“In some countries a power exists which, though it is in a degree foreign to the social body, directs it, and forces it to pursue a certain track. In others the ruling force is divided, being partly within and partly without the ranks of the people. But nothing of the kind is to be seen in the United States; there society governs itself for itself. All power centers in its bosom, and scarcely an individual is to be met with who would venture to conceive or, still less, to express the idea of seeking it elsewhere. The nation participates in the making of its laws by the choice of its legislators, and in the execution of them by the choice of the agents of the executive government; it may almost be said to govern itself, so feeble and so restricted is the share left to the administration, so little do the authorities forget their popular origin and the power from which they emanate. The people reign in the American political world as the Deity does in the universe. They are the cause and the aim of all things; everything comes from them, and everything is absorbed in them. — Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Chapter IV: The Principle of the Sovereignty of the People of America, 1835.
How many times have you heard the phase “we have to fight for democracy”, “they died for democracy” or “keep the world safe for democracy?”
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines democracy as:
a.) government by the people; especially : rule of the majority
b.) a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections
They define republic as:
a.) a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usually a president: a political unit (as a nation) having such a form of government
b.) a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law (2) : a political unit (as a nation) having such a form of government.
Our Pledge of Allegiance states “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Outside Independence Hall when the Constitutional Convention of 1787 ended, Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, "A republic, if you can keep it." Franklin knew what the Constitutional Convention had created and that if we were not careful we would not be able to keep it.
Over the years through lack of education and populous rhetoric the word democracy has replaced republic. Our lives are ruled by 536 people — 435 members of the House of Representative, 100 in the Senate and a President. We make one decision who will rule us every 730 days (731 if there is a Leap Year). We stand in line at a voting booth and cast a ballot for who will represent our interests in the House of Representatives, the Senate (legislature) and every four years to elect the chief executive officer — the person who will carry out the instructions (laws) of the legislature. This also works in a similar fashion for the states.
The idea of a republic is rarely talked about. It needs to be understood. By us talking about democracy is a dangerous thing. It gives people a false sense that they are free to make their own decisions about how the country should be run and the laws that are made. It also give more power to the federal government and the president. The definition between a republic and democracy grows vaguer each passing year as we understand the intent of the founding fathers less and less.
Democratic rule without constitutional protections is a dangerous thing. A lynch mob could be considered democratic if 51% of the mob members wanted to hang you. Our founding fathers had a mortal fear of mob rule. This fear was borne out in the French Revolution.
Every two years we have the opportunity to flush the House of Representatives. We can send them all packing and replace them with a new flock of members. In a similar manned we can flush one-third of the Senate, although it was never envisioned by the authors of the Constitution that senators would be chosen by popular election. This was changed by the Seventeenth Amendment.
Our founding fathers never intended that there be three equal branches of government. They intended that the Legislature be the first branch, the Presidency the second and the Supreme Court the third. They believed that the final authority of the Constitution should be the people acting through their elected representatives. They wanted everyone to read and understand the Constitution. This was spelled out by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 78:
“If it be said that the legislative body are themselves the constitutional judges of their own powers, and that the construction they put upon them is conclusive upon the other departments, it may be answered, that this cannot be the natural presumption, where it is not to be collected from any particular provisions in the Constitution. It is not otherwise to be supposed, that the Constitution could intend to enable the representatives of the people to substitute their will to that of their constituents. It is far more rational to suppose, that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority. The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges as, a fundamental law. It, therefore, belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body. If there should happen to be an irreconcilable variance between the two, that which has the superior obligation and validity ought, of course, to be preferred; or, in other words, the Constitution ought to be preferred to the statute, the intention of the people to the intention of their agents.„
This changed in the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison when the Court overstepped its original Constitutional bounds and ruled on the constitutionality of a law. It is important to note that nothing in the text of the Constitution explicitly authorized the power of judicial review. I had to write an essay on this case in my eleventh grade history class — something the majority of today’s college graduates know nothing about.
Today so many of the laws affecting our lives were made by five unelected people — a virtual oligarchy. The founders said, “well, whose going to protect us against unconstitutional laws?” Their answer was “the People.” They said you must know your Constitution, you must understand the Constitution” The only defense against unconstitutional laws being written is by the individual citizen, who then votes these legislators out of office. This is a big job for the citizens. They must know their Constitution and pay attention to what their elected representatives are doing. This is what keeps the Republic strong. This is also why the Tea Party represents such a threat to the political elite.
In some sense a republic is like a corporation— something I know a great deal about. In corporations you have four basic elements. You have the shareholders (the citizens), the board of directors (the legislature), the chief executive officer or president (the President) and the legal counsel (the Court). The shareholders elect a board of directors who in turn elect or appoint the CEO. The CEO carries out the dictates of the board of directors and has the ability to select members of his team like the chief financial officer (CFO) and other officers who serve at the pleasure of the CEO.
It is the responsibility of the legal counsel to see that the board of directors faithfully follows the articles on incorporation and the by-laws (rules for governance – the constitution). The legal counsel cannot change the by-laws, this can only be done by the board of directors with approval of the shareholders.
If an employee does not like how the corporation is run they cannot go to the legal counsel and ask him to overturn a by-law. The legal counsel may be able to inform the BOD of a possible conflict, but it is up to the BOD to change them if they so desire. If the shareholders do not like how the corporation is going they have the power to vote the BOD out.
I realize this is a simplification of how are republic works, but it does make the point that the real power lies within the BOD and the shareholders, not the CEO or legal counsel. Corporations are not a democracy.
Over the years the United States has drifted more and more away from the original intent of our founders. In the name of democracy and social justice more power has been abdicated by the legislature (and the people) to the oligarchy of the Supreme Court. Even slavery was not abolished by the Court — it was done away with by the legislative process and the changing of the nation’s by-laws by the shareholders.
Rome at its height was a republic and it lasted until the citizens began to vote themselves more government largess. Athens was democracy that did not last as there was a lack of leadership and cohesion to maintain it. It was more philosophical than being able to effectively govern.
That is what is happening in the United States. The citizenry is demanding more government largess and our representatives, anxious to maintain their elite position of power is granting them what they want. More and more laws are being made by the courts rather than the legislature. Special interest groups have more say in our governance than the people and when they do not get what he want they turn to the Courts in the name of democracy.
If the citizenry does not understand the Constitution and is not involved in the monitoring the actions of their elected representatives Franklin’s comment may be more prophetic then he ever thought. So the next time you recite the Pledge of Allegiance you should say ““I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the democracy for which it stands, one nation not under God, divisible, with liberty and justice for those who have standing in the courts.”