It is no secret that the United States is a severely divided nation. In fact, division seems to be one thing that unites Americans today. Across the country, citizens disagree on kneeling, bathrooms, guns, and free speech. Californians are so divided they are actually considering splitting up their beloved republic into three separate states.
The important question on matters of disagreement is: Who gets to settle these differences? The answer, of course, is “We the people,” but we are disagreeing more and more about what that phrase even means. This disagreement is based in part on the fundamental distinction between a democracy and a republic.
Our Founders did not believe that the people have a right to enact whatever laws the majority necessarily want, but, rather, that the people have a right to enact whatever laws the people as a whole think are just. That higher aspiration requires deliberation, but also time. The name the Founders most often gave to this form of government was “republic.”
Today people frequently misunderstand what a republic is and often conflate it with a simple democracy. So let’s reexamine the answer in the U.S. Constitution to the perennial question of “Who should rule?”
‘Whoever Can Change Opinion Can Change Government’
Abraham Lincoln noted that “Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much.” Public opinion, as we know, is changeable. Since the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, liberals are claiming that the people have spoken and that these elections represent a nation-wide rejection of President Trump.
Only time will tell how correct such predictions prove, but their faith in the legitimacy of elections, at least, is encouraging. Where was this faith, however, the day after Trump was elected? Many were convinced that that election was unjust and that Hillary was the rightful winner. Riots broke out to the chant of “She got more votes!” betraying either insolence toward or ignorance of the Electoral College.
After the presidential election, the chairman of the Democratic National Convention, Tom Perez, actually asserted that the Electoral College is not in the Constitution, even though it is. These claims are shocking because the Electoral College is not just another issue that divides Americans. It is part of the very means by which we settle our divisions.
One aspiring writer for The New York Times summed up these liberal discontents by declaring that because Trump did not win the popular vote “We have entered a period of minority rule.” She correctly notes that most of the Democratic voters today are condensed in the country’s largest cities. Because the Electoral College collects votes from across the country through popular elections of whole states, occasionally the collective votes of those states outnumber those with the more populated urban centers. Her indictment: we are an “undemocratic” country.
The Times author notes that “Conservatives are often unmoved by complaints that our system is undemocratic, arguing that America was intended not as a democracy but a republic.” Then she declares, “But if this was true at the founding, it’s probably not how most Americans understand their country today, when ‘undemocratic’ is considered a political epithet” (my emphasis).
In short, she claims the majority of Americans think we should consider the United States a democracy whenever a minority of citizens decide the presidential vote. Never mind that this minority represents more than 80 percent of the counties in this country.
The Slow Democracy Movement
But let’s consider that argument. We are so used to referring to our system of government as a democracy that the term “republic” is now little understood. Fortunately, James Madison wrote a clear definition of the American understanding of the term: “We may define a republic to be … a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people; and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behaviour.”
Thus, a republic’s defining feature is democratic consent of the people. We see that feature in the direct election of representatives and senators, but institutions guided by the indirect will of the people—like the appointment of Supreme Court justices and the presidential election through the Electoral College—are equally republican.
In a republic, the people are indeed sovereign and the majority have the democratic right to speak for the whole. But our Founders wisely limited the use of that democratic right with republican institutions in order to protect the people from “the tyranny of their own passions.” Precisely because of these limitations, the people are able to express their sovereignty in their most reasonable capacity.
Thus our republic is democratic in that it is controlled by public opinion, but our Constitution requires patience and persistence for the people to express that opinion through elections. By filtering the people’s judgment through elections over time, the Founders established a republic that would allow the people’s best beliefs about what is just—not their immediate impulses for what they want—to guide the government. Such a deliberative process is best described as republican, not “undemocratic.”
Hard Questions about Justice We Can’t Avoid
One would think that Trump’s election would have taught even the most ardent proponents of simple democracy to appreciate that our Constitution requires significant time and continuous electoral victories to effect substantial change. If, however, republican institutions like the Electoral College continue to be condemned as undemocratic, then how much longer will the country even be satisfied with having only two senators from each state, regardless of population? Perhaps we should take it all the way and let China and India have proportional representation in the United Nations.
These discussions necessarily lead to hard questions about justice, but we cannot avoid them. If the urban-rural divide deepens further, and if the majority of citizens eventually lose faith in the prudence of our republican institutions, then we have a very big problem on our hands.
But it can be avoided. To do that we must recommit to agreeing with Lincoln that not a simple numerical but “A constitutional majority is the only true sovereign of a free people,” and we must heed his warning that “Whoever rejects it, does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or to despotism.”