Oh, No: Not That Tired Old Argument Again!

Photo by David McBee on Pexels.com

A few weeks ago, someone left a comment on one of my posts from December, 2021: “Are Members of the Media ‘Serving as Accessories to the Murder of Democracy?’”

The individual wasn’t responding to my question. He was insisting that my use of the word “democracy” was wrong. “We’re a Republic,” he wrote, “—not a Democracy.”

As rock-solid evidence, he quoted the oft-used phrase that Benjamin Franklin purportedly addressed to a group of citizens as he left the Constitutional Convention. What kind of government had the framers just created?, he was asked. “A republic,” he responded, “if you can keep it.”

To my commenter, Franklin’s statement proved that we’re not a democracy. “You could look it up,” he wrote. (We’ll return to this quotation, which a Constitutional scholar uses quite differently.)

I am tired of the trope “We’re a Republic, not a Democracy,” so I didn’t rush to answer the comment. And when I did, I accidentally (truly!) erased not only the response I was in the midst of posting, but his comment as well.

But the issue is nagging at me. Why can’t I let it go? Because this person wasn’t seeking clarification about whether the US is a republic or a democracy.

Though I don’t know him, the argument he’s making is part of an insidious campaign to persuade Americans that the very fragile democracy we must protect now isn’t really a part of our history and politics.

That is a seriously selective reading of the Framers’ efforts.

And it’s a dangerous one. People who are persuaded by this argument are less likely to fight for the rights that are under attack right now—first and foremost, the right to vote.

So please follow along with me in this blog post-sized effort to wade into a topic about which hefty scholarly books have been written.

The United States is both a republic and a democracy: we are a representative democracy, a democratic republic.

The framers, though leery of a “direct” democracy such as in ancient Greece, where individual citizens wrote the laws, placed emphasis on “We the People.” That was why they created the House, based on population, and “chosen by the people of the several states,” as well as the Senate, with two Senators from each state, initially elected by the state legislators.

(The Electoral College is such a gnarly issue that I’m going to leave it alone in this piece. It was a compromise that’s been skewing our election results in undemocratic ways.)

The House is described first in the Constitution, a point that Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Constitutional scholar, has stressed is significant because the “People’s House” is preeminent.

As far as the use of the term “democracy,” another Constitutional scholar, Eugene Volokh, wrote in the Washington Post,

“…indeed the American form of government has been called a ‘democracy’ by leading American statesmen and legal commentators from the Framing on. It’s true that some Framing-era commentators made arguments that distinguished ‘democracy’ and ‘republic’; see, for instance, The Federalist (No. 10), though even that first draws the distinction between ‘pure democracy’ and a ‘republic,’ only later just saying ‘democracy.’

“But even in that era, ‘representative democracy’ was understood as a form of democracy, alongside ‘pure democracy’: John Adams used the term ‘representative democracy’ in 1794; so did Noah Webster in 1785; so did St. George Tucker in his 1803 edition of Blackstone; so did Thomas Jefferson in 1815. Tucker’s Blackstone likewise uses ‘democracy’ to describe a representative democracy, even when the qualifier ‘representative’ is omitted.

“Likewise, James Wilson, one of the main drafters of the Constitution and one of the first Supreme Court Justices, defended the Constitution in 1787 by speaking of the three forms of government being the ‘monarchical, aristocratical, and democratical,’ and said that in a democracy the sovereign power is ‘inherent in the people, and is either exercised by themselves or by their representatives.’

And Chief Justice John Marshall — who helped lead the fight in the 1788 Virginia Convention for ratifying the U.S. Constitution — likewise defended the Constitution in that convention by describing it as implementing ‘democracy’ (as opposed to ‘despotism’), and without the need to even add the qualifier ‘representative.’

(Volokh’s article links to all the relevant supportive materials.)

The Constitution’s framers—all white, Protestant, land-owning men, including a number who owned slaves—didn’t insert anything in the Constitution about the right to vote. They did, however, say that Congress has the power to decide the “Times, Places, and Manner” of Congressional elections.

But they were wise enough to realize that they didn’t have all the answers, and that the young nation’s development wouldn’t be static. Hence: amendments! They added the first ten, which became the Bill of Rights.

Since then, important amendments have been passed:

The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) abolished slavery.

The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) guaranteed citizenry to all persons born or naturalized in the US.

The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) said the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The Seventeenth Amendment (1914) moved the election of Senators from the state legislators to the people themselves.

The Nineteenth Amendment (1920) granted women the right to vote.

The Twenty-third Amendment (1961) granted American citizens in the District of Columbia the right to vote in Presidential elections even though it’s not a state. (It’s past time that it becomes a state!)

The Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964) prohibited a poll tax in federal elections.

The Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971) granted 18 year old American citizens the right to vote.

You can see the pattern here. With time, the Constitutional amendments expanded the rights of individual citizens. All these efforts were in keeping with the Founding Fathers’ belief in a growing democracy, as long as the rights of the minority were protected. They were to be protected—but they were not to supersede the rights of the majority.

Unfortunately, the growing numbers of people who find democracy inconvenient at best are increasingly active.

We are witnessing some horrific attacks on voting rights by individuals who claim fealty to the Constitution as it was originally written—even though many of them, including certain members of today’s radical Supreme Court—would not themselves have been guaranteed the right to vote if they’d lived before the relevant amendments had been adopted. In Clarence Thomas’s case, that would have been in 1870; in Amy Coney Barrett’s, it might have been in 1920—depending on the state she lived in. [Update with thanks to a careful commenter.]

What’s infuriating, and the reason I felt I had to respond to the “We’re a republic, not a democracy” guy, is that the proponents of that idea are making decisions and passing legislation as if our Founding Fathers had elevated the rights of the minority above those of the majority.

The promulgators of this idea are doing so at a time when increasing numbers of our multiracial, multicultural population are insisting on full participation in the pursuit of a “more perfect union.”

This specious rebuttal of democracy is simply an attempt to depict the country as it once was because they fear what it has become—and more importantly, what it has the potential to become.

The late Dr. Richard Bremen, another Constitutional scholar, wrote the following for the Constitution Center. Though it appeared on constitution center.org more than two decades ago, it seems even more relevant to us today.

I was tempted to bold all the passages below because they strike me as so valuable–and timely. I did bold the closing paragraphs that bring us full circle.

As we look at the state of our federal union 211 years after the Founders completed their work, there is cause for satisfaction that we have avoided many of the plagues afflicting so many other societies, but this is hardly cause for complacency.

“To be sure, the US Constitution itself has not only survived the crises confronting it in the past, but in so doing, it has in itself become our nation’s most powerful symbol of unity–a far preferable alternative to a monarch or a national religion, the institutions on which most nations around the world have relied.

“Moreover, our Constitution is a stronger, better document than it was when it initially emerged from the Philadelphia Convention. Through the amendment process (in particular, through the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments), it has become the protector of the rights of all the people, not just some of the people.

“On the other hand, the challenges to national unity under our Constitution are, if anything, far greater than those confronting the infant nation in 1787. Although the new nation was a pluralistic one by the standards of the 18th century, the face of America in 1998 looks very different from the original: we are no longer a people united by a common language, religion or culture; and while our overall level of material prosperity is staggering by the standards of any age, the widening gulf between rich and poor is perhaps the most serious threat to a common definition of the ‘pursuit of happiness.’

“The conditions that threaten to undermine our sense of nationhood, bound up in the debate over slavery and manifested in intense sectional conflict during the pre-Civil War era, are today both more complex and diffuse.

“Some of today’s conditions are part of the tragic legacy of slavery–a racial climate marked too often by mutual mistrust and misunderstanding and a condition of desperate poverty within our inner cities that has left many young people so alienated that any standard definition of citizenship becomes meaningless.

“More commonly, but in the long run perhaps just as alarming, tens of millions of Americans have been turned-off by the corrupting effects of money on the political system. Bombarded with negative advertising about their candidates, they express their feelings of alienation by staying home on election day.

“If there is a lesson in all of this it is that our Constitution is neither a self-actuating nor a self-correcting document. It requires the constant attention and devotion of all citizens. There is a story, often told, that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’

“The brevity of that response should not cause us to under-value its essential meaning: democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health.”

Republic or Democracy? One and the same—if we can keep it.

Your thoughts?

Annie

[Note: In searching for a free image of Ben Franklin that I could use immediately, I came up with only the one you see above. At first I thought it was inappropriate to show him surrounded by Bitcoins. Viewed metaphorically, though, the image suggests that the past remains an important part of us–even as we venture into new territory that’s somewhat cryptic to me at this point!]

42 thoughts on “Oh, No: Not That Tired Old Argument Again!

  1. Hello Annie. I have always been under the assumption that the US was a democracy and operated that way regardless of the legalized manner of how it was a democracy. I think the majority of people feel that way and I think most of the country reacts badly to attempt to restrict the right of segments of the population to vote. I really am not familiar enough with the subject to offer much more of an opinion, I learned a lot just reading your post. I wonder why some people are afraid of growth and change, it is a normal process of life. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi, Scottie—

      I wish I thought that more Americans believed in the Importance of democracy, but it seems as though too many are tired and/or apathetic, which is understandable after all we’ve gone through with Covid, etc.
      I was the recipient of the Republic—not-Democracy claim, with insulting verbiage about my IQ, on Twitter shortly after Sen Mike Lee mouthed it on the Senate floor. He has since backpedaled and insisted he was talking about a “pure” democracy, but the phrase echoes through Republican circles.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Saying “it’s a republic, not a democracy” is like saying “it’s a beagle, not a dog”. A republic is a type of democracy, and the only type workable for a really large population. Every democracy in the world today is a republic (well, some of them are technically constitutional monarchies, but they function as republics with elected representatives holding power).

    People who say “it’s a republic, not a democracy” aren’t basing that on some clear sense of a distinction between the two (except for certain fringe elements who have various made-up oddball definitions of “republic”) — they’re just contriving an excuse to support various anti-democratic measures like vote suppression.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. That platitude suggests it is about me rather than the majority. Another annoying slogan is “take our country back,” which suggests America isn’t every American’s country.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Bingo, Infidel! I think that’s exactly what it is: weaken the power of the federal government, devolve Constitutionally secured rights to the states, and let the autocrats do whatever serves their own interests. “We the people” aren’t part of this scenario.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. As others have noted, the US is both a democracy and a republic. Those who claim that the US is not a democracy are really trying to justify minority rule. Usually in support of the Electoral College system, which is undemocratic . So, even though the majority want a particular candidate, the misapplication of the term “republic” is a way to explain why the candidate with the fewer votes should win. It is propaganda aimed at the low information voter.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Joseph. I opted not to get mired in the Electoral College, but I’m glad you highlighted it, succinctly, the way you did. I feel the entire Republic-not-Democracy argument is designed to confuse; that was the reason I wrote this piece.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Exactly this. Look at who is funding these seditionists with their dark money and dirty tricks. Look at the people they’re using as their foils. This isn’t a bunch of disgruntled commoners rising up against Castle Frankenstein, this is a wholly made attack on the body politic by the oligarchs who have decided that the peons and serfs have had too much of this freedom experiment for too long, and have gone all in on putting the lessers in their place and allowing them to rape and pillage with impunity. They want a return to the Gilded Age, writ large.

      And the really sad part is the people that will suffer the most under the oligarchs rule are the ones most easily conned into helping them do it.

      I hope, and I’m not a hopeful sort, that when we get through the coming dark age and civil war (It’s pretty much inevitable at this point), we’ll emerge into a world where the US will become a Social Democracy on the Nordic model, and we can move this nation, if there’s anything left of it, in the directions it should have been going all along.

      But between now and then, I fear it’s going to get very, very bloody.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi, and welcome to annieasksyou. I am a hopeful sort (I work at it; ain’t always easy), so I try to see us beyond these scary times when a violent insurrection is called “legitimate political discourse” by what used to be a legitimate political party.

        I do strongly agree with your discussion of the dark money oligarchs. I’ve written about this mammoth issue before and plan to revisit soon. The Canadian trucker protest appears to be yet another faux populist maneuver, and I eagerly await the Jan 6 Committee’s report on the sources of the costs incurred in planning and pulling off that intricate plot that seems to have so many layers.

        Like

  6. The “if you can keep it” part of Franklin’s quote needs to be emphasized again and again. The electoral college elevation of a lying, bigoted crook to the presidency, the fact that some 40 percent of the population wants him back in the driver’s seat, and the use of voter suppression to make that happen, indicate that the continuation our democracy can’t be taken for granted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right, Gail. With the RNC claiming the Insurrection was “legitimate political discourse,” and Republicans banning and burning books and advocating violence, I shake my head in worried astonishment about the “enthusiasm gap” that some polls have shown between supporters of the party of chaos and a normal party headed by an administration that’s accomplished a great deal in its first year—despite great odds.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Loved the whole post, Annie, but this line especially: “This specious rebuttal of democracy is simply an attempt to depict the country as it once was because they fear what it has become—and more importantly, what it has the potential to become.” Which brings us back to the essential phrase: If you can keep it . . . If, indeed, we can keep it . . . if, if . . . and let us not get complacent about it. Thanks, as always, for your work here.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The “if you can keep it” part is not very well understood. I get the impression that people believe it ends with assuring people can and do vote. It is true, however the real issue for our democracy comes down to the Senate.

    I always understood the real power was the Supreme Court or Senate. I came to this conclusion in high school (early 70’s) but I did not fully appreciate it until the Bush/Cheney years and the “nuclear option”. At the time the discussion of the nuclear option was revolving around constitutionality. I thought, why not just ask the Supreme court if it is a constitutional question. I stumbled upon a site where a professor was discussing this and so I asked.

    His response was that each branch has a right to determine its own means by which it will conduct the business assigned to it by the Constitution. I forget the term for this. It was at this moment I realized just how tenuous our democracy was.

    Simply put, our democracy comes down to the 2 leaders of the Senate agreeing to the rules of the Senate, written or implied by custom. It was then I understood the danger we were and have been in. All it takes if for 1 of the leaders to not agree. That’s it. Just 1 of 2 people in this country can take down our democracy.

    They just have to say no! And, as we have seen, there is nothing that can be done. Voting only stops it if people recognize this “key stone” of our democracy and vote out the “no” before they can change the rules. Unfortunately, the rule being change are far beyond just the Senate rules.

    We have not had a democracy since the Republican leadership has put into practice what I came to understand. “No”.

    Let me add this. Remember when the Republicans used to cry about “legislating from the bench”? They have had a Supreme court factually rewriting the Constitution from the bench for 2 decades.

    Personally, I don’t think people realize, including the elected Democrats the seriousness of our present position regarding our governance.

    Like

    1. Elected Democrats may not be as aware of the seriousness of our present position as they should be, but I’m not so sure it comes down to the two Senators. I see the donors—the dark money guys—as the ones calling the shots, using wily ole Mitch to do their bidding. It does go back decades, and it’s reaching its nadir now because of the large turnout in 2020.
      But the only way to stop it is to fight like hell using our ballots. To do otherwise, I believe, is admitting defeat, thereby helping the other side decide our fate.

      Like

      1. Oh yes, no doubt about the money involved. But I was talking about the actual structural mechanics of our government. Even without the outside influence, 2 people determine what happens. It only takes 1 to say no. Even the filibuster is part of the leadership power of the word “no”. It is simple the leader extending their power of “no” to another member of their party.

        The new twist to the use of the word “no” is we have now seen the ruling block on the Supreme court using the word as they now go about their writing of a constitution from the bench by saying no to past norms, practices and precedence to the judicial part of our governance.

        Yes, people have to vote/fight as you say. But, how do you fight existing laws that say you are not allowed to fight? Where is the “legal” and political path when the new laws say there is no legal/political path? This is the danger we are in. This is the new “governance” the right is setting up. As one side changes the rules to exclude the rules as a tool for change the fight option I fear becomes less peaceful.

        The money as you note has always been used as influence. The difference from past to now is the right figured out the real power of our system. They discovered the word “no”.

        Like

      2. The Supreme Court majority, which I had expected to be horrendous, has far surpassed my expectations. And that’s scary.

        I’m not disagreeing that our political scene is filled with anti democratic snake pits. I simply can’t function in despair, as I’ve said. I look to people like Marc Elias of Democracy Docket, who remains unswerving in his determination to fight the good fight in the courts. He knows better than anyone what he’s up against. (He and his firm and colleagues are involved in much of the major voting rights litigation.)
        And I like to read Robert Hubbell’s Today’s Edition newsletter on substack. He is in touch with lots of individuals and organizations that are in the trenches.
        If you don’t know about these sources, you may want to check them out.

        Like

  9. “…in Amy Coney Barrett’s, it would have been in 1920.” This is not entirely true; it would have depended on which state she lived in. In 1920, when the ninteenth amendment was passed, Twelve of forty-eight states allowed full sufferage to women and only seven denied woment the vote altogether. the other twenty-nine states allowed partial suffrage. However, it is true that more constitutional amendments have addressed, wholly or in part, matters related to voting, and that every single one of those amendments has expanded the franchise and not restricted it.

    Like

    1. I stand corrected, E.A. Blair, and I thank you. I’ve updated the post accordingly. I’d forgotten the complexity of the long and often ugly battle that both preceded and followed passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

      This is one of the many reasons that I love blogging: we learn from each other. Welcome to annieasksyou!

      Like

      1. I have been an occasional guest writer on Mad Mike’s America. During the 2018 midterm elections, I wrote an amendment-by-amendment analysis of all the constitutional changes that have affected the voting process, from the 12th, which separated the vice-presidential vote to the 26th, which lowered the voting age to eighteen. I found that ten of the twenty-seven amendments dealt either directly or indirectly with voting issues and that all of those which dealt with matters of eligibility always expanded rather than restricted the vote.

        Wyoming was the first state to not only give women the vote, but also the ability to hold office. The other eleven states that granted full suffrage to women before 1920 were Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Montana, Kansas, South Dakota, Michigan and New York. The seven states that denied women all voting rights were Alabama, both Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The rest had varying degrees of partial suffrage, from only allowing woment to vote in school board, bond or tax elections to only primary elections to only presidential elections. There is a statistical map showing the status of women’s suffrage prior to 1920 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_suffrage_in_the_United_States#Turn_of_the_tide.

        Prior to writing those pieces, I was aware that some states allowed the vote to women before the passage of the nineteenth, but was unaware of the complete picture until I was doing the research for them. It was not something covered in any of my history classes, nor was it common knowledge. Live and learn.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmmm. The gazelles are the two wings of the Democratic party? The lion could be the obvious—or not…One person’s lion is another person’s…

      Are you, by chance, the person on Twitter who discussed, at some length, calcium, Vit D, and PTH activity?

      Like

      1. I am not, lol, as I am not on social media. I am in ESKD and do often discuss those chemicals. PTH causes some anxiety as mine hovers around 450 pg/ml, 9X normal to which my Dr. says “no worry” cause hormones are by nature benign:)
        China. I had never contemplated the idea of two Democrats being that stupid.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. So very sorry to hear about your health. The spirils on Twitter went on at great length about PTH, as I mentioned.

        With all that’s been going on—and my quasi-boycott of the Olympics—China wasn’t on my mind. But you’re right: it should have been.

        I’m a very partisan Democrat, but the internecine battles in the party when the stakes are so high make me nuts.

        Like

  10. Thank you for this additional information. I had looked into the topic after reading your comment; it’s a very interesting story, of course, including the unfortunate race-related battles.

    Like

  11. Another argument I’ve heard is “what about the pledge of allegiance? It says “republic right there!
    But I got distracted by your note about the graphic you chose. I guess I should get informed about Bitcoin, but until then I have an uninformed opinion of crypto-currency (nice pun, by the way), just what I’ve picked up reading about various controversies surrounding the various crypto-currency versions.
    It seems to boil down to this –
    Associating Crypto with Paper currency is an attempt to represent it as the next logical step, starting with barter, moving to minted coinage when the metal used is granted an intrinsic value, then on to paper currency backed by that metal in a lockbox somewhere and paper I.O.U.s backed by a promise to pay in currency (promissory notes), then the paper currency disappearing into numbers tracked on servers – and now there is crypto which is born and dies on those servers.
    To me this last step seems a three-way cross between 1) legalized gambling, similar to the stock market, although since it is a new thing “legalized” is a term that is still being worked out 2) a pyramid scheme where the first to name and start a new crypto-currency gets to reap all the profit as long as they get out before the market for that item crashes, and 3) a new game now that all the virtual Pokémon tokens have been found or maybe have just gotten too scarce t be fun anymore. Allegedly.
    There was even a Superbowl ad all but saying this outright. It was selling a service that deals in crypto and stock purchases, which made a connection for me, that crypto isn’t so much a currency but another way to bet on a market, sort of a high-stakes-table version of the stock market.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, MDavis. I had a vague feeling that this burgeoning cryptocurrency industry would have a shady undercurrent. But that was obviously off the topic of my post, so I “pun-ted.”

      Again I suggest you might enjoy having your own blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I hadn’t come across the Republic-not-democracy argument stated upfront before. Like another commenter had stated earlier, it really is a case of saying this is a beagle, not a dog. But upon reading it, it sort of explains how in the past democratically elected leaders have led their countries off democratic paths and justified it. I am from India, where in the 70s our Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, placed the country under Emergency and temporarily stripped Indians of their fundamental rights and put a spanner in all democratic processes for a while. I wonder if her justification was along those lines.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello again! I’m delighted to welcome you to annieasksyou. I plan to join with you as well.
      I think your comment about Indira Gandhi is very plausible. We have seen in the US and elsewhere how fragile democracy is and how vulnerable to leaders who are elected professing their dedication to democracy but then operate very differently.
      I look forward to sharing information and perspectives with you.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I tried and failed to see the viewpoint that Republic and democracy are mutually exclusive. For me the last two paragraphs in bold are the key to the argument – the alternative to an evolving, democratic constitution is a decadent and outdated document which soon fails to serve constituents. Really thought provoking piece as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Matthew—
      I’ve been thinking about you and wondering how you’re doing as a Dr of Multi-tasking!
      No, there’s no way to legitimately separate republic from democracy. I was glad I found that essay, which I also felt was the crux of the matter.
      Thank you for your kind words.

      Liked by 1 person

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