“Making the world safe for democracy” is a phrase I heard growing up in the Cold War, relating to fighting world Communism. I didn’t find out that it originally referred to World War I until I was long out of school. President Wilson used the phrase when asking Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. Identifying America as a “democracy” was not controversial then, and it was not controversial in the Reagan era when public high schools taught that the roots of American democracy went back to Greek democracy. That was not entirely true, of course. Greek democracy was direct democracy; citizens voted directly on issues. The only direct democracy in the US today is state and local ballot initiatives, which are not universal among the states and which don’t apply at the federal level at all. The American system of representative democracy, electing people to vote on issues for us, is closer to the system of the British Houses of Commons and Lords, which is not surprising, given that English written and common law was the basis for much of American law. The system of English written and common law does draw from the Roman Empire, which drew indirectly from some Greek tradition, but the Romans and the Roman-influenced Normans were hardly the only ones who influenced the English. Like the English language, the customs and common laws also pulled from Celtic Britain, Germanic Angles and Saxons, and Viking invaders and settlers who brought their own democracy tradition with them, the form of democracy that had its highest flourishing in Iceland. In that system, chieftans called godhar (“priests”) were a kind of aristocracy that had religious and economic obligations as well as political ones, in which titles were only very loosely hereditary and could also be earned, bought, and sold. As a complicated, opaque system intended to get the work of the nation done while keeping the free people free, but in which some were more equal than others and money made most of the difference, surely that system is closer to describing American representative democracy than the strictly direct democracy practiced by the Greek city-states.
Be that as it may, in today’s America, calling America a democracy has become controversial. “Democracy” has come to mean something like this: the people can do anything a majority votes yes on, and the people’s representatives can do anything a majority votes yes on, regardless of whether said action is a proper power of government under the Constitution. As a reaction against that, today’s advocate of limited government says we are not a democracy, we are a republic, and that means the government is limited to what it is allowed to do under the Constitution. That is not what either really means, of course, and America was certainly not designed to be divided half and half between Democrats and Republicans. Assigning such meanings to the names of political parties serve only to perpetuate a feeling that we Americans are constantly struggling against each other over process, and therefore can never get around to agreeing on goals, such as Liberty (Libertarians) or saving the Earth (Greens) or whatever goal one’s personal favorite minor party pursues. Actually, America is both a democracy and a republic. A democracy is a form of government in which the government derives its authority from the people. A republic is a form of government in which several governments co-operate under a centralized government. Our states come together to form the federal government, which makes the United States a republic. The European Union is trying to become a republic, but its member states have more varying types of governments, laws, customs, and histories, not to mention languages, than our states did when we first formed our federal government. The Soviet Union was a republic, but was not a democracy; that is, it was a union of socialist states which were not democracies. India is a democracy, but not a republic. Iran is neither. The ancient Greek city-states were democracies; pre-Imperial Rome was a republic. California is a democracy; the United States is a republic — of democracies, and therefore a democratic republic (as distinct from a socialist republic like the Soviet Union.) As a government operating under a Constitution, the USA is a constitutional government. The United Kingdom is a monarchy, but also operates under the Magna Carta, and is therefore a constitutional monarchy. The USA is a constitutional democratic republic.
It’s a little more complicated than that, of course. We have the Electoral College. The reason we have it is because our founders feared that people would elect great speakers who did not know how to do the job. The idea that the Electoral College might completely ignore the popular vote and appoint someone other than the front-runner is anathema today, and every time the second place popular vote getter wins the Presidency there are calls to abolish the Electoral College, although nothing ever actually changes.
The Electoral College may have served a purpose once, but now it’s become a tool of political parties. The Democratic and Republican Parties have tremendous power. Where does it say in the Constitution that political parties decide who we get to vote for? It doesn’t. Where does it say in the Constitution that two favored parties get their primaries tax-supported and run by government officials and everybody else has to pay for ballot access? It doesn’t. Where does it say in the Constitution that when someone resigns from office, a political party gets to appoint their replacement? It doesn’t. But all those things happen anyway. Political parties have a lot of power today, but the phrase “political party” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution. Political parties were not part of the founders’ original vision of how American elections were supposed to work. Political parties are not forbidden under the Constitution, but neither are they empowered with any of the powers they exercise today. So, America is a constitutional democratic republic, but with the distortions of the Electoral College and political parties, not to mention PACs, super-PACs, and other ways of injecting money into elections, the system we have is also as complicated and opaque as Viking democracy was. No wonder we’re confused.
So what would be less confusing? If we did away with the Electoral College, what would we have in its place? If we took all official functions away from political parties, making them into clubs and debating societies, what would we have in its place? Some would surely say, we should have more democracy, meaning either direct voting or representative elections, for all the functions now assigned to the Electoral College and to the Democratic and Republican Parties. Others would surely say, more republic, meaning the powers should devolve on the several states. Either way, the process would certainly gain transparency, and more transparency can only be to the good. Perhaps, like America itself, we could have some of both. With a some-of-each approach, we would not tip the balance one way or another between democracy and republic. We would retain our essence as a constitutional democratic republic; we would simply be a more transparent one.
By Erin Lale