A few weeks ago, I published an article about the importance of peaceful transition of power. In that article, I mentioned that America is not a democracy but rather a Constitutional Republic and that, in fact, the founders wanted to avoid any sort of democracy in America.
In this short post, I’m going to explain to you a few of the theoretical reasons for why America is not a Democratic Republic, but rather, a Constitutional Republic.
One: A True Democracy Is Impossible in a Large Country
This should be rather straight forward, but just take a moment to consider the meaning of democracy. Democracy comes from dēmos, meaning “common people,” originally “district” and kratos which means “rule, strength”. So, at its core, democracy means “rule by the common people”
The 1828 Webster dictionary defines it this way: Government by the people; a form of government, in which the supreme power is lodged in the hands of the people collectively, or in which the people exercise the powers of legislation. Such was the government of Athens.
So, it should be rather obvious to you why a country with three-hundred million people cannot functionally be a democracy. It is feasibly impossible for all three-hundred million Americans to meet together and make their own laws. It simply wouldn’t work.
Two: Majority Agreement/Opinion Doesn’t Equal “Right” or “Good”
Today Americans have bought into the notion that when the majority of people want something, the fact that a “majority” agree must make the desired “something” automatically “right” or “good”. This is far from reality. In fact, history has shown, that the masses usually end up wanting the very worst somethings. Past majorities have elected the worst leaders, established tyrannical and corrupt governments, and/or demanded oppressive and violent government action. Just take a look at the French Revolution and/or the election of Adolf Hitler.
There is nothing inherently virtuous or good about a democracy. In fact, most democracies end violently and quickly. James Madison says, “Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
Why? Because people are irrational, emotional, and uninformed. Thus, logically, when all of these irrational, emotional and uninformed people are combined into a uniform mass all clamoring for something they feel a desperate need for in the moment, democracies end up suffering under mob rule. Some of the greatest atrocities, genocides and mass killings have come at the demand of the irrational mob. Fear is usually key. Fear is used to manipulate and maneuver the emotional, irrational and uninformed mob to support and demand for the government to engage in some of humanity’s greatest injustices. Just think about how willing our own government was to put law-abiding and Constitutionally protected Japanese Americans into interment camps during WWII? Did Americans have a problem with this? No. They demanded it in the heat of the moment.
Three: People Are Inherently Selfish, Uniformed, Irrational and Emotional
I know this statement is a rather insulting and bleak commentary on humanity, but how many of you would disagree? As a whole, this is truly how humanity is and the American founders were keenly aware of humanity’s propensity for villiany as they struggled to create a government that could account for this unpleasant reality.
James Madison explained it this way in Federalist 10:
“ A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. “
Here, he bluntly states what everyone already knows to be true. Even the most insignificant and “fanciful” disagreements can inflame humanity to violence and oppression. This unfortunate truth leads Madison to believe that a democracy is not the kind of government America should be; instead, he argues that American government needs to be something else, something that will account for these irrational fancies and prevent such violence and oppression.
Four: Majority Opinion Cannot Be the Final Court of Review for Government Action
Now that we all understand the unfortunate state of human nature, we should also understand why the founders did not want the final judgement—on what is right and wrong for government to do—to stop at the people…at majority will. Should such a thing happen, the laws of government would become painfully arbitrary and subject to the irrational and emotional whims of the public, something that would likely result in a the government’s swift and painful end, only to start the vicious cycle all over again.
No, the founders made sure to account for flawed humanity as they created the American government. They understood that because humanity is selfish and self-serving, there must be a government to protect humanity against itself. In other words, if there is no government—and subsequently no law—then there is no stable or safe society. What is to stop someone from coming in your house and taking it as their own if there is no law to say the house is yours? So, government exists to protect you and your property (house) from the rest of humanity.
However, the founders were also aware that the government would be made up of the same flawed humans as the very society the founders created government to govern in the first place. And this meant that there must be a law outside of government to rule and confine government. This outside law could not be the people, it had to be something set in stone and not subject to the whims of opinion and emotion. This is law is the Constitution.
So, while the government exists to protect you and your property from the rest of humanity, the Constitution exists to protect you and your property from government.
This is why, in America, we live in a Constitutional Republic not a Democratic Republic. This means that the buck stops at the Constitution not the people. In other words, if the people, in a rage of emotional, irrational passion, demanded that the U.S. government eliminate all conservatives, the U.S. government would not and could not do so—even if it meant going against the majority will of the people. And why couldn’t the government do so? Because the U.S. government is subject first to the supreme power and authority of the Constitution and then to the influences and desires of the people. If the people demand that government act in a way that violates the Constitution, it is the government’s job to protect those people from themselves by refusing to violate the Constitution.
If you fundamentally disagree with the founders’ understanding of and beliefs about human nature, it would make sense for you to disagree with their aversion to democracy; however, if you agree with their views on human nature, the points I have just made should resonate with you and cause you to re-evaluate any misconceptions you may have had that America was and should be a democracy. Democracies are violent and dangerous. Why? Because people are violent and dangerous. Just take a look at history if you need any more evidence.
We need the people in government to temper our inherent, uninformed and irrational rage. We need a Constitution to keep government in check, even against our own fanciful and frantic demands. We need a buffer limiting the direct popular vote of a president.
It’s a humbling thing to admit, but one that must be faced by Americans today if we want to see any real change. The American public does NOT know more than the Constitution and we should stop acting like we do. We have a finite, time-limited view of the world, one that could change in a moment. Let’s step back a bit and have more confidence in a system that has somehow managed to give us 250 years of peaceful transition of power, no dictators, vibrant and lasting liberty, freedom to innovate and thrive, and political stability like no nation has ever known before.
The Liberty Belle