America is Not a Democracy. Trump Doesn’t Threaten It

The Founding Fathers saw the danger of the mob and gave us a system designed to avoid it.

By Rob Schwarzwalder Published on May 23, 2019

Did you know America is a democracy? And that it’s under threat? That’s what lots of people are saying, anyway. The Speaker of the House, for one. Donald Trump, she says, is “an existential threat to our democracy.” 

Whatever the president may or may not be, he is no threat to our democracy. He can’t be. Because we don’t live in one.

Not a Democracy

A “democracy” is something America is not. Yes, we are a nation in which the people rule. But democracy, in its proper sense, means the direct rule of the “50 percent plus one.”

This kind of democracy — whatever the majority wants, whenever the majority wants it — is the kind of government the Founders of our country worked hard to prevent. They knew, as James Madison (or perhaps Alexander Hamilton) wrote in the Federalist Papers, that in democratic assemblies, “passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

In 1787, during the debates about the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton asked his colleagues, “Can a democratic assembly … be supposed steadily to pursue the public good? Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy. Their turbulent and uncontrol[ed] disposition requires checks.” 

John Adams, writing 20 years later and several after his presidency, agreed. “Democracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy, such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes, and no man’s life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure.” In the tenth Federalist Paper, Madison described the democratic group as people “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Why were they so concerned? Because they understood human nature. They knew that man is a fallen being. And that’s he’s also short-sighted and can be manipulated much too easily. Jesus did not entrust himself even to His disciples. Why? Because “he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). So did the Founders. 

As a result, they avoided democracy. They established a republic, a government in which the people rule, but do so through elected representatives. Public passion loses steam as time and distance release it.

Diffuse Government

One effect, wrote Madison in Federalist Ten, is “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens.” They’re the ones “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” In a republic, the people’s representatives are likelier to make decisions “more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.”

Another effect is that a republic like ours separates the different levels of government. Our government is supposed to be diffuse. Local, city, county, state and federal jurisdictions. Multiple layers that overlap and intersect. Limited centralized power. Frequent elections.

It’s the kind of government that drives the left crazy. The Progressive goal is to “transform” America into a liberal paradise in which a small elite of the truly enlightened runs things. But the web of self-government means a generally difficult path for any party or ideology to get what it wants. And that’s just what the Founders wanted.

If Virtue Remains

We need to fight to reestablish the republican idea of government our founding fathers gave us. It’s not true that Donald Trump threatens democracy. It is true that Nancy Pelosi threatens the republic.

But as the founders also knew, a wise structure isn’t enough by itself. The men who drafted and the state legislatures that confirmed our Constitution believed high character — virtue — was the only solid ground on which a truly free, just, and orderly nation could thrive. In a 1788 letter to his surrogate son, the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington explained the new Constitution. The federal powers of the government were arranged to avoid the creation of a tyranny. But only “so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the People.” 

“So long as there shall remain virtue” in the people. Do we retain enough character, as individuals and, thereby, as a nation, to justify the kind of representative self-government generations of men have fought and died to give us? We the People need to think about that.

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