Throughout history, admirers of America have viewed the Republic as a beacon of liberty and a laboratory of democracy.
In the early decades of the 19th century, French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville had high praise for “Democracy in America.”
Some Americans, however, have developed a visceral objection to linking the word “democracy” with the practice of republican constitutional governance.
Back in the Reagan era, I recall speaking to a group of U.S. and Canadian high school students at an international conference hosted by Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge.
The conference topic was “Sharing Ideas About Freedom and Leadership,” and during the course of my presentation, I made a casual reference to Canada and the USA as “democracies.” With that, an adult chaperone rose to her feet and sternly informed the room that “America is not a democracy. It’s a republic.”
Such assertions aren’t without merit. But they’re better aimed at proponents of “direct democracy.” That’s a system in which a real or imagined majority has the last word on just about any matter related to governance.
Direct democracies elect leaders purely by majority vote and often hold referendums to decide contentious issues. Advocates of direct democracy call for abolishing some of America’s founding institutions. Radical leftists would like to get rid of the Electoral College and ensure the permanent election of presidents friendly to the progressive politics of big coastal cities.
Tocqueville himself predicted the dangers inherent in a democracy that could become a “tyranny of the majority.” If the United States was a direct democracy, it might already be a one-party state, and Hilary Clinton would have been elected president in 2016.
Democratic Principles Deserve Recognition
Writing in a September 2018 edition of National Review, author Jay Cost reminded readers that “the word ‘republic’—deriving from the Latin phrase res publica, or ‘the people’s concern’—suggests a measure of popular involvement in government.” Few would argue that the framers of the American Constitution didn’t believe that legitimate public authority is derived from the people.
There’s much about the U.S. Constitution that endears people to the kind of democracy developed in America. Some of the most important principles of liberty that developed among the English-speaking peoples are enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment provides crucial protections for a democratic process. It includes the right to express ideas through speech and the press, to assemble in a protest, or to petition the government to redress grievances.
The Fourth through the Eighth Amendments protect due process of law and should deter partisan authorities from using “lawfare” to gain political advantage. This includes preventing unreasonable search and seizure, ensuring fair legal procedures, assuring a trial by an impartial jury, and forbidding excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishments.
There were also critical elements of democracy built into American election practices. In the early decades of the Republic, voting methods were a work in process. But toward the end of the 19th century, individual states moved to secret ballots cast in person by identifiable voters in the privacy of a voting booth on a designated election day. This affirmed the citizen’s right to make an independent choice. The secret ballot made it difficult to influence voters by intimidation or bribery and forestalled attempts to harvest fraudulent votes.
Freedom of speech, impartial justice, and trustworthy elections are indispensable parts of a viable democratic process.
The Constitution Must Be Preserved
The American system of governance provides for a separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The 10th Amendment withholds powers from the federal government that aren’t specifically given to it by the Constitution. Undesignated powers are retained by the states or by the people.
These “checks and balances” should be sufficient to prevent the American Republic from falling into the perilous practice of direct democracy and single-party rule.
But America is being torn apart. The peaceful conditions for representative democracy are rapidly deteriorating. Woke academics portray free speech as “hate speech.” A partisan media censors any news or opinion that contradicts the left’s narrative.
Crime is out of control. Militant thugs, looters, and illegal migrants roam free. But many citizens who protested in Washington on Jan. 6 were hunted down and given long prison sentences. Former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio was sentenced to 22 years, and he wasn’t even in DC when the intrusion into the Capitol building occurred.
Former President Donald Trump, the leading Republican candidate for 2024, has been harassed by the FBI for years. He faces multiple indictments by Democrat prosecutors, which will interfere with his reelection campaign. Like his supporters, he’s highly unlikely to face impartial judges and juries.
American institutions were designed to protect citizens from the tyranny of both the angry many and the powerful few. This is no time to be distracted by disagreements over whether or not the United States can properly be referred to as a “republic” or a “democracy.” It will take a united effort by patriots to ensure that the U.S. Constitution is preserved.
William Brooks is a Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy