughout history, slavery has been the norm, not the exception. It has been called many different things, but it is still slavery. For all the references made today to the glory days of Ancient Greece or Rome, both practiced slavery. Rights were not universal. (Don’t even get me started on the rights of women in particular!)

There have been many attacks in recent years on the Framers of the Constitution arguing why they did not prohibit slavery in the Constitution. Some have even argued that because the Framers avoided this question, the validity of the entire document should be suspect. That’s absurd, but it doesn’t stop people from trying to create doubts in the minds of those who do not know the history.

Should slavery have been abolished in the Constitution, we would have no Constitution and we would still have slavery; ratification was close to begin with and the slave states would not have supported ratification if their entire economy was destroyed in the process. While it took a long time, and required a Civil War, slavery was ultimately abolished. Without the Constitution and its amendments we would not be able to prohibit slavery today. In fact, without it, in a pure democracy, the majority could enslave anyone they wished with no recourse for the enslaved.

A significant capital-L Libertarian argument is whether we should have fought the Civil War or not – should the Federal government have the physical power to force states to remain in the Union who chose to no longer do so? Let’s say the core issue was something other than slavery. (In fact, it had more to do with agricultural economy vs. industrial, but that’s another essay.) Under what conditions should a state be allowed to secede from the Union?

Back to democracy. “But that’s crazy; no one would agree to that kind of overwhelming power.” In fact, in many cases, that is still what people do argue today – that the rule of the majority should be paramount. This was the root of the Populist movement, and it is one of the main issues today because fewer and fewer people are paying taxes, and a majority of non-tax-paying citizens could vote themselves “bread and circuses” until the money ran out. It is at the root of the current President’s war on the “one per cent.” “There are more of us than there are of you; we will take what we want from you because you cannot stop us.” (And see “Atlas Shrugged.” Say what you will about Objectivism; Rand knew that government by a majority could ultimately destroy a minority – even a minority that were the movers and shakers that drove the county’s economic engine – simply by bleeding it dry.)

A Republic is a form of government that practices representative democracy, but protects individuals and minorities with law, especially with a Constitution. This is the form of government we have, at least theoretically. It has been eroded over time, especially by decisions of the US Supreme Court. Still, the Bill of Rights are, in many ways, the most important parts of the Constitution. This is where the concept of “the Rule of Law” comes in. We cannot have pure democracy or the majority can do anything it wishes with the minority. Our Constitution ensures that no one person or one body has ultimate power over others – despite what we see the current President attempting to do at present.

I find it ironic when folks say that the names of the current large political parties are meaningless – some go as far as to say there is no real difference between them. Actually, they describe the philosophies of the parties pretty well right now: the Democrats are less interested in personal rights, unless they are “rights” not enumerated in the Constitution, and more in the influence of government in everyday life; the Republicans seem (most of the time) to have more respect for the Rule of Law and the rights of the individual. The current President seems little interested in the Rule of Law, or he would not attempt to bypass the Constitution, the Congress, and even the Supreme Court at every opportunity.

I am willing to bet that most American high schools and colleges do not require a course in American Government; they often do not even require a course in American History. At a time when the history of our country’s creation is increasingly important, many of us are, sadly, functionally ignorant of how and why it came about.

For more information:

democracy and republic
The Federalist Papers
The Anti-Federalist Papers

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