I was in separate conversations with a few very conservative friends years ago when the tea party movement was grabbing all the headlines. Each friend shared enthusiastically about how we lived in a republic, not a democracy. How strange I thought, what could have brought this up? Good people, every single one, but not well versed in political theory or the political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. It turned out they had been listening to a then popular right wing talk show radio host and had memorized the script of his talking points. I was perplexed. Why would radio hosts claim that an American republic was not a democracy? If someone says we have a republic, not a democracy, what sort of republic do they have in mind? That was two decades ago. Where are we now? I heard the same claim again just a few days ago, from someone who should know better (and likely does).
First, to claim that a republic is not a democracy is a red herring. To be sure, the ancient Greek definition of democracy was what we might call “rule by the fickle, desires of the mob”; think of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. A more orderly form of so called pure democracy was practiced by New England colonists. It was government by town meeting conducted by rules of eligibility and procedure. It’s still practiced in some places.
To the ancient Greek philosophers, a republic relied on a few leading men to elect a virtuous autocrat held in check by an assembly of qualified citizens. What sort of assembly would be qualified? Plato wanted an assembly of philosophers who would elect a philosopher as leader. After all, he said, only philosophers really knew what was best for the whole. Aristotle disagreed. He wanted an assembly of propertied men who had real skin in the game. Neither trusted the mob, which to them was everyone else. What about women? The question never entered their minds. Neither of them got what they wanted. Greek city states rumbled chaotically from despots to oligarchs to mobs and back again. Rome gave the Aristotelian model a good run, but ended up with emperors and a more symbolic than functional senate of Roman nobility.
Words change their meanings as the centuries go by and we now understand democracy to include democratic republics, locally adapted. For success they rely on the principles of universal suffrage, freedom of speech, the right to peacefully assemble in protest, and so forth. Voters elect representatives to legislatures where they are expected to enact appropriate laws for the good of the whole, balancing it against rights of individual freedom. Mayors, governors and presidents are elected by the voters to administer the laws within limits, preventing dictatorial power. An independent court system mediates disputes. In other words, modern republics are representative democracies. To claim otherwise is either calculating or ignorant.
It’s true that founding fathers were wary of too much democracy in the new republic. They were even more worried about giving a president too much executive authority. Too much democracy would lead to mob rule. Too much executive authority would lead to despotism.
The balance was to entrust the vote to propertied white men, electing a House of Representatives by popular vote, and a smaller Senate elected by state legislatures. It was a good starting place. Demands for greater protection of individual rights led quickly to the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. A civil war and more amendments gave full rights to all men black and white. Senators were not elected by popular vote until 1915. The right to vote was not extended to women until 1920, nor American Indians until 1924. The United States had finally become a fully democratic republic with universal suffrage – not that local laws and prejudices didn’t suppress as much of the non-white vote as they could get away with. By law if not practice, that stopped in the mid 1960s. Recent Supreme court rulings have enabled those in power to tactically suppress the right to vote in the name of election integrity, where integrity has never been seriously challenged.
The current propaganda that republics and democracies are different creatures is related to the trend toward voter suppression. A belief has never died that government should be in the hands of only a few because the general population cannot be trusted. Guided for the last twenty years or so by well financed and intellectually astute groups, epitomized by the Koch Network, some have been working hard to recast the U.S. as a republic with oligarchs, seeing that a more authoritarian, but compliant, president of their choosing is elected, served by a subordinate Congress. It would, they believe, make for a more efficient, less regulated nation with more freedom for individuals to act as they please in their own best interests. A two pronged strategy could make that happen. First, there needs to be a mass movement to create mistrust in a government that bends to the demands of unworthy minorities and that also is a threat to individual freedom. The solution to their fears and prejudices would be a more authoritarian president to defend their interests. Second, the scheme depends on incremental suppression of voters most likely to object. It’s not a new plan. It’s been around for centuries, and used effectively by oligarchs, dictators, coups and the like. Extreme versions include Italian fascists, German nazis, and Soviet communists. Hungarian president Victor Orban is a contemporary example, much admired by the American radical right. It doesn’t matter. It’s all the same plan. The frightening thing is how easily it can be sold to enough of the gullible to create a mob large enough to kindle a fire.
We came close to losing our democracy with Trump. It failed because the oligarchs could not control an ignorant, undisciplined Trump, the criminal ineptness of the Trump operation, the courage and integrity of enough others to stop it, and a large majority of voters who recognized the danger.
It’s not over. Trumpism has been recognized by political opportunists as a powerful tool that could give them all the power they ever wanted. If oligarchs can fund the right candidates, the plan might still work.
On the other hand, the mob of trumpists, loud as ever, is growing smaller as more traditional conservatives see it for what it is, and traditional liberals begin waking up from their decades long complacency. How they respond in the next few rounds of elections will determine whether we will be able to keep our democratic republic or decline into autocracy.
© Steven E. Woolley