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Democracy or Republic? An Exploration of America’s Political System

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Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about democracy in America, and it makes me wonder what exactly that means. The fact of the matter is that America is not a democracy, nor has it ever been.

Throughout 1787 and 1788 a series of articles were published in the newspapers of our new nation. These articles were written by three of our nation’s founding fathers: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. The collected publications, now known as The Federalist Papers, argued for the ratification of the US Constitution, and remain an important source for interpretation of that document.

These articles make it clear that our new nation, under the Constitution, would not be a true democracy. They point out numerous flaws the founding fathers saw with the democratic system, including the tyranny of mob rule, and instead proposed that a republic would be a more just form of government that would more able to protect the rights of the citizens.

The founding fathers even set up an Electoral College to elect the president, fearing that the masses would be swayed by charismatic yet corrupt politicians. The success of the Electoral College is, of course, dubious.

Despite the myth of democracy that is perpetuated by our politicians and our public school system, this nation remains a republic. The people do not vote on what laws should be passed, repealed, or amended. Instead, they elect senators and representatives to do this for them.

These congresspersons draft and pass laws that the people themselves, if they had the option, might vote down. Yet the people have no say about whether or not an unpopular law gets passed, and they can’t even repeal it. All they can do is vote a congressperson they’re unhappy with out of office, and replace that politician with another.

Also, as was made clear in the 2000 election, a presidential candidate can lose the popular vote and still win office. There are no presidential recalls –- an individual can only be removed from the highest office by impeachment, and that can only be done if he or she has broken the law.

So America is not a true democracy. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad place. Indeed, I happen to think the Founding Fathers were right to fear the mob-rule of a democracy, and to instead construct a system with checks and balances on power.

In a democracy, however, it is very clear that every vote counts. The rule is that of the majority, and if an individual wants to get his or her way, it would behoove that person to vote. But is it true that every vote counts in a republic?

In America, there is a multitude of political opinions. We have communists, anarchists, fascists, libertarians, capitalists, pacifists, conservatives, liberals, moderates, those who advocate theocracy, and many more. None of these political mindsets agrees wholeheartedly with another, though they may find themselves agreeing on certain issues.

We have all of these thought systems and more, but how many parties do we have? Only two. In the past, these parties would sometimes set aside their differences to work out solutions to the problems faced by the country as a whole. I’m not suggesting that the Cold War was a good era in American politics, but when confronted with the specter of Soviet communism, the parties were willing to cooperate.
Unfortunately, the parties nowadays seem more interested in bickering than solving problems, and politicians are more likely to line their own pockets than change anything.

If Americans hope to change the way our country is run, we have one option: cast votes for politicians. Yet these politicians only represent two sides to the political debate. Many people throughout America are frustrated with both sides of American politics (and I’m not referring simply to the Tea Partiers – there are many other discontents).

In schools, children are told that if they don’t like the way America is being run, they can vote to change it. But what if their views are not represented? What if these children, when they are grown, want to see a rainbow in our black and white political system? Similarly, I have heard it said many times that if a person doesn’t vote, he or she has no right to complain. But what’s the sense of voting if neither party represents your views?

I am not saying that voting is bad, or wrong, or that people shouldn’t vote. But if someone is voting just to vote, because they are told they should, does that vote really mean anything? It seems to me that if someone votes for something they don’t believe in, then that individual is contributing to whatever problem he or she may see in American politics, rather than helping to solve it.

Another problem is that of information: many voters do not take the time to research the issues they are voting on. They get biased information from 30-second advertisements on television, and base their decision on that. This is not a way to choose politicians.

It is important to know what a person believes before voting for him or her. This requires looking at speeches, voting history, and how the candidate has conducted himself or herself. Yet many people vote for a candidate A because they heard (in an advertisement paid for by a group supporting candidate A) that candidate B is unreliable and corrupt. This is not reliable information, and to vote based on unreliable information is just as bad as voting for a candidate you don’t actually believe in. In the long run, it will do more harm than good.

In state and local elections, citizens have more influence. They can vote on whether to pass laws and tax increases or cuts as well as for local and state politicians. But the rules for voting are the same –- people should vote on matters that are important to them, and on matters that they are informed about.

It isn’t hard to get informed, and if you don’t care about an issue, or aren’t concerned enough to get informed about it, it is all right to abstain. It is harder to change things in a republic than in a true democracy because of the way the system is set up. Therefore, it is vital that when people vote, it is on important topics that they are informed on. They say that every vote counts; don’t waste your vote on issues that you don’t feel strongly about.

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About Mike King

  • kohler

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill preserves the Electoral College, while assuring that every vote is equal and that every voter will matter in every state in every presidential election.

    Elections wouldn’t be about winning states. Every vote would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

    Now 2/3rds of the states and voters are ignored — 19 of the 22 smallest and medium-small states, and big states like California, Georgia, New York, and Texas. The current winner-take-all laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states, and not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution, ensure that the candidates do not reach out to all of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. Voter turnout in the “battleground” states has been 67%, while turnout in the “spectator” states was 61%. Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes–that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states. The bill has been enacted by the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington. These seven states possess 76 electoral votes — 28% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

    See National Popular Vote

  • Actually, I was just probing Mike’s assertion that “people should vote on matters that are important to them, and on matters that they are informed about.” Literacy tests may not be the best mechanism to achieve that goal. But if not, what is?

    Or possibly you don’t agree with Mike. Maybe you think it’s OK for people to cast ballots on candidates and issues about which they are uninformed. In which case, the status quo is fine.

  • Deciding what would go into a “literacy test” would in itself become a political decision. It’s a wretched idea, and was deservedly shouted down when bigot candidate Tom Tancredo suggested it a few months ago. It not only carries a destructive amount of baggage from Jim Crow days — it would almost certainly and deservedly be declared unconstitutional.

  • STM

    Al: “voir dire”.

    Ah, talking of altered meanings:

    Now there’s a classic example of how usage changes. In the US, I believe it is about testing the waters in jury selection; in Australia, it means a separate hearing before a judge only and not counted as part of a jury trial, in order for lawyers in a criminal case to test the relevance or admissibility of the evidence and the comptency of witnesses – away from the jury and without any bearing whatsoever on the trial. It also now means any instance during a trial when the jury is removed.

    A trial within a trial, if you like, but with no bearing on the outcome.

    No doubt the original meaning remains in both instances (what is truth), especially regarding comptency of witnesses and jurors, but in effect in the near-identical criminal jurisdictions of two native-English-speaking countries, they have come to mean totally different things.

    Then there’s “Fanny”. I couldn’t use it in polite conservation at work without being reported to Human Resources.

    So many pitfalls for the unwary.

  • I have misgivings concerning the applicability of the model, whatever the selection criteria. Citizenship is like a birthright; so the onus ought to be on educating the electorate rather than on weeding them out by tests or the like.

  • Roger (#9), if you mean voir dire, I’d say that’s a poor model. Whenever I’ve been summoned for jury duty, voir dire has been so superficial as to be useless. To weed out those who are insufficiently informed, focused literacy testing of prospective voters would have to be considerably more stringent than voir dire.

  • STM

    As an aside, you could have argued using the old meaning that the Soviet Union was a democracy, although in modern English usage, it would never have been described that way.

    Clearly, it never was, even at the outset.

  • But wouldn’t that be like rigging the election result so as to come up with a desirable outcome? Besides, what for some may be ignorance could well be the beginning of wisdom for others,

    You’re assuming in addition that the ill-working of our political system can be traced to uninformed electorate, ignoring the possibility that the problems may be structural and systemic. Perhaps you’re relying here too much on the juridical model, as applicable, say, to the process of jury selection. I think the onus is on you to argue the analogy is a valid one.

  • STM

    Mike: “The fact of the matter is that America is not a democracy”.

    Oh no, Mike, not this hoary old chestnut. You piece is good but based on a flawed premise. That’s because meanings change in English because of common usage.

    So, yes, America is a democracy, especially if you don’t use democracy as a noun or use the term only the way it was used to describe, say, ancient Greece.

    “Democracy” and “a democracy” are actually two different things, although in modern English usage – going right back to the start of the 20th century – they pretty much mean the same thing, and can now include a republic under a constitution like the US, or a constitutional monarchy like Britain or Australia.

    Democracy no longer means mob rule in English usage. It means a country that is free, that values human rights and protects them, offers its citizens certain freedoms as part of the contract, offers them the right to vote in free and fair elections where their vote elects people who serve them as representatives, like in Congress or Parliament, and has as its key pillar rule of law. These are the places regarded as democratic and as democracies, regardless of the hair-splitting that goes on.

    Talking about democracy and America in the modern sense … these days, it IS interchangeable and does apply simply because the term no longer means what it used to.

    With respect, why not cut the navel gazing on this one and just f.cking get on with it 🙂

  • Re #3: given today’s sophisticated testing methodology and electronic devices to instantly evaluate results, focused literacy tests would certainly not “disenfranchise the great masses of people.” Only individuals with insufficient knowledge of candidates or issues on a particular ballot would be disqualified. And even then, we can fine tune it so that a voter’s choices would count on candidates and issues about which he or she is familiar; only on matters where the voter is inadequately informed would his or her selection be disallowed. And rest assured, no voters would be killed like cancerous cells, to adopt your unfortunate simile.

  • Well, perhaps the analogy wasn’t a happy one. Killing the patient is the most effective remedy.

  • Mike, re my comment #2: on second thought, it’s probably better that you don’t respond. If Mel Odom is really so spiteful as to lower somebody’s grade or flunk that student because they disobeyed his order to not comment on these threads, then you’d be well advised to play the game by his rules, get a passing grade, and move on to your next class. There is simply no arguing with the petty tyrants of academia. They have all the power and you have none.

  • Say, what, Roger? I’m unschooled in medicine (as in practically everything else), but I thought that “killing off the cancerous cells” is precisely how oncologists fight cancer in their patients. What else would you call today’s surgical, pharmaceutical and radiological treatments?

  • Rather moot point, Alan whether you conceptualize our political system as a democracy or a republic,don’t you think? And what’s the solution now? To disenfranchise the great masses of people we have produced? That would be like trying to eradicate cancer by killing off the cancerous cells.

  • Good article, Mike. I appreciate the way you laid the issue out in a simple, straightforward way that political non-sophisticates such as myself can follow.

    Citing “the rules for voting,” you assert that “people should vote on matters that are important to them, and on matters that they are informed about.” I realize you’re not referring here to actual rules, but rather to a sense of what would be ideal.

    Yet perhaps it’s time to reconsider literacy tests as a legal voting requirement. Literacy tests got a deservedly bad name during the Jim Crow era, when Southern states administered them in a racially discriminatory manner that disfranchised millions of African Americans. That was wrong, and was remedied by the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Since then, we’ve heard little talk of literacy tests.

    However, if fairly administered, such tests could go a long way towards achieving your ideal, Mike, of having only informed voters cast ballots, or in a more refined application, allowing citizens to vote only on those candidates and/or issue about which they can demonstrate sufficient familiarity.

    I understand that Professor Odom has instructed you and his other OU writing students to not respond to comments on your Blogcritics articles. But I hope that when he’s not looking over your shoulder, you can sneak in your thoughts on this point for me. Thanks, Mike.