One of the most common category errors in political discourse is referring to the United States of America as a “democracy.” It is not a democracy, and it never has been. The Founding Fathers would be absolutely horrified to learn their descendants would routinely use the term. Democracy is mob rule. The Founders opposed it as strongly as they opposed monarchy. The government they created was designed to restrain both the despotic control of a ruling elite, and the transitory passions of the crowd.
How often have you heard it said that we must preserve the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority? This idea is profoundly hostile to “democracy,” in which the majority always gets its way, subject to whatever absolute limits might be placed on the power of the State. If you are a person of middle age, you may have noticed there is much less talk about protecting the rights of the minority these days, or of placing absolute limits on the power of the State. Dissent ceased to be the highest expression of patriotism roughly five years ago.
The old battle between “democracy” and the Republic flared up on the set of a talk show yesterday, in the context of ObamaCare and the movement to defund it, as reported by Politico:
Rev. Al Sharpton argued with Rep. Doug Collins over Republican efforts to defund Obamacare in a government funding bill, asking him if that’s consistent with democracy and prompting Collins to declare America’s not a democracy, but a republic.
Sharpton and Collins (R-Ga.) engaged in the at-times heated back-and-forth on Sharpton’s MSNBC show “Politics Nation” on Thursday, with Sharpton asking Collins why he and other House Republicans who want to pass a government funding bill without funding Obamacare, despite its certain failure in the Senate, are going against the will of the people and the Supreme Court.
“What people don’t understand, congressman, is how we pass laws the Supreme Court upholds and you guys come in and say, ‘We’re not going to fund it and even worse, if money goes there, we’ll shut the whole government down.’ We thought we lived in a democracy,” Sharpton said. “Come on, congressman. That’s not what the country is supposed to be about.”
Collins gently corrected Sharpton, but the “Reverend Al” was aggressively eager for Americans to know he’s a complete ignoramus when it comes to American history and our system of government:
“Hey Al, just a reminder, this isn’t a democracy. This is a republic,” Collins replied.
Sharpton seized on the comment, saying he was eager to share that news with Collins’s constituents.
“I really hope the people in the 9th District know in the next election they should not vote thinking this is a democracy. That Doug Collins says this is not a democracy. I’ll even send you the clip so you can play it in your next campaign,” Sharpton said.
It’s all too easy to pick apart the red-hot muffins of folly that tumble from Al Sharpton’s mouth, but remember, this man has a gigantic media megaphone. He has both made a vast fortune, and gotten innocent people killed, by using it. He’s fair game.
So yes, for the record, Sharpton is absolutely wrong, Collins is absolutely correct, and if you think otherwise, you should return any high-school or college diplomas in your possession and consider suing the schools you got them from for malpractice. The people of the 9th District should be insulted that Al Sharpton thinks they are as ignorant as he is.
But let’s take this opportunity to consider why the difference between a democracy and a republic is important, beginning with the observation that even if Sharpton was correct, it wouldn’t help the argument he was trying to make. For starters, if America really was a “democracy,” ObamaCare would be dead and buried by now. The people hate it; they have always hated it; they hate it more as they learn more about it; a strong majority has always disapproved of it. Democracy is essentially government by referendum, and if the American people were given a chance to directly vote on the survival of ObamaCare, it would not have survived beyond 2011.
ObamaCare exists entirely because America is a republic. The Democrats used a temporary lock on both houses of Congress, plus the White House, to shove the Affordable Care Act onto the books. Even at that, it was necessary to hold a black-market bazaar of backroom deals and special carve-outs to buy the votes needed for passage. None of that would have worked if America was a democracy. There’s no way the Democrats could have purchased enough popular support to muscle it through.
That’s not an argument in favor of democracy, incidentally. Direct popular government is quite capable of making awful mistakes. It is more prone to such mistakes than a republic, on balance. But given the landscape of popular opinion from 2009 to the present, and the nature of ObamaCare’s many flaws, it probably would not have made this one. The Affordable Care Act would not have won a nationwide popular vote as it was written, and it would not survive a referendum in its current, grotesquely mutated form.
Neither democratic or republican systems of government are necessarily antithetical to concepts such as Supreme Court review or Constitutional limits on the power of government. A democracy can have a high court, and it can have laws that restrain what the government is allowed to do. In a true democracy, the restraints on government power would tend to be more fragile, but sadly, they turned out to be made of something softer than iron in the American republic.
The people of a democracy can shut down their government. They would probably be more likely to shut it down, using the incorrect definition of “government shutdown” we commonly bandy about today. (The result of a “government shutdown” would not be the complete cessation of all activity by the federal government.) These parts of Sharpton’s outburst are complete non sequiturs. He’s not really complaining about offenses against “democracy” – he’s whining about political initiatives he personally dislikes.
He is also willfully misrepresenting the current legislative situation, which should come as no surprise. The Republicans are not the ones threatening to shut down the government; Barack Obama and the Democrats are. The choice before them is funding the entire government, except for the badly broken and unworkable program known as the Affordable Care Act, or shutting down the government to defend the ACA. It is unsurprising that every liberal in the nation will lie through his teeth about the nature of the situation, since they’ve put a lot of effort into making the American public frightened of “government shutdowns” and angry at those who precipitate them.
Sharpton implies that a democracy would be stuck with bad laws, unable to repeal them no matter how terribly they fail. That’s silly. Neither a democracy, nor a republic, is obliged to suffer under a bad law for all eternity. Liberals obviously don’t believe this as a matter of general principle, because they’re quite eager to tear down or neutralize laws they dislike, even if they don’t have the political leverage to repeal them outright. Look at how President Obama gutted President Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act for an example.
The Obama style of government posits that a despotic executive can ignore, modify, or destroy laws he doesn’t like. Of course, those powers will be instantly rescinded when a Republican assumes the office – if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 election and postponed the employer mandate of ObamaCare, precisely the way Barack Obama has done, the Left would be howling with rage, and Democrats in Congress would probably be talking about impeaching him. But it’s clear enough that Democrats do not believe every law should stand eternally, or that active resistance to a law they judge unworthy is inherently wrong.
Defunding ObamaCare is a perfectly reasonable use of the “power of the purse” granted to Congress. And a future Supreme Court could conceivably overturn the rather absurd decision that allowed ObamaCare to survive the Roberts court. In fact, it would seem reasonable to ask the Court to revisit that decision after ObamaCare goes more fully into effect, and the pivotal question of whether the mandates are a “tax” or a “penalty” is less subject to speculation. A future lawsuit may eventually force that issue. Other legal challenges to the massive Affordable Care Act could reach the high court as well.
The important point is that neither the legislative nor judicial branches is stuck with the results of any particular vote or decision for eternity. That would not necessarily change if America were a democracy, although I suspect a pure democracy would grow impatient with the lofty imperial powers the Supreme Court has been asserting over the past few decades… if it ever consented to suffer the existence of a judicial branch in the first place.
It’s tough to have any meaningful separation of powers without the government structure imposed by a Republic. What would the “legislative branch” of a democracy look like, if the people did not invest elected representatives with political authority? Would the executive branch be rocked by constant recall elections for defying the Will of the People, or more properly 51 percent of The People? Or would the true democracy have an even more despotic executive who could rule as he saw fit, subject to popular election and re-election?
Obviously, Al Sharpton was just invoking the language of “democracy” to score crude populist points. He doesn’t really understand what he was saying, and would not long survive in a scholarly debate over the merits of a democracy versus a republic. Liberals worship “democracy” as part of a clumsy passion play to make people think “Democrats good, Republicans bad.” They want people to think crushing amounts of power deployed by a massive centralized government are somehow a pure expression of the popular will. Government is the one thing we all do together, don’t you know!
America was created as a republic to protect the rights of the minority, encourage meaningful dissent (as opposed to rhetorical dissent, which amounts to bolting a suggestion box to the office door of a tyrant) and de-centralize power. The Left was very clever about turning the strengths of the Republic against it, beginning with the crucial evisceration of the Constitution: removing the restraints upon government, making the states helplessly subordinate to an all-powerful federal system, and sheltering power in the hidden recesses of the bureaucracy, where voters and their representatives would never be able to retrieve it. The states were actually supposed to have direct influence upon federal legislation – that was the original purpose of the Senate, corrupted by the switch to direct election of Senators with the Seventeenth Amendment, early in the Twentieth Century.
ObamaCare was, perhaps, the ultimate corruption of republican virtue. It might prove to be the final corruption of the Republic. Its architects and apologists could at least do the Republic the courtesy of calling her by her proper name while they dump the last shovels full of dirt on her coffin.