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A primer on democracy and its dangers
Posted by: McQ on Wednesday, February 28, 2007

This is not meant as an insult to anyone's intelligence, but I find it useful at various intervals to remind people why we're not a democracy (and yes, I know the term is often used to describe "free societies in the West", but that's not what I'm talking about here).

The primary reason we weren't formed as a democracy, via Walter Williams, is that in reality democracy is a type of tyranny and the founders of this country understood that.

It is the tyranny of the majority. Anyone who understands that understands why our founders built non-democratic mechanisms into our guiding legal document. For instance:
Alert to the dangers of majority rule, the Constitution's framers inserted several anti-majority rules. In order to amend the Constitution, it requires a two-thirds vote of both Houses, or two-thirds of state legislatures, to propose an amendment, and requires three-fourths of state legislatures for ratification. Election of the president is not done by a majority popular vote but by the Electoral College.

Part of the reason for having two houses of Congress is that it places an obstacle to majority rule. Fifty-one senators can block the wishes of 435 representatives and 49 senators. The Constitution gives the president a veto to thwart the power of 535 members of Congress. It takes two-thirds of both houses of Congress to override the president's veto.
Those are some of the celebrated "checks and balances" which everyone talks about but many don't seem to understand (nor do they understand why they're there). And there are some many would be quite glad to see jettisoned (electoral college anyone?). Some of the checks have already been removed (Senators elected by popular vote vs. appointed by the state to represent the state in Congress).

Williams quotes James Madison from Federalist 10 about why it is so important to avoid the tyranny of majority rule:
Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority."
The point? The purpose of the government founded here was the protection of rights, to include, obviously, the rights of the minority. There is a large and growing group, however, who believe a) we're a democracy and b) because of that belief, that the majority rules.

In point of fact, in a Republican form of government, law rules, as it should and rights are preeminent and protected by those laws.

Williams contrasts our founding form of government:
Our founders intended for us to have a limited republican form of government where rights precede government and there is rule of law. Citizens, as well as government officials, are accountable to the same laws. Government intervenes in civil society only to protect its citizens against force and fraud but does not intervene in the cases of peaceable, voluntary exchange.
And with what I would contend is our evolving form of government:
By contrast, in a democracy, the majority rules either directly or through its elected representatives. The law is whatever the government deems it to be. Rights may be granted or taken away.
You tell me ... which is the most dangerous to liberty and freedom?
 
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How do you enforce that? The old joke is that you change politicians and diapers often and for the same reason, but today it seems like we’re simply switching diapers back and forth.

I want to have a government that abides by the concept of a Constitutionally Limited Republic but none of the choices I have for votes seem to care about that.

I wish the old Democrats were back who really and truly cared about civil liberties and that they hooked up with the old Republicans who worked for a smaller, less intrusive government but alas, we get neither.
 
Written By: Robb Allen
URL: http://blog.robballen.com
The answer to the first is, in it’s simplistic form, that it enforces itself. There are many underlying assumptions that comprise the long answer. But, the constitution was written in a form that enforces itself via the many checks an balances. It is amazing that it has withstood this many attacks on so many fronts by those who want to change it away from a constitutionally limited republic.

The second part, about the choices for whom to vote, is not honest. What you’re really saying is that neither of the 2 MAJOR parties offer choices that care about how our government should really be working, as defined by our law, i.e. The Constitution of the United States. We’re not now, nor have we ever been a 2 party country, however it will take more than an over night (or over decade) change to bring another party, like a Libertarian or Constitutional party, into a playing position. I won’t go any farther on that because it’s a diferent topic.

It is certainly, and unfortunately, safe to say that we are changing out diapers for other dirty diapers 99 out of 100 times. :(

 
Written By: Ike
URL: http://
We are indeed a democracy given how it is defined by modern political theory and in political science. You are defining democracy as basically crude majoritarianism. That’s not the current standard definition. I won’t go into the theory with depth, but essentially democratic theorists have determined that real democracy requires the kinds of protections of individual rights that you list in order to function or survive.

When I talk about what democracy means in class I note, "you’ll always find someone who thinks they are really intelligent who will say (then I mock an arrogant sounding voice) ’we are not a democracy, but a republic,’ as if they think they are saying something profound. Well, by the definition in use we are a democracy AND a republic."
 
Written By: Scott Erb
URL: http://faculty.umf.maine.edu/~erb/blog.htm
"you’ll always find someone who thinks they are really intelligent who will say (then I mock an arrogant sounding voice)..."

Was that an intentional insult, or do you really not know how your words are perceived? I am actually curious, not critical(for once).
 
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
Well, by the definition in use we are a democracy AND a republic.
And how many of your students and/or the general public understand the difference.
 
Written By: Keith_Indy
URL: http://inactivist.org/blog/keith_indy
"you’ll always find someone who thinks they are really intelligent who will say (then I mock an arrogant sounding voice)..."

Was that an intentional insult, or do you really not know how your words are perceived? I am actually curious, not critical(for once).
It is how I explain the issue in class to drive home to students that: a) in modern usage democracy is not the same as crude majoritarianism; b) people often mix that up, due to the way democracy gets understood in common parlance; and c) our country can be described as a democracy and as a republic, the two are not mutually exclusive.

The mock voice is simply a little entertainment in class. I should have left that off the post, it does sound insulting. There was no need for me to add that.
 
Written By: Scott Erb
URL: http://faculty.umf.maine.edu/~erb/blog.htm
Scott,
Websters still defines democracy as:
1 a : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections
2 : a political unit that has a democratic government
3 capitalized : the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the United States
4 : the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority
5 : the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges
while the common usage you refer to reminds me of a TR quote:
One of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use what have been called "weasel words." When a weasel sucks eggs the meat is sucked out of the egg. If you use a "weasel word" after another there is nothing left of the other.
Too many people throw the word democracy around without understanding what it really means. Which is the point I think McQ was getting at.
 
Written By: Crusader
URL: http://www.coalitionoftheswilling.net/
And how many of your students and/or the general public understand the difference.
None ... just as he’s never understood we’re a Constitutional Republic, not a democratic Republic.

And he teaches this stuff.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/blog
Too many people throw the word democracy around without understanding what it really means. Which is the point I think McQ was getting at.
Precisely.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/blog
I guess we can assume that no one in Professor Erb’s presentations ever uses an arrogant sounding voice to say: "Why, it is the scientific consensus!"
 
Written By: notherbob2
URL: http://
Part of the reason for having two houses of Congress is that it places an obstacle to majority rule. Fifty-one senators can block the wishes of 435 representatives and 49 senators. The Constitution gives the president a veto to thwart the power of 535 members of Congress. It takes two-thirds of both houses of Congress to override the president’s veto.
Add to this the ability to filibuster to delay legislation and the whole system becomes very interdependent.

The degree of cooperation that the system requires to operate, means it is very difficult to rock the boat without immediate negative consequences for a politicians own interests. Since these interests are to be reelected, each politician does his/her best to quietly, uno secure spending deals for their electorate. American politics focuses strongly on local performance, incumbents get back in because voters recognise the value of having a person tied into the system.
 
Written By: unaha-closp
URL: http://warisforwinning.blogspot.com/
McQ makes the correct point and punches it home with the ’Constitutional Republic" comment.
A republic is, of course, a representative form of democracy. But, unlike other republics, the U.S. majority does not rule. It requires 3/4 of those representatives (elected locally) to significantly modify the constitutionally limited powers of the federal government. It is odd that there’s no word for a government of 3/4 of the people’s representatives.

To strike a tangent:
Aside from the defects of occupation, the primary reason for the failure in Iraq has been the effort to make it safe for democracy. What we advocate there is tyranny of the Shiite majority. That, to my mind, is a guaranteed failure ... as it should be.
 
Written By: Bill Westmiller
URL: http://www.rlc.org
"Comrade Members, like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master. You now have freedom-if you can keep it. But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant. Move slowly, be hesitant, puzzle out the consequences of every word. I would not be unhappy if this convention sat for ten years before reporting-but I would be frightened if you took less than a year.

"Distrust the obvious, suspect the traditional . . . for in the past mankind has not done well when saddling itself with governments. For example, I note in one draft report a proposal for setting up a commission to divide Luna into congressional districts and to reapportion them from time to time according to population.

"This is the traditional way; therefore it should be suspect, considered guilty until proved innocent. Perhaps you feel that this is the only way. May I suggest others? Surely where a man lives is the least important thing about him. Constituencies might be formed by dividing people by occupation . . . or by age . . . or even alphabetically. Or they might not be divided, every member elected at large-and do not object that this would make it impossible for any man not widely known throughout Luna to be elected; that might be the best possible thing for Luna.

"You might even consider installing the candidates who receive the least number of votes; unpopular men may be just the sort to save you from a new tyranny. Don’t reject the idea merely because it seems preposterous-think about it! In past history popularly elected governments have been no better and sometimes far worse than overt tyrannies.

"But if representative government turns out to be your intention there still may be ways to achieve it better than the territorial district. For example you each represent about ten thousand human beings, perhaps seven thousand of voting age-and some of you were elected by slim majorities. Suppose instead of election a man were qualified for office by petition signed by four thousand citizens. He would then represent those four thousand affirmatively, with no disgruntled minority, for what would have been a minority in a territorial constituency would all be free to start other petitions or join in them. All would then be represented by men of their choice. Or a man with eight thousand supporters might have two votes in this body. Difficulties, objections, practical points to be worked out-many of them! But you could work them out . . . and thereby avoid the chronic sickness of representative government, the disgruntled minority which feels-correctly!-that it has been disenfranchised.

"But, whatever you do, do not let the past be a straitjacket!

"I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent-the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws. Let legislators pass laws only with a two-thirds majority . . . while the repealers are able to cancel any law through a mere one-third minority. Preposterous? Think about it. If a bill is so poor that it cannot command two-thirds of your consents, is it not likely that it would make a poor law? And if a law is disliked by as many as one-third is it not likely that you would be better off without it?

"But in writing your constitution let me invite attention the wonderful virtues of the negative! Accentuate the negative! Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do. No conscript armies . . . no interference however slight with freedom of press, or speech, or travel, or assembly, or of religion, or of instruction, or communication, or occupation . . . no involuntary taxation. Comrades, if you were to spend five years in a study of history while thinking of more and more things that your governinen should promise never to do and then let your constitution be nothing but those negatives, I would not fear the outcome.

"What I fear most are affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting to government powers to do something that appears to need doing. Please remember always that the Lunar Authority was created for the noblest of purposes by just such sober and well-intentioned men, all popularly elected. And with that thought I leave you to your labors. Thank you."

Quoted From The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlen
 
Written By: Firedrake
URL: http://

Websters still defines democracy as:
Websters’ definitions are fine. The point I’m making is that it is proper to call our political system a democracy. Democracy does not mean crude majoritarianism. In fact, some theorists like Barber have very specific standards for what can be considered a democracy, including protections of individual rights and limits on governmental power.

I guess to put it in its most basic form: any kind of system which would allow the majority to limit effective participation of another segment of the population would not be a true democracy because by definition all should have a voice and be able to participate. Any form of ’crude majoritarianism’ whereby the majority can do what they wish without limit would allow for and likely bring about denial of partipation rights for some of the population. Thus you cannot have a real democracy unless you have limits on governmental power and protections of individual rights. This usually requires a republic, though Great Britain manages through tradition to achieve this even without being a republic.
 
Written By: Scott Erb
URL: http://faculty.umf.maine.edu/~erb/blog.htm
And with what I would contend is our evolving form of government:
By contrast, in a democracy, the majority rules either directly or through its elected representatives. The law is whatever the government deems it to be. Rights may be granted or taken away.
Damm optimist. America is still a constitutional republic. Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the constitution assigns the Congress the job of regulating commerce. Congressmen exercise their power and seek reelection through the favorable regulation of commerce. All seek reelection, all want accomodation of their backing special interests and since all require the interlocking cooperation of all the others all Congress’ special interests are accomodated. A change in government merely relates to a change in weighting given to special interests, but none shall be dropped because they are all potential clients to Congressmen. Special interests fight elections to secure federal funding and so spending spirals ever upwards.

This state of affairs cannot easily be changed. America must elect a 2/3(?) majority of Congressmen willing to strip Congressmen of their powers, so that Congress can be reformed. To do this will require electing politicians who will need to be in office for at least 2 years (to account for midterms) during which time they will be lobbied to profit from the very thing they are attempting to stop. Thus the constitutional republic discourages change to its constitution.

A representative democracy with a simpler parliment could change the Commerce Clause in the wider national interest, by a simple majority being elected in a single election.
 
Written By: unaha-closp
URL: http://warisforwinning.blogspot.com/
A republic is, of course, a representative form of democracy. But, unlike other republics, the U.S. majority does not rule. It requires 3/4 of those representatives (elected locally) to significantly modify the constitutionally limited powers of the federal government. It is odd that there’s no word for a government of 3/4 of the people’s representatives.
But what if the bureaucrats, politicians and (most importantly) the people who elect them decide consciously or unconsciously that they just don’t want to operate within the confines of the constitution? What if the politicans who make up all three branches of government, from either major party, cease to believe that it is necessary, or even desireable, for the govenment to operate within the extremely narrow powers originally granted by the constitution? What if the politicians making up all three branches of government ceased to use the checks and balances designed into the system to thwart actions that are clearly unconstitutional, and instead occasionally used these powers to win minor partisan political squabbles? What if whole amendments to the Bill of Rights were completely ignored (like the 9th and 10th) as if they never even existed? What if the politicians and the people who elect them simply stopped having any meaningful conversations about what powers the federal government aught to have, and all involved assumed that the government should be granted, by 50.01% of the people who elect them, whatever means were necessary to make 50.01% of the population happy? What if the only areas where the government decided to live within the restrictions imposed by the constitution were "coincidentally" the same areas that a majority of the voters wanted them to live within? What if the single most powerful check against unconstitutional government, state sovereignty, was removed completely by an act of war, as if it never existed, and succeeding generations ceased to even realize that it ever existed at all?

I’m not sure and I don’t really care if you could call that "democracy" or not, but it is most certainly "crude majoritism". The United States of America has a crude majoritist form of government, no matter what the founding document has to say about it.

The "founding fathers" feared unbridled democracy as much as they feared monarchy, unfortunately they had no answer for a federal government that, aided by a majority of voters, simply chose to ignore the document.
 
Written By: DS
URL: http://
I guess to put it in its most basic form: any kind of system which would allow the majority to limit effective participation of another segment of the population would not be a true democracy because by definition all should have a voice and be able to participate.
My god Erb, you are a piece of work. I would love to monitor one of your classes to see you in action... do you see the sections in bold above? By definition, democracy (majority rule) does not LIMIT the involvement of the minority. In order for their to be a majority and minority, you must have all ’participating’.

Stop playing with the words. If you can not accept that there is a difference between a constitutional republic and a democracy, you should have your tenure revoked and your head examined.
 
Written By: meagain
URL: http://
Stop playing with the words. If you can not accept that there is a difference between a constitutional republic and a democracy, you should have your tenure revoked and your head examined.
We have a democracy. Democracy is not crude majoritarianism. That’s the state of Democratic Theory in political science. If you can’t accept that, that’s your problem. At least you’ll always have your insults.
 
Written By: Scott Erb
URL: http://faculty.umf.maine.edu/~erb/blog.htm
We have a democracy.
No, we had a better republic than we have now.
Democracy is not crude majoritarianism.
Yes it is.
That’s the state of Democratic Theory in political science.
Which confirms ill sentiments towards that soft science.
If you can’t accept that, that’s your problem.
Why should wrong be accepted? We’ll make it your problem, by and by.
At least you’ll always have your insults.
No, I have the truth. We are a democratic, constitutional republic. The word democracy is best used as a modifier, not an absolute characteristic.

That’s nuance.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl & pfpp
 
Written By: Tom Perkins
URL: http://

 
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