“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”
A common misconception, even for Americans, is that the United States is a democracy. Even though it has drifted closer to democracy since its founding, the United States was purposely established as a constitutional republic.
In “The Federalist No. 10,” James Madison stated:
…democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.
In his “The Federalist No. 14,” he stated:
The effect…[of having a republic over a democracy]…is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves convened for the purpose.
The main difference between the two forms of governments is the source of power. A republic derives its power from its charter, while a democracy derives its power from the majority. Since America’s Constitution, rather than the electorate, is the source of power, the United States must be termed a republic. The United States of America also has a Bill of Rights that guarantees protections for minorities, and a series of checks and balances in place to prevent one person or one group from becoming authoritarian.
The problem is that Americans have come to idolize democracy without really even understanding what it means. Americans think they are making progress by becoming more democratic, when all they are doing is forgetting the historical examples that made the Founding Fathers institute a republic rather than a democracy.
Americans rarely study history today, but that was certainly not true of our Founding Fathers. When they created the US government, they used two key examples as a basis for their decision: the democracy of Athens and the republic of Rome. The Athenian state was governed by an assembly of all free Greek males, the military leadership was elected from the general population of free citizens, and the day-to-day administration was handled by rotating groups of citizens based on their districts of birth. In order for the Athenian democracy to function properly, the males of the society needed enough free time to hold long debates, attend assembly meetings, conduct trials, and do the day-to-day governance of the state. They achieved this by enslaving large numbers of foreigners to do the manual labor, while the women did domestic chores.
Unfortunately, no matter how much time the assembly had to debate issues, its members were prone to acting irrationally when demagogues—small numbers of orators who took lessons in manipulation and persuasion in order to influence the assembly—stood up and gave passionate speeches that stirred up the assembly members’ emotions, sometimes with devastating and even catastrophic consequences.
One of the most notable examples was the execution of the Athenian generals during the Peloponnesian War, a life-and-death struggle with the Spartans. After Athens’s naval victory, some of its sailors were left in the water because the generals thought the weather could sink any ships that went out to rescue them. The generals made the difficult but prudent choice to sacrifice some sailors to save the fleet, which the entire empire depended on for defense.
Some demagogues, who were upset by losing family members in this incident, stirred up the emotions of the assembly members, trying to convince them to forgo trial procedures and execute six of the most experienced Athenian generals during wartime. The assembly later repealed the verdict against the two surviving generals and even lodged charges against the demagogues who stirred up the mob in the first place—but the damage had been done.
After the execution of the generals, Athens tried to enact some constitutional checks that would prevent any such exuberant and irreversible decisions in the future, but they were not very effective. When the majority governs, it doesn’t matter what laws or procedures are customary. Emotions and feelings of invulnerability that are often attributed to a mob mentality can overcome rationality, morality, and a sense of accountability.
Plato, one of Athens’s most notable critics, understood the problem with equal political participation. He justly believed that most people are not capable of making public decisions. They do not have the intelligence, experience, or knowledge to do so. Plato believed that demagogues would take advantage of this naïvety and stir up the masses to make poor decisions. He noted that the assembly would be prone to making short-term decisions based on popular demand and that the hard, uncomfortable decisions, or those that needed careful planning, would be avoided. He was proven right in every case, and these problems probably cost the Athenians their independence.
Not so in Rome, however, which was a complex representative republic that morphed over hundreds of years. Rome’s two classes of people—the more numerous plebs and the rich, well-educated patricians (nobles)—compromised their positions over time and ultimately shared power. The goal was to prevent the people from being exploited but also to make sure that the most educated, intelligent people made the majority of the decisions.
Although it eventually became possible for plebeians to hold the highest offices, each class had its own rights and powers. Rome had an unwritten constitution that included the protection of certain rights for all citizens and, just as the United States has, an elaborate system of checks and balances to ensure that no one person or entity became too powerful. High offices had term limits and restrictions on the number of times a candidate could run for a position.
Rome was a magnificent example of successful governance during the period of its republic (500 BC to 44 BC). Its representative republic was run primarily by men of experience, education, and wisdom. Candidates would spend vast sums of their own money to get elected to public office. They did this for the honor of their families rather than for paychecks.
Rome’s government was highly adaptive to the many obstacles it faced. The Romans overcame some great powers, including the Carthaginians and the Greeks. Most identify the Roman Empire with ruthless emperors, but that was only part of its history. In fact, most of the Romans’ land acquisitions and prosperity existed during its republic. It wasn’t until the emperors took power that the Roman Empire started to fall apart due to civil wars and corruption.
The similarities between the governmental structure of the Roman Republic and the United States of America are striking. The Founding Fathers clearly made some improvements to the Roman model to guarantee even greater rights for the citizenry and memorialized these changes in our Constitution, but the model they chose is quite clear. There may be democratic institutions within our republic and even the Roman Republic, but that does not make either government a democracy.
As America moves closer to democracy through the practical elimination of the Electoral College and the full elimination of a property qualifications to vote, Americans are starting to face some of the problems the Athenians faced, which is precisely what the Founding Fathers attempted to avoid. The destruction of America’s republican ideals gives citizens equal voices, but the complexity of the issues requires citizens to spend vast amounts of time and intellectual effort in order to understand them. Athenians had slaves, which afforded citizens the time to become informed, and even then they had problems. Most American citizens either do not have or are unwilling to spend the time and lack the intellectual ability to govern a nation properly. Consequently, Americans elect poor leaders and support their short-term mindsets, which sabotages long-term planning—like giving freedom away in the Patriot Act to make people feel safe, destroying the environment for short-term gain, or taking on massive national debt at the expense of future generations. Just like Athens, America has demagogues, now called professional politicians, who are experts at appealing to people’s emotions in order to manipulate them.
The Electoral College and Voting Requirements
Due to the Founding Fathers’ skepticism of democracy, they created an electoral college and voting requirements for many states so those who would make the final decisions about political candidates would not be making them based on the candidates’ looks or ability to give speeches, but rather on their qualifications and their intentions for the country. Therefore, in the presidential election, the most important election in the land, qualified people voted for electors who then voted for the president. The Founding Fathers learned from the Athenian democracy and sent a clear message: the unrestricted masses would not be trusted to make important decisions in America. It makes sense, really. The people, of course, should have a voice, but they should not have equal voices when they possess unequal qualifications.
The Electoral College was supposed to function as an intermediary between the voting public and the final election. Eligible citizens voted for state electors who then voted for political candidates. The current Electoral College is a façade because electors are expected, and in some states required, to vote for the candidate who received the popular vote. Now there is even talk of eliminating the Electoral College altogether.
It stands to wonder whether someone of such limited ability as George W. Bush could have been elected under the true Electoral College system. It is understandable how the masses could be manipulated to vote for a candidate with questionable service in the National Guard as well as a very poor business record, but it is doubtful that a group of intelligent, informed state electors would have done so. After all, they are far less likely to be deceived by attack ads and baseless smear campaigns.
Many Americans think that the Constitution guarantees voting rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing in the Constitution or Bill of Rights that provides specific protections for voting. That is a power left explicitly to the states, and originally almost every state had property qualifications in order to vote, until the federal government usurped that right when it passed the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867, which allowed Confederate states to regain membership in the union as long as they adopted universal male suffrage.
This act was patently unconstitutional because twenty-three US senators were illegally excluded from the proceedings. Several state legislatures challenged the act on that basis, but to no avail. The act was also challenged in the Supreme Court, but the federal government repealed the habeas corpus element of the act, so the Supreme Court could not make a ruling on the case.
The Founding Fathers believed that a man must have a stake in his country in order to have a voice. The property qualification varied by state, but it is estimated that because of it, 50 percent of white men were restricted from voting. Portions of the more populated lower classes owned small amounts of property, which provided a balance of power between the poor and the rich, just like in Rome. The property qualification, not coincidentally, ensured a far more educated and intelligent voting body than a common democracy would have. In those days, the wealthy men were usually the only ones who could afford decent educations and the only ones who had the leisure time to read about the candidates and the issues.
While a wealthy voting body was not the goal of the Founding Fathers, an educated one was. They clearly made the conscious decision to sacrifice the common vote in favor of an educated vote. Otherwise, as we saw in Athens, large numbers of poor would dominate the vote and make thoughtless decisions or expropriate the wealth of the less populated upper classes. This should sound familiar—like the American demagogues’ calls for socialized medicine and more income-tax redistribution.
This is a fairly simple premise that people seem to reject today because, according to our notions of equality, it isn’t politically correct to infer that a person of intelligence should have more political clout than someone of lesser intelligence. Even though we may choose to ignore the fact that there is a direct correlation between intelligence and proper decision making, it does not make it less true. When people are not faced with the repercussions of their decisions, they will be more careless and not take the time to become informed.
Any psychologist will acknowledge that a person is far more likely to make an irrational choice while voting through a mega-democracy in which others will have to bear the burden of his decisions than when voting through a more direct and accountable system. Any rational person would choose an educated, competent, intelligent businessman to run his personal finances rather than a random individual from the populace. Yet we trust random individuals to vote for the people who make our laws.