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“Democracy” and the Language of the Founders

A republic that moves too close to an oligarchy would require democratization.”

A useful starting point for a discussion of republican and democratic ideologies is defining the terms. The way the words “republican” and “republicanism” are used here is what is sometimes called “small r republicanism,” implying that it is not the ideology of a specific political party with the word in its name (such as the American or French Republican parties). Republicanism, understood in this way, has not had a fixed meaning throughout history, but there are some features that are generally associated with it. Some of these are the sovereignty of the people (as opposed to a sovereign monarch)  and an emphasis on liberty and equality. This will be discussed in more detail throughout the text. The words “democracy” and “democratic” are more complicated. When they first came into use during Classical Antiquity they exclusively referred to what we would now call “direct democracy,” a system in which the people directly exercise political power instead of electing representatives. In their contemporary usage, however, these terms refer to free and fair elections and a widespread distribution of suffrage. These conceptual changes are at the heart of the debate, so for now, it should suffice to say that these are terms with shifting definitions.

There might have been a time when anti-democratic institutions did not have such a strong impact. But it is clear that given the current makeup of the country, they place too much political power in a minority.

Every American general election, at least in recent times has brought with it some form of debate about the U.S. electoral system at the federal level. These conversations, of course, were understandably prominent following the 2016 presidential election because of the discrepancy between the popular vote and the electoral college vote totals. (Of course, these conversations also came up at plenty of other points: such as 2000 for example.) And this isn’t exclusive to presidential elections either, given that gerrymandering and the Senate also tend to give a disproportionate advantage to conservatives. Democrats in the United States—and the Left more broadly—point to factors such as these as structural and institutionalized anti-democratic measures that affect them. Now, whether one wants to argue for or against the existence of these practices, it is important to note that they are anti-democratic, by many definitions, because they violate the principle of “one person, one vote.” This is one of the few common features of the classical and contemporary acceptations of democracy, and it is the only arrangement consistent with a principle of political equality. Even the Supreme Court cited this concept in rulings regarding the relative size of congressional districts, while interpreting the implications of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The typical conservative response to these complaints is to observe that it is not a valid critique. The Founding Fathers, so their argument goes, did not envision a democracy, but a republic, and this justifies having anti-democratic measures preventing a majority from imposing their will on a minority. One of their go-to examples is the possibility for urban majorities to impose their beliefs on a rural minority, whose value systems city-dwellers struggle to understand. Another—with a more elitist bent—is that institutions such as the Senate, the Supreme Court and the Electoral College exist to prevent popular majorities from enacting radical change too quickly. Conservative publications such as The Federalist have put forward this argument as well recently. The Founders were certainly concerned about issues such as these. Many of them came from sparsely populated rural states, and many were wealthy landowners with much to lose at the hands of a radical majority. But it should not be forgotten that they were equally concerned with too much power power in the hands of a small elite. And in contemporary America, it is the latter rather than the former that is arguably the bigger threat.

There are multiple issues with this framing. An obvious issue is that accepting the logic of the urban vs. rural divide, for example, would require us to accept that it is equally bad for a rural minority to impose its preferences on the urban majority (if not worse, because it is a minority). There is also the issue of the pro-democracy rhetoric espoused even by conservative presidents like George W. Bush. However, one can ignore these problems, and the republic/democracy dichotomy would still make no sense. The core fault of this argument is that it is, at best, a linguistic confusion based on a lack of knowledge of the history of political thought and, at worst, a willfully misleading language game. Perhaps more importantly, the notion that republicanism is a conservative force is not consistent with a deeper look at the history of this intellectual tradition. In fact, if one were truly  to invoke classical republican principles to address the problems facing the United States, they might, interestingly enough, point in a radical direction.

It must be said that the claim that the United States is a republic and not a democracy has some basis, even if it has been misconstrued. James Madison, in Federalist No. 10, dedicates a considerable portion of the document to defending the notion that the United States should adopt a republican form of government as opposed to a democratic one. However, this anti-democratic conservative view only really survives the most superficial reading of these passages. A short look at what Madison writes makes two things abundantly clear: firstly, his understanding of what a democracy is has almost no relation to what we understand a democracy to be today; and secondly, his concerns were chiefly related to the scale on which these systems would be applicable:

I remark here only, that it seems to owe its rise and prevalence chiefly to the confounding of a republic with a democracy; and applying to the former, reasonings drawn from the nature of the latter. The true distinction between these forms, was also adverted to on a former occasion. It is, that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person: in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, must be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.

Again, Madison is clearly endorsing a republic as opposed to a democracy in this passage. But while this assertion is technically true, it requires further context. He is endorsing the set of ideas fall under the term “republic” as he understood it, over those that fall under what he understood as “democracy.” But because these terms have changing meanings, it would be a mistake to apply the same argument using the same terms. Because their meanings have changed, this would be equivalent to simply substituting the original words for new ones. The meaning of the sentence is bound to change. No one would contest the argument that he is making here. It is still an accepted fact that a country like the United States is too large and populous to implement a direct democracy. Madison’s argument is still correct on the substance, but the concepts that these words allude to have changed. What is called “democracy” in that passage now requires the adjective “direct” to have the same meaning.

This is further confirmed by looking at what the ancients wrote about democracy. Aristotle, in his Politics, describes what he identifies as the six types of constitutions, one of which he calls “democracy.” In this type of constitution, he says, it is all free men who exercise sovereignty, with no qualifications of property for example. Because of this, the proper method of selecting magistrates (government officials) is by lot, which guarantees that every citizen has the same chance of being selected. This should already be an indication that the classical conception of democracy is very far removed from what the word means to us today.

We should also look at what Aristotle says about another kind of constitution, the one he simply calls “constitutional government” or politeia, in Greek. This type of arrangement is one which combines elements of both democracy and oligarchy, so as to moderate the influence of each and prevent any faction from dominating others. Cicero echoes this and defends the view that a mixed constitution establishes equality among all its parts, which is needed in a free society and makes each of its components check and moderate each other, preventing any from establishing its dominance. In both their views, this is the best constitution that there is. This is the kind of organizations that the Romans adopted and which Cicero defends in his De Republica. The Roman constitution and Cicero’s writings inspired an intellectual tradition which we now call republicanism. It stretches from the time of Cicero to the present day, including thinkers such as Machiavelli, the Founding Fathers, but also much more radical movements like the labor republicans of the 19th century in the United States.

The common thread that links all these different thinkers as part of the same republican tradition is the idea of freedom as non-domination. This concept is important so it is worth discussing further. A useful description of it is given by Quentin Skinner in his book Liberty Before Liberalism. For Skinner, what separates the republican conception of liberty from the classical liberal one is that the latter is concerned simply with the absence of external forces interfering in an individual’s actions. The republican idea takes this further. Interference is not necessary for liberty to be constrained. Rather, the mere dependence of one individual to another individual or institution is enough to make them not free. This is already sketched by Cicero as we have seen, but the labor republicans, for example, extended this concept to argue for a form of market socialism. More on that later.

Finally, before going any further, we should say something about the contemporary definition of democracy. The evolution of the word is not so important here—but noting some of the key differences will be relevant. Political scientists generally define “democracy” as a system in which contested elections happen regularly and minimum guarantees of civil liberties are in place. This, of course, is much closer to what Madison and even Cicero would call a republic. Elections are never identified by the ancients as a democratic means of selecting political office holders, and in fact, they are often regarded as oligarchic. Protections of civil liberties, which are now considered a key element of democracy, would be, in the classical world, much more clearly identified with republics and their emphasis on preventing any faction from dominating another one.

It is clear that, in many respects, the contemporary conception of democracy has much more in common with the republican tradition than with the classical idea that shares its name. It is no accident that virtually every modern democratic society (save those which remain nominal monarchies) also call themselves republics. The distinction between the two was meaningful for a good portion of political history, but to pretend that this is still the case makes as much sense as a statement like, “this government is a kingdom, not a monarchy.” This should also make it clear that there are no insurmountable foundational differences between the United States and any democratic government which elects its president with direct universal suffrage like, say, France. And so, by this token, the republican principles behind the constitution cannot be used to justify any institutions that are anti-democratic by modern standards. Even Madison preferred direct elections to the electoral college as a method for selecting the president.

In fact, invoking the republican tradition’s influence in the framing of the Constitution, it could be argued, should push for radically democratizing (in the modern sense) the country’s institutions. We should keep in mind that the idea of non-domination is central to this intellectual movement. The 19th century labor republicans were aware of this, which is why their brand of market socialism was justified by opposing class domination over the workers. This was a movement that started among industrial and agricultural workers which sought to transfer the ownership of factories and farms to the workers. This was not based on a Marxist critique of capitalism but rather on the idea that the republican ideals of the American Revolution should be applied to class domination in the form of wage dependence as much as they were originally applied to political domination. This language of class is not even exclusive to the labor republicans; however; it was actually the primary concern of Cicero and Aristotle. Yet, one does not need to go as far as a form of socialism to see how republican ideals in the present-day United States push for radical change in terms of power disparities. James Madison, by no means a socialist, also incorporates the language of class relations and warns about the dangers of the connections between wealth and political power. In his notes on the debates of the constitutional convention, he writes the following regarding Gouverneur Morris’s intervention:

One great object of the Executive is to controul the Legislature. The Legislature will continually seek to aggrandize & perpetuate themselves; and will seize those critical moments produced by war, invasion or convulsion for that purpose. It is necessary then that the Executive Magistrate should be the guardian of the people, even of the lower classes, agst. Legislative tyranny, against the Great & the wealthy who in the course of things will necessarily compose the Legislative body. Wealth tends to corrupt the mind & to nourish its love of power, and to stimulate it to oppression.

This is perfectly in line with an Aristotelian or Ciceronian analysis of class relations—in particular, about the dangers of the domination of one class. The Right is correct in pointing out that the framers of the Constitution were concerned with too much popular power. It is equally important, however, to note that the republican principles of the Founding Fathers also made them wary about the elites concentrating political power. This passage makes it clear that Madison was, by no means, concerned only with the potential excess of popular power. It seems even that he saw the elites as a bigger threat.

I think it should be obvious that the republican concern with non-domination would side with the working class in the present-day United States. The ancients described a republic as a mixed constitution, specifically because it combined elements of democracy and oligarchy. This is in line with the Founders’ worries of the scales ever tipping too heavily on one side. But it is fair to say that the scales are not balanced any more, and the imbalance is not on the side of democracy. There might have been a time when anti-democratic institutions did not have such a strong impact. But it is clear that given the current makeup of the country, they place too much political power in a minority. In addition, our political system is essentially financed by the richest people in the country, and this has an impact on whose voices have the most influence in the political process. The median net worth of members of Congress in 2014 was $1.1 million, and rising. This is far removed from the “balanced” republican government described by the ancients—and even by the Founding Fathers. John Adams articulated this worry even before the Constitution was drafted when he argued that members of congress should receive a salary because, if they did not, political office would only be available to the rich.

A republic that moves too close to an oligarchy would require democratization. Yes, conservatives are correct to point out that moderation is a feature of a republican government. However, as the founders themselves knew, echoing their classical predecessors, moderation means more than just protecting the minority from the majority. It necessarily implies that the majority should be protected if the minority should ever accumulate too much power. The republic, at present, indeed requires a moderating influence. So perhaps, after all, it is a good idea to constantly point out that the United States was founded as a republic. It just does not point in the direction that those currently making it think it does.

Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.

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