Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Idle Thoughts -- Democracies vs Republics
Debate or talk--democracy
When the founding fathers realized that the Articles of Confederation were failing to produce a functional country they got together to create the Constitution. They faced a lot of problems. Most of the Constitution is a set of compromises that they made.
One thing was very clear to them, in the history of the world democracies never lasted very long. At least, that's true of pure democracies. If your democracy is a democracy in which everyone votes, at least everyone who was allowed to vote, then whatever these people decide is the law. It is the purest example of the phrase, "majority rules".
Frankly, the founding fathers didn't trust the American people. They often referred to their fear that a democracy would create what some of them called a mobocracy. I expect most Americans today would be shocked to realize just how much the founding fathers did not trust the American people to make decisions for themselves.
Thankfully, they had a lot of history to study and in that history they found examples of alternatives. We need to know first of all that a constitution is not always written. In fact, in most of history constitutions were not written. To this day England does not have a written constitution. All that the word really means is the rules that establish the government and how it runs itself.
The founding fathers wanted a democracy, in which the people would rule. But, as I've already pointed out, they didn't really trust the people. They liked the stability of the Roman Republic, but it was really more of an oligarchy. A group of people, the Senators, had most of the power. The Roman government is very complicated so I'm not going to get into that here, but it is enough to say that the founding fathers didn't want to go that far in taking power away from the American people.
Thankfully, way back in ancient Greece this problem had been looked at. A man named Polybius looked at the three basic ways that Greek governments were usually formed. First, there were tyrannies in which one man was the absolute ruler. He might be elected, but once he was in power; he was the boss. Then there were oligarchies in which a group of men acted to pass laws together. This is like a tyranny except one man didn't rule, a group of men did. Finally, there was a democracy. In this case all eligible citizens were allowed to vote. Whatever they passed as a law, was a law.
Polybius noted that the problem was that none of these systems really lasted. Each one eventually fell apart as the people rebelled against it. He decided that what was necessary was a mixed constitution. That means taking the strong elements from each type of government and mixing them together.
The founding fathers liked this idea. So they created a republic, in many ways similar to the Roman Republic, but they kept more elements of democracy than Rome had done. More people were allowed to vote, the votes counted more, and once elected, officials of this new government could only serve for a certain number of years before they had to go back to be reelected.
Our country is most accurately described as a democratic republic. That means people do get to vote for their elected officials, who make the decisions, but the elected officials remain very responsible to the people, because they need to be reelected.
This way we have the best of democracy and the best of a republic. There are rules that prevent a mobocracy, rules like civil rights for minorities which cannot be simply voted away, and at the same time that the representatives are not elected for life. Every few years they must go back and win reelection, which makes them more responsible to the voters.
As the years have gone by, we have changed our Constitution to make more and more people able to vote. We are much more of a democracy now than the founding fathers originally intended. For example, today women, minorities, and others who were not allowed to vote in the past can vote. Another example is senators. Originally, the founding fathers said senators would be appointed by state legislators. Now we, the people, get to elect them directly.
Actually, this is in line with the founding fathers wanted. That is, they wanted us to be able to amend, or change, the Constitution. We have done exactly that.
It's really silly to worry about what the founding fathers wanted. After all they wanted only property owning White men to be able to vote. I don't think anyone would seriously advocate that today!
Also, remember those founding fathers wrote in the ability to amend the constitution. That means they knew that it would need changing and they expected us to change it. So what their original intent was really is no longer the point. The point now is what is our intent? It's OUR Constitution. It is not a sacred book from the Bible.