5 – “…and to the republic for which it stands…”

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When I took my first course in American Government I was somewhat confused. The words “democracy” and “republic” seemed to be used interchangeably, yet logic told me that because they were different words they must represent different concepts. As most students would have done, I addressed my question to the instructor—“What’s the difference between a democracy and a republic?”

His answer was so quick and so sure that I never considered it might be wrong. “A republic is a representative democracy,” he said. “In this class of thirty students we could have a true democracy. We could discuss issues, take a vote, and decide how things were going to be done.

“That wouldn’t be possible for the entire town, which has a population of more than twenty thousand people. It would be difficult to get everyone together at the same time and place, and even if we could, the discussion and debate on the first issue would probably last for months. We’d never get anything decided. So we elect representatives to a city council. They vote for the rest of us. That’s a republic.”

That made sense. Several years later, when I took a college course in government and heard the same question asked and the same answer given, it reinforced my belief that a republic was, in fact, a representative democracy. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that answer was wrong.

There are three ways in which a society can be governed. Each way has advantages and disadvantages.

Okay, some people say there are four ways, but the fourth is anarchy—a complete lack of government or laws. In my mind that doesn’t qualify as a way in which a society can be governed. So I’ll stand by my original statement—there are three ways in which a society can be governed.

  1. Rule by the one, which we call a monarchy. The advantage of a monarchy is that the monarch—the king or emperor or whatever he’s called—doesn’t have to get anyone’s agreement or permission to do anything. He can make decisions quickly, then act on them. The disadvantage of a monarchy is that it often becomes self-serving. The monarch may engage in wars just because he wants to rule over more territory and enrich himself with more taxes. And if the monarchy is hereditary, the crown will occasionally pass to an heir who is retarded, a sociopath, or has some other mental defect.
  2. Rule by the few, which we call an aristocracy. An aristocracy brings a variety of views to the governing process, but it also requires a majority of the aristocrats to agree on something before any action is taken. That’s okay on a day-to-day basis but in times of national emergency it can be dangerous. The drawback to aristocracies is that they create a two-class society—the rulers and the ruled. With the passing of time the gulf between the two grows wider, with the aristocracy assuming more and more power and the masses declining to the status of peasants who live or die at the will of the aristocrats.
  3. Rule by the many, which we call a democracy. We are taught in America that democracy is the perfect form of government, but it isn’t. “Omigod,” I heard someone whisper, “that’s un-American!” Actually, it isn’t. Bear with me and I’ll show you why. I’ll also show you that America is a republic, which is much more than a democracy.

Topic of discussion for another day: socialism is an aristocracy. That’s why the Obama-Reid-Pelosi triumvirate is trying so hard to push us into socialism. They see themselves as the aristocrats, the rulers, and us as the peasants who will exist only to serve them.

Democracy is, by definition, rule of the majority. Surely that’s good? Well, let’s think about it. Suppose you live in a true democracy. And suppose you have a really nice house, located on a big corner lot. You saved and economized for years to buy that house. Now that you have it, you’re really happy with it and proud of it.

Then one day someone in your neighborhood suggests that your big corner lot would be a good location for a community center. He talks it up and convinces many others in your neighborhood. Eventually they hold an election, and the majority votes to put a community center on your lot.

They’re going to pay you for the property, of course, but that’s not the point. The point is that they’re going to take away your dream house. You don’t want to sell it but you live in a democracy, and the majority has spoken.

That’s why a democracy isn’t the ideal form of government. When the majority rules without restriction, nothing is sacred including property, freedom—or life. A democracy contains the seeds of what Founding Father James Madison called “the tyranny of the majority.”

Our Founding Fathers understood that, and much of the debate that preceded the final version of the Constitution was devoted to how to overcome the drawbacks of a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a democracy.

The solution they finally came up with was nothing short of ingenious. They combined all three forms of government into a single form, with checks and balances that allowed them to retain most of the positive aspects of each form while avoiding most of the negatives. Here’s how they did it.

First, they created a monarchy in an office they called the “President.” The President was to be the day-to-day ruler of the nation, and they gave him certain defined powers that allowed him to do that without seeking anyone else’s permission or approval. He also had a limited power to react to emergencies when necessary.

Next, they created an aristocracy that they called the “Congress,” and here is where their genius perhaps reached its zenith. They recognized there might be times when the will of the people and the needs of the states would be in conflict, and they didn’t want either to dominate. So they created a bicameral legislature, with a House of Representatives to represent the people and a Senate to represent the states.

You read that right. The Senate was originally created to represent the states, not the people. We’ll discuss that in greater detail shortly.

Because the members of the House were to represent the people, each state received a number of representatives in proportion to its population. The senators were to represent the states and the Founders didn’t want one state to have more power than any other, so they gave each state an equal number of senators—two.

Then they decreed that no law could be passed without the approval of both the House and the Senate. Neither the states nor the people could force their will on the other. If they couldn’t agree that something was good for both the people and the states, it didn’t happen.

When all of that was done, they decreed that the President and the members of the House would be elected by the people—a democracy. The members of the Senate, who were to represent the states, would be elected by the legislature of each state. That made the Senate sort of a “once removed” democracy—the people elected their state legislature, then the legislature elected the senators.

Then came the checks and balances. There are too many of them to enumerate, but the essence of them is that neither the President nor the Congress can force their will on the other.

The President and his staff are called the “Executive Branch” of the government. The Congress is called the “Legislative Branch.” The Founders created a third branch, which they called the “Judicial Branch,” headed by a Supreme Court. The main function of this court would be to assure that all actions taken by the President and the Congress were in accordance with the requirements and limitations of the Constitution.

I mentioned earlier that the Constitution specified the Senators were to represent the states, not the people. It was hoped that with the states directly represented in the national legislature, the power of the federal government would be curtailed. It wouldn’t be able to steamroller the sovereignty of the states because the Senate could simply refuse to pass any proposed law that infringed on states’ sovereignty.

The system set up by the Founding Fathers worked well for more than 100 years. Then in 1900, a senator from Wisconsin who was one of the early founders of the liberal Progressive movement realized that the Progressives could never achieve their objectives as long as the states remained as powerful as the federal government. They had to limit the sovereignty of the states and bring them under the domination of the federal government.

The Progressives had already discovered that the people had an overwhelming tendency to re-elect incumbents as long as those incumbents weren’t involved in some public scandal, so they needed to have the senators elected by the people, not the state legislatures. Their methodology was to expose a few senators who had been corrupted by various businesses and industries in their states.

“If these men had to answer to the people in a direct election,” they argued, “they would be afraid to engage in their illegal activities.”

Today we know that argument is completely false, but the knowledge comes too late. In 1913, three-quarters of the states ratified the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution requiring that senators be elected by popular vote. For almost 100 years now, the states have had no representation in the national government.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the erosion of the American republic began, but in my opinion the Seventeenth Amendment was one of the milestones. With the last defense of state sovereignty gone, the federal government began to seize more and more power—over the states, over the people, and even over the corporations on which our economy is based. Now we have a president (Barak Obama) who thinks he can rule by fiat, by simply issuing executive orders that bypass the legislative and judicial processes and create whatever laws he wants.

Throughout history there have been governments that called themselves republics, from the ancient Greek Republic to the modern People’s Republic of China, but none were true republics. They all share the same failing.

The failing is that the general populace doesn’t participate in the democratic election of government officials. The monarch and the aristocracy are elected by a small group of elites. Then the monarch and the aristocracy appoint the other government officials from among the elites.

It would be similar to the members of the District of Columbia Country Club electing the president and the legislature. Then the president and legislators appoint the judges and other high-ranking government officials from the membership of the country club. These are the people who will rule over us but we had no voice in selecting them, and they were not drawn from among us. They were drawn from a group of elites who know nothing about how we live or what we want—and don’t care.

If that were the situation the nation would not be a republic, no matter what the rulers called it. It would be an aristocracy, a society of rulers and the ruled.

The republic that our Founding Fathers created more than 200 years ago was a rare and wonderful creature. It was something that had never before existed. Unless we guard it jealously, it’s something that may never exist again.