Franke: The Warts of Democracy

August 24, 2022

The Warts of Democracy

by Mark Franke

Is the United States a democracy?

According to a strict definition of the term, the answer is “no.” Citizens don’t vote on proposed legislation, with the exception of infrequent ballot initiatives and perhaps in some small New England towns. We vote for people to represent us when they vote on legislation. That makes America a republic or, and I concede this point, a representative democracy.

So most of us would answer the question in the affirmative. We are as much a democracy as any other nation in the world, even if imperfect in our application of the textbook definition.

That said, why do so many of our politicians charge their opponents with being threats to democracy? We heard this for years, as many Democrats and not a few Republicans claimed that the election of Donald Trump was such a threat. The inconvenient fact that he won the 2016 election because he received more Electoral College votes than did Hilary Clinton simply moved their target to our faulty Constitution.

The operating principle here appears to be: “Democracy is under threat whenever our side loses an election.”

And give Donald Trump credit, something I am generally loath to do, for simply turning that argument back on his opponents by claiming election fraud to explain why he lost in 2020. They may be strange bedfellows, but they are fellow travelers in their lack of allegiance to our constitutional structures.

What is the single most important characteristic of a democratic form of government? Surely it is the expression of the will of the people at the ballot box. Democracy, in its simplest sense, is about voting. We either trust our fellow citizens or we don’t. Hurling irresponsible charges of “illegitimacy” whenever the wrong candidate wins does not advance a democratic polity. Rather, such reckless hyperbole erodes its very foundation.

There is a reason we are not a pure democracy, and not simply that it would be ponderously inefficient for a nation of our size. The Founding Fathers recognized the need for checks and balances to guard against a tyranny of the majority. Hence, they established different election procedures for the President, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Most critically, they assured that our judiciary would be independent of and removed from political pressure. Disagreeing with the Supreme Court’s decisions is one’s right under the First Amendment; it does not make the Court illegitimate nor does it justify political attacks bent on reducing or removing its independence. Threatening individual justices or the Court as a whole is the true threat to our democracy. Conservatives didn’t understand that in the previous decade and Progressives don’t understand it now.

We have John Adams, among others, to thank for this balance of power. While not attending the Constitutional Convention of 1787 due to his foreign posting as ambassador to England, his influence was in the room. It was he who midwifed the Massachusetts constitution which served as a model for others. The more I read about the period, the more I appreciate Adams despite his curmudgeonry.

The question of how much democracy is good consumed much of the debate during the 1780’s leading up to the 1787 convention. The existing state legislatures tended to be captured by temporary majorities of special interests that passed self-serving laws. James Madison, who served briefly in the Virginia legislature, was beside himself with the lack of altruism among his fellow representatives.

I have the historian Gordon Wood to thank for this new insight. His most recent book, “Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution,” is a travelog through the decades of the 1770’s and 1780’s as the great thinkers of the day wrestled with defining the role and structure of a government created to advance liberty. He made me realize that my understanding of the issues of the day was rather shallow.

Our system is one of majority rule, even when election results are not to our liking. At the same time the rights of all are protected from a tyranny of the majority. The Constitution draws the line past which the majority dare not go. That line of defense is our court system, as unpopular as it is with one side or the other. That unpopularity among the powerful attests to its fidelity in performing its constitutional function.

Our national discourse would benefit from a ratcheting down of the “illegitimacy” rhetoric. Democracy is about elections, about winners and losers. When the people speak through the ballot box, that’s just pure and simple democracy as it is meant to work.

As long as I am referencing presidents low on my ranking scale, I must add Barack Obama’s response to Republican criticism during the early years of his administration. “I won. Get over it.”

A better quote comes from a losing Democrat candidate in a California Senate primary election. “The people have spoke–the b******s.”

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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