Not a Democracy

Every time I hear a politician proclaim: “We won the popular vote, and this election is just wrong!”  I immediately know two things.  First, their side lost the election even though they got more votes.  Second, they are either intentionally deceptive with voters, or such a poor student of history that they do not know we live in a Republic/Representative Democracy and not a pure Democracy.

Our Founding Fathers were students of history, and in particular European history.  They had seen the pitfalls of both pure democracies and monarchies, and knew that if we became either, we would not last long as a nation.  Monarchies and Democracies have an uncomfortable record of failing because they eventually devolve into autocracy or mob rule. 

To quote Thomas Jefferson: “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”  And so they gave us a system of government that is both a Republic and a Representative Democracy, and it is important that we and our children understand this if we are to survive.  At the time this was unique and innovative.

In a Republic you do not have a monarch or ruler (leader) for life, but instead an elected leader with a stated term of office.  In a Representative Democracy every voter’s vote counts toward the election of officials who then represent our interest in matters requiring a vote.  This important distinction permeates our system of government at the Federal, State, and Local levels. While it can lead to situations where the popular vote does not carry all elections, it avoids the pitfalls of mob rule by ensuring that all votes count in every region of our nation.

By design and foresight, our nation’s founders could see the expansion of our territories to the west and knew governing a diverse population at a distance would become a challenge.  The representative construct of our system makes sure all citizens in all States are heard in national matters.

The bi-cameral construct of our Congress is also a pillar of this system of government.  The Senate gives every State an equal voice in legislation.  The House of Representatives gives a voice to the people based on census population.  So, in a sense there is a balance here between pure Democracy (the House of Representatives) and Representative Democracy (the Senate).

We have George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt to thank for not becoming a Constitutional Monarchy.  Washington stepped down after two terms as President.  He knew there were people who would vote for him to be President for Life.  But he set a precedent that lasted from the end of his Presidency to that of Franklin Roosevelt.  But there was no Constitutional mandate for a limit of two terms.  So, when Roosevelt was elected to his fourth term many felt we were on the precipice of a Constitutional Monarchy.  Thanks to Roosevelt we now have the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution which limits a President to only two terms.  This has proven to be increasingly important over the years.

When we see our houses of Congress fighting among themselves, and fighting with the President it is not dysfunctional, it is functioning as designed.  The Founding Fathers knew that to slow the decline of the Nation they needed a system where change would be slow, deliberate, and at times contentious.  It is when one political party has both houses of Congress and the Presidency that the Nation goes awry.

Two changes made over the years are little noticed and have caused significant issues.  These changes went against the Founders’ design and are, unfortunately, irreversible.  The first was changing the Vice President from the runner up in the Presidential Election to a running mate of the President.  The intended effect was if the President died then the Party in power switched.  But the more critical issue is that the Vice President is President of the Senate and can slow down legislation that is injurious to the public interest.  Now a Party with both houses of Congress has the swing vote rather than being blocked by the opposing vote.  We see that today with the Senate evenly divided and the Party in power having the swing vote.  As designed, none of the current legislation that has passed that is so detrimental to our national debt would have passed.  The Vice-Presidential deciding vote would have come from the opposing party, which was the original designed.

The other was the switch where Governors no longer appoint Senators, nor are they accountable to State Legislatures.  Once Senators could run from the State at Large, they became accountable to no one and lifetime appointees.  This change is little understood since it is not taught in schools.  The change came about because of corruption from just one Senator, did not solve the problem, and did irreparable damage to the balance of power between the States and the Federal Government.

But before we think all is lost, it is not.  We are still the greatest Nation in the world.  An experiment in Republic/Representative Democracy for sure, but it seems to work.  We do not have migrants streaming across our southern border because they live in a better place.  They come here for opportunity and freedom.  Despite all our faults, all our misgivings, and all our acrimonious debate, we are and hopefully will remain freedom’s greatest hope.

A story has been reported through the years that is certainly representative of the sentiment of the times. On conclusion of the drawing of the Constitution Benjamin Franklin was approached by a woman who asked: “Well, Dr. Franklin, what have you done for us?” Franklin’s response was: “We have given you a Republic. It remains to be seen if you will be able to retain it.”