The media’s daily outbursts about the danger to democracy posed by the current administration, while highly amusing, omit a key piece of information. The United States is not a democracy; the United States is a republic.
However, a common argument today claims that democracy as defined in modern times is not significantly different from republicanism as defined in the founding era. For example, the historian Ralph Ketcham argued, “The founders would not have been opposed to the modern connotations of the word ‘democracy,’ nor would they have used the word ‘republic’ to mark out a distinction from those connotations.” But this is demonstrably incorrect. Moreover, the widespread acceptance of the word ‘democracy’ to describe America is not a trivial matter.
For the most part, the founding fathers were strongly opposed to both monarchy and democracy. A monarchy was defined as rule by a king while a democracy was defined as rule by the people, and the powers of a king or the people could either be limited or unlimited. Nevertheless, the interest of the majority, like the interest of a king, is not a legitimate standard for determining whether something is right or wrong. Rather, the legitimate standards for a government are the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence; in particular, the principle that governments are instituted to secure the unalienable rights of individuals.
The founding fathers were overwhelmingly in favor of a republic, defined as rule by representatives of the people. And the United States is a republic with a constitution that deliberately restrains democracy by limiting majority rule, on the national level, to a few areas where the federal government has been granted a small number of specific powers. In other words, the U.S. Constitution imposes severe limits on the power of both the people and the representatives of the people. The Constitution was designed to provide the federal government with only those powers necessary to ensure an effective union of the states, while simultaneously upholding the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, the founding fathers, including George Washington, were adamant that — regardless of public opinion — the Constitution can be changed only with a constitutional amendment.
In contrast, the Progressive-liberal view of democracy — in addition to its hostility to individual rights — was illustrated perfectly by Woodrow Wilson over a century ago. He noted (approvingly) that “socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same. They both rest at bottom upon the absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny and that of its members. Men as communities are supreme over men as individuals.” Wilson complained, “Some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence.”
As president, Wilson openly embraced the idea of a “living constitution.” Basically, Progressives and liberals (and some Republican “moderates”) insist that the Constitution can be changed without a constitutional amendment simply by reinterpretation (i.e., by redefining its words and reading into its text new principles, such as new government powers).
Progressives and liberals have engaged in a relentless attack on America, pushing countless policies that incorporate leftist ideology and violate individual rights. On issue after issue, the federal government (with laws passed by Congress, executive orders issued by presidents, and opinions delivered by the Supreme Court) has disregarded the Constitution’s limits on federal power and has imposed such policies on the entire nation. And this has been done in the name of democracy.
The founding fathers would have vehemently opposed both this abuse of power and the promotion of democracy (sometimes called representative democracy) to rationalize the abuse.
Yet for decades, people from across the political spectrum, including many good conservatives, have been referring to the United States as a democracy. For example, during the Cold War, conservatives regularly praised democracy while condemning dictatorship when comparing the political systems of the United States and the Soviet Union. Consequently, a false idea has been planted in the public consciousness, which has greatly benefitted the Progressive-liberal cause. Moreover, the strongest arguments against Progressive-liberal principles and policies can be made only if conservatives stop framing their own arguments on the same erroneous foundation (democracy) used by Progressives and liberals.
A prime example is the way the argument has been framed regarding the Affordable Care Act (i.e., Obamacare).
The Constitution lists the powers granted to the federal government and it does not list a health care power. Furthermore, the taxing clause and the commerce clause do not provide such a power when interpreted according to their original (and only legitimate) meaning, rather than a modern reinterpretation. In short, there is no federal power in this area; this kind of health care is a state issue. The will of the people (whether a majority or simply a minority of special interest groups) is relevant only if expressed first as a constitutional amendment that provides the federal government with a health care power. Likewise, the will of the representatives in Congress is irrelevant without a constitutional amendment.
However, many of the Affordable Care Act’s opponents in Congress are not arguing to fully repeal the law. Instead, many are working to replace the law with one that would still have the federal government involved with this kind of health care. And health care, of course, is just one issue.
Notably, when he was leaving the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was reportedly asked by a lady about the form of government the United States would have. He was quoted as replying, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
The Founding Fathers understood that democracy was a threat to the American republic and securing the unalienable rights of individuals. And democracy — as defined then or now — remains so today.
Paul Pauker is the author of Morality and Law in America. He also runs a site dedicated to advancing the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and property.