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Tilting Our Politics Back Toward Democracy

What the old trope about the United States being “a republic, not a democracy” misses about the American system.
August 10, 2022
Tilting Our Politics Back Toward Democracy
The Statue of Liberty (GettyImages)

Among my many guilty pleasures are political “man on the street” interviews where the lack of critical thinking is readily apparent. Even though these vox-pop videos are usually edited to highlight the most embarrassing examples, it’s amazing how many people complain that the government should keep its grubby hands off their Medicare, or respond “my body, my choice” when refusing vaccine mandates but cannot understand the outrage over the Dobbs decision, or say they love the Constitution while wanting to outlaw speech they don’t like or advocating for state-sanctioned Christian nationalism.

As entertaining as it can be to see such sophomoric thinking on display, it’s also sobering to remember that these folks vote. This thought horrified many of the Founders. During the Constitutional Convention, Roger Sherman of Connecticut said the people were uninformed and “constantly liable to be misled.” Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, for whom gerrymandering is named, agreed, saying the people were “daily misled” by “false reports.” George Mason believed the people could not be trusted with democracy and considered the popular vote as “unnatural” as asking a blind man to identify the colors in a rainbow. Alexander Hamilton declared government should be entrusted to “the rich and well born” because “the people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.” As a result, the Founders insisted on sifting the will of the people through a representative body, building into our democratic culture an enduring distrust of the demos.

Listening to the man on the street today, part of me sympathizes with the Founders’ concern. But as much as I wish some people would keep their nuttiness away from our democracy—like those who think January 6th was just a Capitol tour gone slightly awry—I believe in a liberal and participatory democracy. The more of us that take part in the democratic process, the stronger our nation will be. At every point in the history of our nation’s democratic system, there have been leaders hellbent on vesting power in the few and there have been excluded people demanding the right to access it without government obstruction.

These constant struggles over eligibility and access are part of our constitutional birthright. The beauty in the story of America is not found in an uncritical adherence to the Founders’ design but, rather, in the struggle—in various groups’ demand, often resisted by others, that our democracy be more participatory and inclusive. For those who love liberal democracy, the one thing worse than letting vox-pop stars (election deniers, for example) touch our democracy is cutting off their access to it.

The present debate about the independent state legislature theory—a disingenuous interpretation of constitutional clauses that would grant state legislatures tremendous power to defy state courts and even ignore the states’ popular votes in presidential elections—is in large part a question of how much power the demos should have in our democracy. Recent years have seen no shortage of similar democracy-limiting ideas, rulings, laws, and proposals, such as the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision, which opened the door to unnecessarily restrictive voting laws, and 2019 Rucho decision, which made partisan gerrymandering nonjusticiable.

Consider also the longstanding trope that “the United States is a republic, not a democracy”—a truism that conservative politicians and writers, perhaps forgetting that it was once the slogan of the ultra-right John Birch Society and associated with opposition to civil rights, have for decades routinely deployed as if it were a decisive rebuttal to anyone who argues that perhaps a bit more power in our political system should be put in the hands of the people.

Based on this understanding, elected officials prop up the parts of our system of government that make it easier for them to obtain and hold onto power while also making it difficult for the people to hold them culpable for unprincipled or incongruous actions. Without sufficient accountability, legislative bodies can disregard the expressed democratic will whenever they deem the people unfit to decide for themselves.

Such unchecked anti-democratic actions are made possible by the toxic partisanship driving the country apart—today’s version of the factions about which James Madison warned in Federalist No. 10. More than half of adults view other Americans as the biggest threat to their way of life. Approximately half of Democrats and Republicans view the other as immoral, and a recent study shows partisans view their political opponents as more unintelligent than immoral, more “stupid than evil” as it were. These views make it easier for people to excuse the illiberal undertakings of elected officials because such activities are deemed necessary to defeat the existential threat presented by the other side.

The failsafes that were supposed to prevent the ravages of hyperpartisanship and the undermining of the people’s will—Madison’s assertion that representatives with wisdom, patriotism, and love of justice will be the most likely to ascend in a large republic, or the Supreme Court suggesting the governed can just vote undesirable representatives out of office—usually don’t. Instead, the system itself is the object of intrigue, the parties attempting to refashion the electoral processes in a way that gives them more power rather than to be responsive to the people.

In contrast to this understanding of our political history as a series of deviations from a model republic—an understanding hardly convincing for the 90-plus percent of us who would not have been permitted to vote at the time the Constitution was first implemented—there is the other understanding I described earlier, which sees our political history as a never-ending struggle over eligibility and access. This alternative understanding makes it possible to look at our system of government with clear eyes to assess whether it has tilted too far toward democracy (toward becoming a tyranny of the majority) or too far away from it (toward becoming a tyranny of the minority or of minorities). Each direction carries risks.

Your mileage may vary, but when I look at Congress and many state legislatures, I think a strong case can be made that we have tilted too far away from it—that the republic is not heeding the will of the demos. Given how the parties have rigged and bogged down our current system of government, perhaps it’s time to think less in terms of a democratic republic than of creating a republican democracy. Instead of protecting a system that allows democratically elected representatives to run roughshod over the people, a republican democracy insists representatives are vessels of the people’s will, not distorters of it, and institutes fair and accessible democratic systems to this effect.

Crackpot ideas like the independent state legislature theory skew our system away from democracy. And attempts to argue for such ideas on the basis of the United States being “a republic, not a democracy” ultimately distort republicanism by invoking it not as a guard against too much democracy but as justification to shape the size, composition, and nature of the electorate in a way that favors some group of elites.

Instead of worrying quite so much about a potential tyranny of the majority, we should think in terms of a ‘wisdom of crowds’ that is improved and refined through democratic deliberation and participation. Aristotle recognized this, writing in the Politics, “The principle that the multitude ought to be supreme rather than the few best is one that is maintained, and, though not free from difficulty, yet seems to contain an element of truth.” After all, as recent scholarship has confirmed, “democracies’ strategic advantages lie in their large, diverse decision-making communities.”

But pulling off a republican democracy that puts the demos in the driver’s seat will require trust and investment in the people—not an easy undertaking given the foundation of our democratic culture. But failing to do so will ensure we get more of the type of representatives Madison warned us about in Federalist No. 10: “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, [who] may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”

We seem to be squarely in that place now. And the election deniers winning Republican primaries and state election offices with the intent of undermining our democracy out of self-interest may soon put the ridiculousness of the vox pops to shame.

Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson was a writer at The Bulwark and a senior advisor at New America. He is the author of the book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America (Atlantic, 2021). Twitter: @DrTedJ.