Late-night political hack and former comedian Stephen Colbert doesn’t usually warrant any notice, but he stumbled onto an important truth recently. Lamenting the possibility that the Supreme Court may overturn Roe v. Wade, he whined that if only 27 percent of Americans (according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll) support such a move, and the court doesn’t vote the way he and a majority of Americans prefer, “We don’t live in a democracy.”
But we weren’t supposed to live in a democracy. We were supposed to live in a republic.
A story, probably apocryphal, is told that upon exiting the Pennsylvania statehouse at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Ben Franklin was approached by a passerby. “What have you given us,” the woman asked him. “A republic, if you can keep it,” he replied. While the word “republic” to a Democrat is like a cross to a vampire, it is unquestionably the type of government the Founders created in our Constitution. The design of our constitutional republic, for better or worse, was to protect individual liberties and private property by limiting the power of government. That’s why leftists hate it.
The word “democracy” does not even appear in the Constitution, nor does it appear in that document’s philosophical antecedent, the Declaration of Independence, which stated boldly the revolutionary idea that everyone is “endowed” with unalienable rights – to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This assertion upended the idea that individuals were mere “subjects” beholden to their betters, cogs in a machine worthy of consideration only insofar as they served the purposes of the elite. The Framers wanted regular elections, but that was simply a peaceful means to eject recalcitrant politicians acting against the interests of the people.
Anti-democratic mechanisms were consciously built into the Constitution. Inspired by an eighteenth-century French political philosopher named Baron de Montesquieu, a system of checks and balances was established. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches were created, each with the ability to stymie the others. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, elected directly by the people, could pass legislation, but it could die in the Senate; a bill passed through both chambers faces a potential veto from the president, chosen via an Electoral College, not popular vote, and a super majority is required to override that veto. Finally, despite overwhelming support, courts can strike down any law that violates the Constitution.
Interestingly, in a recent report that could easily have been written by a member of the Democratic Party, the Chinese Foreign Ministry specifically highlighted this as proof of our system’s alleged failure. It read in part, “The U.S. political system has far too many checks and balances, raising the cost of collective action and in some cases making it impossible altogether. . . . There is an entrenched political paralysis in the U.S.” [Emphasis added]
This analysis, meant as a criticism, is actually very revealing. Afterall, when Communists are upset about something, it’s likely good for individual freedom! Leftists get misty-eyed when talking about “democracy,” claiming they simply want to “empower” the “common people,” but the truth is they despise voters and are happy with the electoral process only when things go their way. Witness their reaction to the recent election in Virginia, which leftwing commentators denounced as “racist” – despite the victory of a female black immigrant (!) in her run for lieutenant governor. The long-serving president of the state senate in New Jersey was defeated by a truck driver, in his first bid for public office. The left-wing Atlantic smeared his victory as “populist moonshine.” Arch-“progressive” Hillary Clinton claims – oblivious to the irony – that a Trump victory in the 2024 election will spell “the end of our democracy.”
The Framers wanted it to be difficult to pass laws. They also wanted the sphere in which government acted to be quite small, enumerating the limited powers of Congress in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. Further protections are found in the Bill of Rights—the 10 amendments to the Constitution forbidding government from infringing the rights of Americans -– even with majority approval. For example, the First Amendment shields unpopular speech from criminal prosecution – no matter what; the Sixth Amendment guarantees that a criminal defendant will be tried by an impartial jury – not by popular opinion or by vengeful government officials; the Eighth Amendment protects the worst offender against “cruel and unusual punishment,” even if the mob wants his head on a pike.
Democracy or a republic? I say: Let’s restore our founding system — a republic — to our land. That would be something to celebrate.