We seem to persistently think of ourselves as a democracy, but of course we’re not.
The Founders gave us a republic for a reason. They thought the masses were incapable of governance, but essential to freedom. Jesus, how could they know us so well? Establishing the United States as a republic was their answer.
In a republic, a state is ruled by representatives of the citizen body, so actual farmers and businessmen don’t fuck it up. It’s founded on the idea that sovereignty rests with the people, although who is included and excluded has always had a darker side to it across our history.
Originally only the landed gentry got the vote
In 1789 you had to be a property-owning or tax-paying white male, which amounted to about 6% of the population (mostly people they knew and trusted). The 1828 presidential election was the first where non-property-holding white males could vote and by the end of the 1820s, state laws generally allowed a universal white male vote. Obviously, turnout soared and during the 1830s about 80% of adult white male population voted. But you can see that we’re pretty much stuck on white and male.
If you think we became a racist nation after slavery, think again. We were born a racist nation.
And the beat goes on
Native Americans were allowed the vote in 1887, as long as they gave up tribal membership and women got it in 1920, as long as they were white. And so it went, pretty much a constant fight all the way but I guess we made some progress.
But able to vote or not, you and I vote for senators and representatives who (presumably) carry out our wishes and electors in the Electoral College to give us a president. There’s a lot of controversy about that Electoral College business these days, but it’s still what we have.
That’s what we were given, because the Founders never trusted us much
And there’s even two sides to that. Direct and free democratic votes in California referendums haven’t worked out all that well, forcing the state to near bankruptcy. Given free rein, it seems we vote for what we want and often forget the need to pay. On the other hand, those representatives too often vote against our best interests. 70% of us wanted gun laws for thirty years or so and can’t get them. Explain that.
What happened in the natural flow of representative government, where those dudes we sent to D.C. or our state capitols were supposed to do what the hell we told them to do?
They stopped working for us and went to work for money
Bless their avaricious little hearts, can you blame them? They got cranky working for the folks back home for $174,000 a year with all those billions sliding through their hands. What to do? It was a crime to take bribes or graft, but there had to be a way.
So they made a law. A really clever law that allowed lobbyists, who had always taken them to lunch, to contribute millions to their election campaigns and also hire them for big bucks when they retired. Problem solved and all perfectly legal because they happened to make the laws. Constituents thrown under the bus, but who would notice? Winning elections was all marketing anyway. The extra-cool thing was that any money not spent on an election—or left over at the end—went straight into their pocket.
And the Supreme Court agreed
Not only did the Supremes agree, they upped the ante by opening corporations to unlimited largesse before the nine of them danced off stage to the left.
America now officially had the best government money could buy.
A republic recognizes the sovereignty of the people as the source of all authority in law; rejects monarchy, aristocracy, and hereditary political power; expects citizens to be virtuous and faithful in their performance of civic duties; and vilifies corruption.
Well, from what I know of citizens, that virtuous and faithful is a bit of a stretch.
For the Founding Fathers, “republicanism represented more than a particular form of government. It was a way of life, a core ideology, an uncompromising commitment to liberty, and a total rejection of aristocracy.” Excuse me, they were aristocrats, every one of them.
What they didn’t see—or maybe saw, but thought was pretty much okay—was capitalist oligarchy. They wore themselves out with the ‘all men are created equal’ bit…damn, there are so many bumps in future roads when you give anyone a shot at fame and fortune.
So there we are, it’s a republic
And remember Ben Franklin’s admonition when he was asked what kind of government the Continental Congress had given us… “a republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
Image: Jameson Quinn