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Friday, March 29, 2013

"Democracy" vs. "Republic"

Decades before Plato wrote The Republic and his Socratic dialogues, (in fact, when he was a babbling infant), Herodotus, the father of history, recorded the first known political debate. It was between three Persian princes about what was the best form of government: democracy, oligarchy, or monarchy.

Otanes, the wealthiest prince, argued for "democracy." The monarchy should be abolished, and replaced with the people, for "the state and the people are synonymous."

"Democracy," countered one prince, Megabyzus, was dangerous. "The masses are a feckless lot – nowhere will you find more ignorance or irresponsibility or violence." After all, he emphasized, what was the difference between "the murderous caprice of a king" and "the equally wanton brutality of the rabble"? He was all for oligarchy, the rule of "the best."

Darius, the third debater, argued hotly for monarchy, for only a strong man could keep the empire intact, quash rebellious factions, and foil internal plots against it.1

They submitted their positions to other princes, who voted for monarchy. Darius won, and became sovereign, but only after some kingly legerdemain and horseplay. It was Darius who led the first Persian invasion of Greece. He forgave Megabyzus's desultory words about kings, and made him a general of his invading forces. His plans for conquering all of Greece were ruined at Marathon in 490 B.C. He died shortly after that disaster, leaving his son Xerxes to try again.

That history lesson leads us to the absolutely crucial issue of the fundamental distinctions that must be made between democracies and republics, that is, between "mobocracies" and constitutional republics that preserve and protect individual rights. Armed with hindsight not available to Herodotus or the Persian princes, the Founders of the American republic debated the differences between a democracy and a republic.

Dictionary definitions of the two political systems are of little help. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines democracy as:

1. Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power lies in the people as a whole, and is exercised directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In modern use often more vaguely denoting a social state in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences in rank or privilege.

TheO.E.D.'s definition of republic more or less seconds its definition of a democracy.

1. The state, the commonweal (obsolete). 2.A state in which the supreme power rests in the people and their elected representatives or officers, as opposed to one governed by a king or similar ruler; a commonwealth.

The 1969 edition of Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary offers a definition of democracy that isn't much of an improvement:

1 a:government by the people; esp: 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.

As for the Webster's definition of republic, it simply abets the vagueness of it definition of democracy.

1. a (1):a government having a chief executive who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usually a president. (2) a nation or other political unit having such a form of government b (1) 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 nation or other political unit having such a form of government.

Other dictionary definitions of these terms to be found, for example, in Funk and Wagnalls and American Heritage, simply replicate the imprecision, especially in the context of the meaning of "supreme power" that allegedly "resides in the people." So, no fundamental distinction has ever been made by any dictionary between a democracyand the republic as it was established by the Founders. And the meaning of "supreme power" and it "residing in the people" is the nub of this column.

TheBritannica Concise Encyclopediarepeats the same vagueness, but adds this qualification to its entry on democracy:

The concept of representative democracy arose less from ancient Greek practice than from ideas and institutions that developed in medieval Europe, during the Enlightenment, and in the American and French Revolutions. Today democracy has come to imply universal suffrage, competition for office, freedom of speech and the press, and the rule of law.2

"Freedom of speech" and "rule of law" are elements of a more exact definition. But Britannica's entry onrepublic again repeats the fogginess of its entry on democracy, however, and adds this qualification:

Republics may also be distinguished from direct democracies [i.e., systems in which "the people" directly participate, sansrepresentatives], but representative democracies are by and large republics.

The Columbia Encyclopedia's entries on democracy and republic are much longer than Britannica's, and make an attempt to specify their meanings. Aside from a précis on the concept of democracy and its evolution from the ancient Greek practice, it offers this evaluation:

In this larger sense democracy is essentially a philosophy which insists on the right and, in the long run, the capacity of a people, acting either directly or through representatives, to control their institutions for their own best ends. Such a philosophy of necessity exalts the individual and would free him as far as possible from restraints not self-imposed.

BecauseColumbia does not define what the restraints on the individual should be, the gratuitous qualification which follows that opinion is eminently "democratic":

It recognizes, however, that complete individual freedom, which in the political sphere would be anarchism, is practically impossible, but insists that restraints be imposed only by a majority and that they be erected on the principle of equal opportunity for all.3

Those "restraints" could take the form of censorship or property theft through eminent domain. But majorities do not impose restraints; courts do, and legislators, with or without the leave of a majority. Columbia's entry on republicis even less illuminating than its entry on democracy, except for this observation:

The United States is an example of a federal republic, in which the powers of the central government are limited and component parts [i.e., the states] exercise a considerable measure of home rule.

In the time of the Founders, while most of "the people" were certainly better read in their rights and in the politics of the age than are most Americans today, the Founders, acting as intellectuals or political philosophers, devised and honed the Constitution not on what "the people" thought, but on their ownknowledge and first-hand observations of what "rights" should be and mean. In the context of current American politics, the "state and the people" are not synonymous, but mutually antipathetic, if not mutually estranged. If this were not so, it could not account for all the publications and weblogs that exist now that are critical of the government and politicians.

But Americans are ignorant of the true meaning of the terms democracy and republic. The Founders were not. Let's hear from them.

Thomas Jefferson freely used the terms democracyand republic interchangeably. This frustrates any reading of him. For example, in his letter to Phillip Mazzei of April 24th, 1796, he writes:

….The aspect of our politics has wonderfully changed since you left us. In place of that noble love of liberty and republican government which carried us triumphantly through the war, an Anglican monarchical aristocratical party has sprung up, whose avowed object is to draw over us the substance, as they have already done the forms, of the British government. The main body of our citizens, however, remain true to their republican principles….4

Jefferson, elsewhere and all through his writings, when he used the term democracy or democratic, meant a republican government whose constitution limited its power and guaranteed the freedom and liberties of "the people." Like many of his generation, he used the term democracy loosely, and it may be that such carelessness has allowed his successors in politics to adopt it without thought or reservation. "We are all republicans – we are federalists," he said in his first inaugural address in 1801. He did not say, "We are all democrats – we are the mob." 5

James Madison, who was the subject of the last column, "Madison vs. Obama," in No. 14 of The Federalist, penned in November 1787, delved into the distinctionsbetween a republican form of government and a democratic one:

The error which limits republican government to a narrow district has been unfolded and refuted in preceding papers. I remark here only, that it seems to owe its rise and prevalence chiefly to the confounding of a republic with a democracy….A democracy…must be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.

To this accidental source of the error may be added the artifice of celebrated authors, whose writings have had a great share in forming the modern standard of political opinions. Being subjects either of an absolute or limited monarchy, they have endeavored to heighten the advantages or palliate the evils of these forms; by placing in comparison with them the vices and defects of the republican, and by citing as specimens of the latter, the turbulent democracies of ancient Greece and modern Italy. Under the confusion of names, it has been an easy task to transfer to a republic observations applicable to a democracy only, and among others, the observation that it can never be established but among a small number of people, living within a small compass of territory.6

In distinguishing between the systems, Madison was clearer in his treatment of republics and democracies.

John Adams, writes C. Bradley Thompson in John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, was a stickler for precise language, especially when discussing or writing about politics.

In his own mind, one of the primary reasons for the retarded growth of the political sciences in modern thought and practice had been the failure of philosophers and statesmen to develop a uniform lexicon and syntax for the science of legislation….[I]n the political sciences, Adams lamented, "there is a confusion of languages, as if two men were but lately come from Babel."7

Quoting Adams, Bradley notes that

The term republic was being used to describe things "in their nature as different and contradictory as light and darkness, truth and falsehood, virtue and vice, happiness and misery"; the word king, "like magic, excites the adoration of some, and execration of others"; the words virtue and patriotism were "enumerated among those of various and uncertain signification"; and the word aristocracyhas "been employed to signify any thing, every thing, and nothing."….It was imperative, then, that his student lawgivers develop and employ a political language that was "governed more by reason, and less by sounds."8

Further on, Bradley underscores Adams' dissatisfaction with the sloppy usage of the term republic.

The most abused of all words in the political sciences, for instance, was republic. In fact, Adams thought that it was not only the most "unintelligible word in the English language" but also the most abused word "in all languages."….[I]ts advocates defined republic as signifying "nothing but public affairs," which meant that any and every form of government, including despotism and a simple monarchy, was a republic. When used in this way, the term had been "applied to every government under heaven; that of turkey and that of Spain, as well as that of Athens and Rome, of Geneva and San Marino."9

What is troubling, or at least is too often misunderstood with disastrous consequences, at least today, is the gratuitous usage of the term the people and the ubiquitous notion that "the people" have some species of authority or power over what they consider to be rights, whether they are divided into majorities or minorities.

"The people" do not possess a collective brain or consciousness. "The people" are not some creature with 600 million eyes that perceive reality as a single consciousness, and then an interlocking, computer-like system of 300 million brains that can process data and reach a conclusion and spit out the answer. The Founders knew this. They used the phrase "the people" in the most benevolent sense, as an abstract group of men with whom they shared an important value, freedom, and liberty. There might be a commonality of agreement on what things are or are not –see Jefferson's Declaration of Independence or his seminal work, A Summary View of the Rights of British North America (1774), which helped to articulate and consolidate the knowledge that an injustice was being committed by the British Crown, and which was an overture to the Declaration.

Consciousness, however, does not change or rearrange reality, it cannot alter facts. Neither a majority nor a minority of one can establish a truth; collectively, or singly, the truth can only be recognized by and as individuals. Only individuals can distort, twist, ignore, or dismiss a truth, not singly nor as a bloc of 300 million.

"The people," Otanes's assertion to the contrary notwithstanding, are not "synonymous with the state," not even in the best of times when the relationship between citizens and their government are harmonious and conflict-free. And we are not today living in the best of times.

1 The Way of Herodotus: Travels With the Man Who Invented History, by Justin Marozzi. Philadelphia: De Capo Press, 2008. pp. 211-213.

2 2002 edition.

3 Second edition, 1950.

4 The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Random House/Modern Library, 1944. Eds. Adrienne Koch and William Peden. p. 537.

5 Op cit., p. 322.

6James Madison: Writings. New York: The Library of America, 1999. Ed. Jack N. Rakove. pp. 168-169.

7 C. Bradley Thompson, John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1998. p. 186.

8 Op cit., pp. 186-187.

9 Op cit. p. 187.


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