In search of democracy

Authored by Andrew Bibb

My grandfather, Toney Anaya, served as governor of New Mexico from 1983 to 1987. He is a liberal Democrat in the vein of Robert Kennedy, Sr., and I am decidedly not. I doubt whether we’ve ever voted for the same candidate.

Nevertheless, my grandfather is one of my closest and most trusted friends. Our familial ties and mutual respect eclipse all of our political differences, so much so that my firstborn son bears his name.

Still, I enjoy those moments when we stumble upon common political ground that we can use as a point of departure for further discussion. One of these instances occurred some years ago when I was plying him with questions about his political career. We sat on the back porch of his home in Santa Fe, enjoying the cool, dry evening breeze unique to New Mexico summers.

My grandfather was telling me about his clashes with the state legislature during his time as the state’s chief executive, one of which involved the legislature’s insistence that policy decisions be put to a vote in popular referenda. My grandfather opposed such efforts, arguing that the state government was a republic, not a direct democracy. The people elected representatives to make those policy decisions for them. That is, after all, what elections are all about. Election to political office is a legally binding expression of public trust.

I recently reminded my grandfather of this conversation to make sure I remembered it correctly, which he confirmed. He also added that, aside from the fact that governing through referenda would crash the system because that is not how republics are designed to work, it would also obstruct the democratic aspects of our system since only the affluent have the time, resources, and luxury to devote all of their energy to policy matters. Since most of us have to work for a living and can only give so much attention to public matters, direct democracy ends up looking more like modern aristocracy than anything else.

My grandfather is correct, of course. We are not a direct democracy, either at the national or more local levels. The US Constitution guarantees “to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.” Look for the words “democracy” or “democratic” in that same document; you won’t find it.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, March 18, 2013: A tour guide explaining the seal of the state of New Mexico in the Capitol building in Santa Fe, the capital of the state.

However, American political discourse uses the term “democracy” so much and “republic” so little that the former has become the accepted label for our system of government. The current National Security Strategy uses the words “democracy” or “democratic” 99 times; the only uses of “republic” occur when referencing other nations, such as the People’s Republic of China. From conservative superstars like Ronald Reagan to heroes of liberalism like Barack Obama, “democracy” is the popular term of choice when referring to the United States.

One of my commanding officers in the military used to assert his authority by claiming that soldiers “defend democracy, we don’t practice it.” But is that true? Are these United States the democracies we say they are? It depends on how you define “democracy” and, as is always the case when interpreting the meaning of words, context is king.

1777 article in the Pennsylvania Gazette defines “democracy” as “that form of government where the highest power of making laws is lodged in the common people, or persons chosen out from them. This is what by some is called a republic, a commonwealth, or free state, and seems to be most agreeable to natural right and liberty.” In this sense, “democracy” is a kind of shorthand for a form of government that draws its authority from the people, whether directly or through representation. America and the 50 states are democracies to the extent that the legitimacy of the government is derived from the consent of “We the People.”

However, the government of the United States is not and was never intended to be a purely democratic institution. To understand why, one must begin by defining the reason for the American government’s existence in the first place. This purpose is nicely summarized in the Preamble to the US Constitution, which culminates in securing “the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Securing liberty, as well as life and property, requires putting limits on what even a democratic majority may do. John Witherspoon, the founding era’s educator par excellence, taught that pure democracy “is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage.” He recognized a hard truth about human nature, that even democracies can become tyrannical. Pointing to Athens and Rome as his examples, he also observed that democracies have a habit of falling prey to demagoguery and of vesting power-hungry public figures “with such power as overthrows their own liberty.” Democracies can be not only tyrannical but also quite self-destructive.

Consequently, Witherspoon reasoned, “If the true notion of liberty is the prevalence of law and order, and the security of individuals,” then simple democracy is not “favorable to it.” His solution was to combine elements of democracy with the two other classical forms of government (aristocracy and monarchy) to create a complex system in which “one principle may check the other.”

His greatest student, James Madison, carried this lesson with him to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Madison, along with many of his fellow delegates, distrusted the mob as much as centralized authority. The result is that democratic principles are woven throughout the Constitution, but they do not dominate it. Referring to the founders’ commitment to protecting the rights of minorities against democratic majorities, Professor Thomas West describes their “attachment to democracy” as “conditional, not absolute.”

The conditional nature of the founders’ attachment to democracy is apparent throughout the Constitution. For example, the Electoral College system for electing the president ensures that not every American’s vote is of equal consequence. However, perfect equality of voting power was never the intent. The intent was to diffuse electoral power throughout the country and, in doing so, protect minority states like Vermont from populated behemoths like New York. It’s a very undemocratic idea, and that’s the point.

Another example is the original Constitution’s method for choosing senators. In the Constitution, as originally ratified, state legislatures, not the people directly, chose who would represent their states in the upper house of the national Congress, which gave the Senate a decidedly aristocratic flavor. That, again, was the point. This method not only gave state governments a voice in the national legislature, but it also counterbalanced the popularly elected House of Representatives, providing yet another protection against democratic tyranny. It also forced voters to take a greater interest in state-wide elections because in electing state legislators they were deciding who chose senators for Washington, D.C.. This reinforced the federal nature of our constitutional system and prevented national overreach. Unfortunately, the 17th Amendment instituted the popular election of senators, no doubt contributing to Americans’ tendency to look more to the national government to solve problems. It also moved the nation in the direction of Witherspoon’s “unfavorable” simple democracy. 

Undemocratic features such as the Electoral College and, prior to the 17th Amendment, the appointment of senators by state legislatures abound in the Constitution. But, so what? Why should the theoretical nature of democracy under the US Constitution matter to policymakers and citizens? What practical good does it do?

First and foremost, it should make us think twice before tinkering with the Constitution without a sufficient understanding of how those changes would affect its capacity to protect individuals and minority groups against democratic tyranny. Policy initiatives such as the National Popular Vote would upset the balance between democratic and undemocratic features in the Constitution and pave the way for metropolises such as New York City and Los Angeles to effectively rule middle America. In instances like these, it is wise to remember that the Constitution’s undemocratic features, such as the electoral college, are often the ones that make federalism, and by extension individual liberty, possible.

Portrait of John Witherspoon, Presbyterian minister and President of Princeton Seminary. He is the only college president and clergymen to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Second, it helps us understand and appreciate the nature of American federalism. The popular election of the Congress is the only way citizens directly affect national policy. State and local policy issues, those that hit closest to home, have the greatest direct input from citizens. Under our constitutional system, the more local the politics the more powerful their democratic features. This is by design. 

Third, it should remind us that, insofar as our system of government is a democracy, we have a civic obligation to exercise our democratic prerogatives wisely. The rights and privileges of citizenship come with corresponding responsibilities, and it’s more important to vote consciously and intelligently than as a mere exercise of one’s rights. Heeding Witherspoon’s warning against demagoguery, it is incumbent upon citizens to view wise voting practices as a moral duty to themselves and their communities.

Fourth, the complex nature of our constitutional government should inspire us to take civic education seriously. Pure democracy is easy to teach and understand: 50% of voters plus one do whatever they want and 50% minus one suffer whatever they must. That is not our system, and citizens should understand it is for their protection that it isn’t. All civic education should begin with the end in mind, which in the U.S. requires us to understand the nature of liberty under a federal constitution. We should also remember that civic education is impotent unless supported by moral education and a robust understanding of human nature. Witherspoon’s political teachings referenced above came only after he laid a solid foundation of ethical instruction. One was an extension of the other.

Finally, the nuanced treatment of democracy by the founders reminds us that there is room for disagreement regarding how much democracy is good for us. The framers of the Constitution were not in perfect agreement about how democratic our system of government should be, which led to a series of compromises that no one was perfectly satisfied with but most agreed was the best that could be hoped for. Likewise, my grandfather and I recognize that, despite our disagreements, we are both democrats in the belief that sovereignty originates in the people and we are both republicans in recognizing our form of government as representative, constitutional, and federal.

Most importantly, we are both Americans in our conviction that our liberties and form of government are worth protecting.

Andrew Bibb is a military strategist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government.

Authored by:Andrew Bibb


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