Quick Note: On Republics

How often do we hear the sage formula, with every pretense of nuance, that the United States is not a democracy but a republic? You don’t have to look far for examples of it in action: find any situation where one side complains that some policy proposed by the other violates the principle of democracy, and invariably, the other side will trot out this insight.

The lesson is one straight out of the political thinking of the 18th and 19th centuries: democracies are unstable and will lead to mob rule and (horror of horrors) leveling, etc. And so, there’s nothing for it but to limit democracy somehow, to make a government that represents the people (the Latin res publica), but does not grant them unfettered power (the Greek dêmos kratos). It’s not clear to me how this functions as a defense for any particular anti-democratic policy, but the unacknowledged implications of this line of argument are disturbing.

This country was indeed intended to be a republic. And like most good classical republics, it sharply limited the franchise; in our case, despite some local variation, mostly to rich white men. In the south you even had a slave society propping up a leisured upper class, mirroring those liberty-loving slave-owning city-states of Classical Greece. People touting the “republic” talking point never seem to know how right they are, but many Enlightenment thinkers considered Sparta a model of sound governance, and it shows.

What this talking point always seems to elide is that the development of American government since “the Founders'” limited vision of an elitist state is a process of democratization. On the one hand, more and more government functions became subject to the popular vote. The Electoral College, as originally conceived, had nothing to do with any number of regular citizens voting for presidential candidates. Nor were Senators popularly elected. On the other, there was a democratization of what it meant to be a voter: first, classist property requirements fell. Next, slavery was abolished and racist restrictions of the vote to white people were (in theory at least) lifted. Then, the sexist limitation of the franchise to men was abolished. When people drone on about how we are a “republic” because of “the Founders'” vision, what they are doing is repudiating 144 years of progress.

Interestingly, the racial barrier to voting isn’t actually a dead issue, thanks to conservative policy initiatives: from the racist enforcement of drug laws combined with disenfranchisement of ex-convicts; to dubious “voter fraud” reduction laws which, as implemented in the time frame proposed, would have effectively barred many African-American citizens, among others, from voting in the most recent election; to recent attempts to take advantage of gerrymandering to undermine the popular will in presidential elections. Additionally, there is a rising trend of actively rejecting democratic progress with an explicit call for a return to the Founders’ vision in political structure, chock full of all the old tropes about unstable democracies. It seems the “Lost Cause” of the “Old Republic” is still a vital motivating force for the political right.

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