This is Part I of a four-part series.
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By Dr. Gary Deel
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
Few Americans spend a lot of time thinking deeply about our governmental system or why it was designed the way it was. We often throw around the word “democracy” without parsing the term. Technically, the United States is a democracy in the sense that our government is designed to put power in the hands of the electorate.
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However, within the broader category of “democracy”, we must also recognize that our government is a representative democracy (a.k.a. a republic). That is to say, the people don’t vote on each new proposal that comes before them (as would be the case in a pure or direct democracy). Instead, we elect representatives to vote on our behalf. They include presidents, senators, representatives, governors, mayors, aldermen and so forth. We hold them up to the proverbial court of public opinion, and they speak for us.
Why Didn’t Our Founding Fathers Eliminate Representation and Create a Pure Democracy?
Why didn’t our Founding Fathers just eliminate the representation part and create a pure democratic system? Some of the men who participated in the planning of the new American government — including James Madison, the author of the Constitution — spoke about their worries that pure democracy would lead to disorganized “mob rule.” However, there is also good historic reason to believe that Madison and others publicized these criticisms as a political tactic because they favored a strong central government. Their concern was that, without a strong central government, the 13 states would be tempted to reject the Constitution and abandon the union altogether.
Political philosophies aside, there was another much more pragmatic reason why a pure democracy wasn’t practical for the United States: Logistics. At the time of the ratification process of the Constitution in 1788 and 1789, the 13 colonies stretched more than 1,600 miles north to south along the eastern seaboard. There was just no feasible way for the citizens of the newly formed United States to actively participate in the required voting and governmental affairs.
When the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in May of 1787, the postal service consisted of only about 75 offices across the entire country. The mail was too slow and unreliable. Besides, more than 40 percent of adult Americans were illiterate. And of course traveling in person to Philadelphia or New York was out of the question because trips by horse-drawn carriage could take weeks from the furthest reaches to the seat of power of our new nation.
Citizens of Each State Would Elect Their Representatives
A better solution was needed, and so the American republic was born. Representatives would be elected by the citizens of each state, and they would reside in New York City, the first U.S. capital, where they would be available regularly to represent their constituents in Congress. Madison ostensibly believed that representation through this smaller group would be easier for getting work done and more stable than any alternative.
So where’s the rub? With more than 230 years of hindsight, from which the Founding Fathers had no benefit, today we can recognize the flaw in this system. Although representative democracy is arguably the cleaner and more efficient alternative, it also serves up power on a platter to those who might seek to corrupt it — among them wealthy self-serving individuals, large corporations, foreign influences, and special interests.
Wielding power in America under a pure democracy would take an enormous amount of leverage. One would effectively need to sway the opinions of a majority of Americans, or more than 165 million of the 330 million who live in the country today.
But with the republic system, one need only sway 218 of the 435 representatives in Congress and 51 of the 100 senators to pass most legislation. Mathematically, this means the work involved in terms of persuasion is reduced by approximately 99.9998 percent. This is where lobbying comes in, paid influencers to convince lawmakers to vote either for or against the influencers’ clients. Ignore the people and focus on the elected leaders. Is it any wonder that we struggle with corruption issues and power struggles among the three branches of government today?
There are, however, two pieces of good news: First we, as a society, are no longer strapped with the logistical constraints of our 18th century predecessors. Representative democracy is no longer the only feasible way to operate our government. Innovations including telephone and internet could conceivably allow for a pure democracy to function, even across the enormous distances that our country spans today. Such a system would be a challenge to design as it would obviously need to be both reliable and secure, but it is certainly possible.
Founders Were Wise to Build an Evolutionary Mechanism into the Constitution
The second piece of good news is that the nation’s founders were wise enough to build an evolutionary mechanism into our Constitution, a procedure for change that allows us to adapt to new situations when circumstances require. This would of course be by means of a constitutional amendment. We’ve already exercised this power 26 times in our nation’s history.
In other words, if Congress and the Executive Branch supported it, an amendment could be crafted that would effectively transition the American government from a republic to a direct democracy. It would become the law of the land once two-thirds of the 50 states ratified the amendment. Then, with the aid of technology, all further deliberations and voting on proposals large and small could be handled by the people directly.
There’s a catch though, which likely kills any hope for this kind of change. If you didn’t spot it already, I’ll spell it out for you. Passage of such a constitutional amendment would mean that the current lawmakers in Congress would effectively need to vote to fire themselves.
I’d like to think that our leaders are capable of putting the greater good ahead of their own interests. But given what we’ve seen historically in terms of self-dealing, self-preservation and party loyalties, I don’t think there’s any chance of this happening through a peaceful and orderly process.
The only means by which we might realistically bring about a pure democracy would be through violent revolution. And we learned through tremendous sacrifices during the American Revolution that we should only resort to bloodshed as a means to power when absolutely necessary.
But imagine for a moment that revolution were possible. Having experienced a catastrophic Civil War, would we really want to go down that road again? Would a pure democracy actually be a better alternative to the status quo? Or would it create more problems than it solves?
In the following articles in this series, we’ll discuss how direct democracy could be either better or worse than our current system, depending on how the change would be implemented.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.