This column originally appeared in the Detroit News.
In 1787 Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the newly independent colonies had formed. “A Republic, if you can keep it,” he responded. More than 230 years have passed, and his challenge is every bit as prescient and important as it was in the 18th century.
The political left too often laments decisions they don’t like with cries of “democracy, democracy.” It is trendy and perhaps too easy these days for those on the political right to retort that “we are not a democracy.” In a meaningful sense, the right is correct; but maybe we’re not quite as correct as we think we are.
Democracy is certainly a part of who we are and how our government functions. It means we get to call our own shots, so long as those shots don’t interfere with someone else’s shots. We don’t live by anyone else’s leave.
The framers of our constitution often referred to the proposed framework as "democracy," though they clearly and specifically intended something apart from "pure democracy" or “direct democracy.” Just read Madison’s Federalist 10. Small-r republican government is intended to offer majority decision making while protecting minority rights.
It takes little imagination to understand why direct democracy is dangerous. Both Socrates and Jesus Christ lost their lives after a vote of the mob and at the hand of a passionate majority. A constitutional republic protects minorities’ rights, guarantees due process, and, critically in this day and age, establishes an elaborate and sophisticated system of checks-and-balances, to prevent the rapid accumulation and deployment of power by any singular transient interest.
In the United States, we experience the genius of this insurance against mob rule through mechanisms carefully and brilliantly woven into the Constitution: the Electoral College, multiple branches of competing governments, federalism, political parties, and more. But these institutions have been weakened over time – we no longer practice the indirect selection of United States senators, for instance – mostly by an application of direct democracy, and today the din of the mob can be heard seeking to wreak even more havoc on these safeguards of our freedom.
Ironically, we have a higher degree of political polarization, yet our political parties are weaker than possibly any time in our nation’s lifespan.
In Lansing, we have a new direction in the executive branch, and in Washington, D.C., we have a new party at the helm of one-half of the legislative branch. Most observers expect a rough couple years ahead, filled with greater division and impasse while the options to solve problems become more difficult with the passing of each opportunity. When a nation of passionate ideologues and coalition interest-seekers collide, time-honored traditions, institutions and principles are often the casualties.
The essence of our constitutional republic, from the Bill of Rights – all of them – to the Electoral College, is under assault by those unsatisfied with their piece of the pie. You’ve heard the arguments. The left works night and day to erase the 2nd amendment and abandon the 1st on college campuses and public schools. Due process, they often argue, is no longer worth defending.
Meanwhile, the Republican president wages a daily war of discouragement against our 1st Amendment free press.
“Why should North Dakota have the same representation as California? Abolish the U.S. Senate!” “No one understands the Electoral College. Let’s have a popular vote.” When these and other safeguards are gone, each of us will have lost our fundamental birthright freedoms and live each day not because it is our right, but thanks only to the ephemeral graciousness of the mob. That’s no way to live at all.
Instead of adding our voices to the cacophony over the latest outrage, in the coming year let’s reinvest ourselves in the timeless wisdom of the ancients and the common understandings that framed the founding of our constitutional republic – lest we fail to keep it.
Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.