A few days ago, Burnie Thompson wrote the article “Is America a Democracy or a Republic?” Conservatives and Libertarians often like to point out, as Burnie did, that the the United States was founded as a Republic, and this is certainly true.
The problem is that this is a present-tense question that is answered with a past-tense answer. You can’t respond to the question of what we are by pointing out what we used to be. And despite the many valid points that Burnie makes in his article, this is where I believe he is mistaken.
Burnie writes: “One thing the United States is not is a democracy.”
This is a point worth contesting. Even in 1788, when the Constitution was ratified, there were intentionally placed elements of democracy. This, of course, does not negate Burnie’s arguments. We were a Democratic Republic; the people only represented one arm of political power, but not the whole body. However, if we look at the original structure of the Republic and follow the changes that have taken place over the years, we see an undeniable and significant shift toward democracy.
A Brief Overview of the Original Republican System
Our original system of government established a federal system, in contrast to a national system. This was the overwhelming theme of the constitutional debates: the division between the Federalist faction, which supported the national (centralized) system of government and the Anti-Federalist faction, which supported the federal (decentralized) system of government that left sovereignty with the states. Much like the modern left’s commandeering of the term “liberal” from the limited-government advocates, the founding “left” appropriated the term “Federalist” from the anti-government faction for a similar strategy of political equivocation.
“…the word “national” was struck out by [the Federalists], because they thought the word might tend to alarm: and although now, they who advocate the system, pretend to call themselves federalists, in convention the distinction was quite the reverse; those who opposed the system, were there considered and styled the federal party, those who advocated it, the antifederal.”
– Luther Martin, “Genuine Information” Document 8
The system established was a mixture between the two systems, but retaining overall sovereignty in the States, which were able to establish their own systems of government which generally looked more like representative democracies (because the people voted on all offices, even from the beginning).
What power the federal government did have was divided into three branches (the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative) with two legislative houses (the Senate and the House of Representatives), creating the broad division of federal powers. Of these, only the House of Representatives resembled a representative democracy. This will be one of the primary points worth looking at when analyzing the descent into democracy.
The Senate was originally not democratic at all, instead serving as an important check on the democratic element of the constitution. Where the House represented the people, the Senate consisted of members appointed by the State legislature for the purpose of protecting the interests of the State. By having both houses, legislation could not be passed unless it was approved by both the people’s representatives and the State’s representatives. This will serve as another primary examples of our democratic shift.
The office of the Presidency, of course, had its own powers, not the least of which was the ability to veto Congressional legislation (presumably, only if the legislation was unconstitutional). Most important in the context of American democracy is the electoral college which has itself deteriorated into a far more democratic system over the years. This will be the third point in contesting Burnie’s claim.
Most importantly, though, is that the original system absolutely was a Republic. State governments were structured (according to political theory) to leave power in the hands of the citizens, while the Federal government was structured to leave the power in the hands of the sovereign States. It is entirely obvious that more has changed in this system than merely the shift toward democracy, but those changes are better left for another article.
The question of the number of representatives was originally a topic of great debate. Initially, the House was set to have only 65 representatives. James Madison wanted to double the number. Finally, it was settled that to prepare for future population growth, the number would be set at one representative per 40,000 citizens, and at the last minute dropped to 30,000 citizens.
The main concern was making the representatives as representative as possible. With higher populations in each Congressional district, representation of individual views dwindles due to the tyranny of the majority. This was of great concern to Madison, and in modern context, it is clear that he was very prescient in his concern.
When the Bill of Rights was sent to the States for ratification, only one amendment failed the ratification process. This amendment would have required that there be at least one Representative for every 30,000 citizens for up to 100 Representatives, at which point it would be 1 for every 40,000 up to 200 Representatives, and then 1 for every 50,000 persons.
In the context of a Republican system, either solution is problematic. Had this amendment passed and been adhered to, we would have a House numbering more than 6,200 Representatives. The amendment failed, though, due to a concern with the growth in represented constitutions, not because of the massive number of representatives (which would be its own disaster). Instead, the House was capped at 435 representatives, giving us the very problem the ratifiers wanted to avoid when rejecting this proposed amendment; we now have close to 800,000 constituents for every Representative in Congress. As the population grows, the actual “representation” dwindles to laughable levels, and the congressional elections resemble more and more large-scale democracy as nearly a million people vote on a single, localized politician.
The Seventeenth Amendment
The 17th Amendment represents a major step in the democratization of the American republic. Prior to this, the divided houses of Congress were meant to keep a check on each other. The Representatives represented the people, obviously, while the Senate was in place to balance out the dangers of democracy and protect the sovereignty of the states.
The result is that now we have two democratically elected houses of Congress, which means these checks on power have been replaced with popular representation. But because they are still elements of a representative democratic model, the senate simply has power concentrated into the hands of two extremely powerful politicians in each state. This actually creates an even greater imbalance between states of different populations.
While the representatives are proportioned still to some degree according to population, there is a modicum of balance between a single voter in Rhode Island and a single voter in California. With the senate being based on popular vote and no proportionality to population, a single voter in Rhode Island actually carries more legislative power than a single voter in California. This democratic imbalance was never intended as part of the democratic aspect of our republic.
Of course, the idea of the Senate being represented by two delegates from each state was to protect the smaller states from the tyranny of the larger states, but this could only be accomplished through legislative appointment. By shifting this power to democratic elections, we now see the rights of citizens in larger states being threatened by the imbalance of power in smaller states. All due, of course, to the further democratization of our government.
The Electoral College
I remember after the Bush v. Gore election the argument that still continues to this day by many Republicans: “Bush winning the election is an example of the electoral college working exactly how the founders intended!”
This, really, is explicitly untrue. The electoral college in its current state is another primary example of the shift from a republican to a democratic system. We are only one small step away from a popular vote for the Presidency, and at this point, it would probably make more sense to go with a fully democratic election (something that I do not support as a whole) than to maintain the perverted devolution of our electoral college system.
Originally, the electoral college – like the Senate – was in place to protect the sovereignty of the states from being overrun by the tyranny of democracy. To be proportionate, electors were distributed according to state population, and to submit to state sovereignty, each state was allowed to decide its manner of appointing electors.
The idea was that the President would not even appear on a State ballot. Although it was ultimately a decision of each state, the expectation was that the citizens would either vote on an elector directly, thus giving them indirect influence on the president, or the citizens would only vote on a state legislator, and the legislature would simply appoint electors, which was more common. The electors were then able to cast their vote for president with a great deal of independence from the general population. This is the electoral college model that was originally intended by the Framers.
It is worth mentioning that while the current model may not represent original intent, neither does it appear to be unconstitutional. Gradually, it became more and more common for states to let the population vote directly for the president, thus obligating electors to vote in accordance with general opinion. By 1880, this finally became the practice in every state.
But whether or not this is constitutional, it does still represent a significant shift toward democracy and reveals major problems in our electoral system. For one thing, all but two states use a winner-takes-all system of electoral votes (Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions, granting electoral votes according to district lines, much like the elections for Representatives). This creates serious problems in our presidential elections.
The majority of states clearly favor one party over the other. This means that in, for example, California – a state with a large population of Republicans in rural areas, yet is overwhelmingly Democrat in the many urban districts – there is little incentive to vote on the president at all if you’re of the losing side (it should be easy to see how this incentive likely affects voter turnout when many voters only bother to vote for the office of the presidency). Despite the manner of directly voting for the presidency, people voting in solidly red or blue states are arguably less represented than they would have been under the original electoral model in which nobody voted directly on the presidency.
It also means that the office of the presidency is almost entirely decided by “swing states.” This incentivizes the candidates to cater their positions and policies to the interests of Ohio and Florida over California and Texas because it is far more likely that the former two states will decide their election. FDR serves as a prime example of this. Before his many reelections, he pumped federal funds into swing states, temporarily (and artificially) boosting the economies of the states that represented his greatest threat to losing an election, and in doing so he actually neglected aid to the states that favored him solidly.
Again, we see an imbalance among the individual voters from different states. This time, as opposed to the Senate imbalance, it is the individual voter in a swing state who carries more weight than the individual voter in a solidly red or blue state. Although this is not pure democracy of the presidential elections, it is a significant move toward democratization (since it is the product of state-based popular voting) that demonstrates that our presidential elections are by no means the model of a republic and in no way represents the intention of the Founding Fathers.
So What Are We?
Are we, then, a Democracy or a Republic? In a technical sense, we’re neither. We do still retain some small vestiges of our Republican system, but these are mere fragments of a Republic, and it is no longer honest to apply that title to our current system.
It is also true that we are not a pure Democracy. We are still some category of a representative democracy, though what we would call “representation” is laughable compared with the standards upon which our country was founded.
Other people might call us an “aristocracy,” an “oligarchy,” or even a “representative monarchy” based on the concentration of power in small groups of people and families, as well as the expansion of executive power. All of these terms carry some weight in describing the problems of our current system, but none of them purely and accurately describe our unique system of government as a whole.
In his article, Burnie reminds us of the famous words by Benjamin Franklin when asked what form of government had been established. Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
My contention is simply that we did not.
We are, in reality, a perverted amalgamation of all these forms of government. But most importantly, while we were founded as a Republic, it is observably undeniable that what we have become is far more democratic than was ever intended by the Framers and the ratifiers of our Constitution.