The Riddle of a Republic
What's the real difference between being a democracy and a republic?
I’m writing this on a train from Madrid to visit my daughter, who’s spending her junior year of high school here. Given that I just flew over the Atlantic without getting much sleep, this “news”letter may forget to feed the cat because Tuesdays smell like paprika.
[Shakes head, starts over]
What I think I was going to say is: Please cut me some slack if this gets weird.
I think everyone using phrases like “coup,” “sham,” “star chamber,” and “lubricated xylophone” needs to calm down. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the Democrats’ impeachment drive is ill-conceived, procedurally unfair, politically daft, etc. But it’s not an assault on the Constitution or the rule of law. The Sixth Amendment has nothing to do with impeachment, and Congress can run an impeachment process pretty much any way it wants.
It’s funny: Nearly all of the prominent people currently insisting that what the House is doing is an outrage against the Constitution are literally the same people who said that the president cannot be faulted for exercising his constitutional power even in unsavory ways. Well, if it’s okay for Trump to fire James Comey and do all of the other unseemly but constitutional stuff he’s done, it’s certainly okay for the House to exercise its impeachment power any way it wants, even in ways some might find unseemly. Again, this doesn’t mean Congress should use its constitutional power in unsavory ways—but neither should the president.
But I don’t want to talk or argue about all that—or even type about it. I don’t really want to write about Trump one way or the other. But I need to bring him up one last time to make a point that has been driving me a little crazy.
I’m going to back into it….
A Republic, Not A Democracy?
One of the oldest arguments ever to grace a comment section, chat room, online forum, or even a dead-tree newspaper letters-to-the-editor section goes something like this. “So-and-so says that we are a democracy. We are not a democracy; we are a democratic republic.” This basic point takes many forms, including ALL CAPS. The Founders are often quoted or invoked. The Strategic Exclamation Point Reserve is routinely depleted.
For years, I agreed with most of the arguments associated with this claim, even though in hindsight I’m not sure I always knew exactly what I was agreeing with. One popular version I certainly subscribe to: The Founders never intended for America to be a pure democracy. The founders were equally fearful of too much democracy and too little. Our system was set up to defend us against the rule of tyrants and mobs alike.
But here’s the problem: That’s not exactly what “republic” or small-r “republican” means—or at least meant at the time of the founding.
The CliffsNotes answer is that republics were forms of government where the nation or the state was owned publicly—i.e. by the people—rather than by a single ruler or group of rulers. It comes from the Latin res publica, a public thing, or, more colloquially, a “common wealth.”
As my friend, AEI colleague, and go-to law-guy Adam White recently told me, the problem with the whole “this is a republic not a democracy” thing is that the meaning of a republic has changed over time. Three hundred years ago, “republic” was the hot word for, well, democracy. Or to be more precise, it was the buzzword for what we basically mean by democracy today. It was a way to contrast with monarchy or empire or other forms of tyranny where the nation was treated as the private property of a person or a class. A republic was the democratic alternative to a country living under the Divine Right of Kings or the Emperor’s Mandate of Heaven.
These days, however, when we talk about a “republic”—as in, “This is not a democracy it’s a republic!!!!” we make it sound like anyone who calls America a “democracy” is uninformed, and that “republic” stands in for all the other good stuff democracy allegedly lacks—the rule of law, individual liberties, etc.
I’m not saying it doesn’t mean that stuff or can’t mean that stuff. Words take on new meaning all the time. And Madison clearly had something like that in mind back in the day anyway. But he distinguished between a republic, where the people elected other people to make decisions on their behalf, and a “pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.”
Virtually no one has that definition of democracy in mind today when talking about the need for more democracy. Even the democracy-zealots who want to lower the voting age or eliminate the Electoral College and the Senate are still talking about electing representatives to make decisions on our behalf.
It’s sort of like what’s happened with the word “federalist.” Back during the fight over ratification, the Federalists were the guys in favor of a strong(er) central government, and the Anti-Federalists were the folks pushing more localism and independence from the central government. Today, “federalist” refers to one who believes in the latter.
Trump Wasn’t Democratically Elected—And That’s Okay
I am a defender of the Electoral College. I’m also a defender of the grand compromise that gave each state two senators to offset the power of states with large populations. I like all of the federalist stuff (in today’s understanding). It doesn’t bother me that Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote. People who think that the Electoral College is illegitimate have a defensible intellectual argument; I just think they’re wrong. But even if you think the Electoral College is a relic, retroactive complaints are still ridiculous. Trump is absolutely right when he says that he won according to the established rules, and if we didn’t have an Electoral College, he would have run a very different race. Saying he shouldn’t be president because we didn’t have the standards you wanted when he ran is like saying the Nationals shouldn’t have won the World Series because you think the MLB should have a different scoring system that would’ve helped the Astros.
The Dead Language of Liberty
But here’s what bothers me. Trump and his supporters constantly say that impeachment would “thwart the will of the American people”; it would “overturn a democratically elected president,” “negate the votes of 62 million people,” etc.
This all overlooks the fact that, measured on purely democratic terms, Trump didn’t win the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton did. Again, I don’t care.
But what is really shocking and bizarre when you think about it—or at least when I think about it—is that we literally don’t have a vocabulary for what the Trump Team could more accurately and justifiably say. There is no “republican” word that has the same moral resonance of “democratic.” Saying he’s the “republicanally elected president” just sounds absurd.
Take Trump out of it, because everyone brings so much extraneous baggage to every discussion of him. Bill Clinton wasn’t really democratically elected either. He won a plurality of the popular vote. Again, that’s fine. If you win 270 electoral votes, you win, regardless of how the popular vote plays out. But during the Clinton impeachment, it was the same thing. “Democratically-elected president,” “the will of the people,” etc.
The only words that comes closer to reality would be “legitimately,” or “lawfully,” or “rightfully” elected. But using such words doesn’t convey the moral power we invest in “democratically.” If Trump were to say, “I was legitimately elected” or, “They’re trying to depose a lawfully-elected president,” it would be technically accurate. But psychologically and politically, it would only serve to remind people he wasn’t democratically elected. Worse, if your best defense is to consult the rules, you open yourself up to the entirely fair argument that those trying to impeach the president are following the very same rulebook: the Constitution.
Nationalism, populism, republicanism, and democracy emerged in the modern era as responses to the end of the divine authority of Kings. They are not synonymous terms, but they all share a basically mystical belief that, if a majority of people say they want X, then X must be right, good, just, and even wonderful. This is nonsense. And the Founders knew it was not just nonsense, but dangerous nonsense.
This may all sound like silly semantics and the like. But I think there’s a hugely important point here. If you believe, as I do, that the stuff we now invest in the word “republican”—protecting the rights of minority communities, including, as my friend Kevin Williamson says, the smallest minority: the individual—is not just good and important, but is usually better and more important than democracy (at least when they come into conflict), then the fact that we have no common language to invoke the authority of these ideas is deeply disturbing. Democracy as a mechanism is hugely important. But in my book, democracy as a source of meaning and authority takes a back seat to Constitutionalism, the Bill of Rights, and the tenets of classical liberalism.
And yet, everyone seems determined to talk about all of that stuff as “tools” and “processes” while treating democracy as a Golden Calf.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: We left the girls behind yesterday. As usual, it was hard. They’re being minded by Declan Garvey, one of our new hotshot reporters at The Dispatch. He jumped on the opportunity, I think, because he’s going through dog-withdrawal. We’ll see if this will be more than he bargained for. We’ve gotten leaving town down to a science. We take out the luggage and pack, whenever possible, only when they’re not around. But they still figure it out, particularly Zoë, who gets very needy whenever she suspects we might be leaving. Though Pippa was behaving oddly the morning we left, but I think that’s because she smelled coyote or was afraid of some big dogs she saw in the distance. Zoë, meanwhile, has been having a blast because she’s gotten to see Sammy, her oldest B.F.F., a lot lately. There was also the Grace-On-The-Stairs incident. People who don’t have both cats and dogs in their homes may not know this, but there are very complex rules about dog and cat interactions. And one of the oldest rules is that dogs may not descend stairs past a cat. Even Zoë obeys this ancient custom.
[working with Apple podcasts to get Episode 149 on the page; it’s showing up everywhere else]
And now, the weird stuff.