Colonists in America came from different backgrounds. Some escaped their past, looking for a brighter future. Some brought their religions with them that were not accepted back in England. But even though these pioneers were woven from different fabrics, they wanted freedom… not necessarily freedom from England since many were loyal to the king, but freedom from old restrictions. They wanted a new lease on life, and America offered that freedom. But did that desire for freedom forge the colonies into a republic or a democracy?
The adventurers settled in different regions of America called colonies, now delineated as states. They all had different rules. Some were very strict like Roger Smith’s colony in Rhode Island. Others were a little more flexible, but survival was possible only with the individuals joining together to share their abilities for raising crops, hunting wild animals, and gathering wild berries and nuts. Individuals banned together under unwritten contracts for survival.
If everyone acted on their selfish desires, then the contract would be broken and survival of all would be in jeopardy. Even though there were exceptions, most of the citizens eagerly followed the rules because there was little margin for error. A drought or flood could wipe out your crops for that year, leaving you to rely on the hunter-gatherer specialists. Individualism pales when death darkens your door. If there is no grocery store or McDonald’s restaurant, you will be more interested in forming coalitions and in accepting the terms of the social contracts.
Social contracts are agreements among individuals to abide by certain rules, limiting their freedoms to benefit society as a whole. Were these social contracts in America for a republic or a democracy? Thomas Hobbes argued that the contract should require the ruler to protect the natural rights of the people and, in return, the people would agree to accept the authority of that ruler. But Hobbs placed the ruler above the law. Sounds bloody British, doesn’t it?
John Locke believed that nobody, including the ruler, should be above the law. He believed that individuals should have certain rights such as freedom of speech, religion, and ownership of property, and that the government had the obligation to protect these rights. Locke’s views on individual freedoms are important in avoiding pressures to conform, so that we may fully develop ourselves. However, we are willing to give up some of our less important freedoms for the good of a balanced society. But as Thomas Paine suggested, certain freedoms remain inviolate, no matter what, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Paine was a champion for democracy, much of which was adopted by our Founding Fathers. But was America a republic or democracy?
The American social contract for a republic is perhaps best explained by J.S. Mill, although he lived after the American Revolution. Mill was concerned that individuals and minority groups might suffer by being made to conform to the majority under a social contract. He countered by stating that a majority should only interfere with a minority only when it is doing something harmful to the majority.
As an example, free speech should be permitted even if the speaker makes no sense. It is more important to prevent the government from deciding what may or may not be said. However if the speech is designed to incite violence or solicit a crime, then it should not be allowed. The incited action does not have to literally harm a majority of the people, but if it significantly impacts society’s mores or rules as a whole, then it should not be allowed. It is, in effect, a balancing test. Does the harm caused by a speech outweigh the right of an individual to express one’s views? If a religious fanatic wants to stand on a street corner and let passers-by know that the world is coming to an end, this potential harm does not outweigh the individual’s right to speak. But if the fanatic is enlisting you to kill the doctor across the street performing abortions, then that has crossed the line.
America became a “melting pot” attracting many immigrants who longed for a new start, a new life, and a new dream. America accepted these immigrants who created new minorities. The majority of Americans may not have liked it because there was more competition for jobs, but the majority accepted it because that was part of the social contract. That’s not to say that there weren’t growing pains. The majority threw its weight around and did not make it easy on the immigrants, but they eventually melted into our society and became a part of the majority.
James Madison in the Federalist Paper No. 10 wrote that government is unstable and that “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.” Madison was interested in avoiding a “pure democracy” since he believed the majority would run over the minority interests. However, he was convinced that a “republic” could work because representatives would be more interested in the good of the public and would not betray the interest of citizens, whether representing a minority or a majority.
Our government is a republic, rather than a democracy, although we refer to it as a “democracy” more than a “republic.” A pure democracy would follow more along the lines of Thomas Paine, who believed that the social contract allowed the majority to pursue its happiness as long as it didn’t harm the minority in the process. This sounds a little like the hippie’s mantra in the early 1970’s: “you can do anything you want as long as you don’t hurt somebody else.” The problem is that it is idealistic to apply this individualistic practice to the majority, and it opens the door for the majority to harm itself.
Madison argued that pure democracy was dangerous because the majority would have too much power. In effect, the majority would have complete and absolute power to judge when it was harming somebody else. The majority would be in charge of deciding when the minority was being harmed, and Madison feared this degree of control by the masses. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
And the majority also could harm itself with impunity. Now, even though that sounds like something we would never have to worry about, it’s actually a ticking time bomb for democracy. In other words, democracy is susceptible to suicide. Democracy could easily be taken over by a corrupt totalitarian government pretending to serve the interests of the public. Madison was very concerned about self-serving factions gaining control who were not interested in the public good or the rights of citizens. That’s why he preferred a republic over a democracy.
A republic is more like what J.S. Mill proposed when he said that a majority should not interfere with the minority unless it is doing something harmful to the majority. This is a more practical approach to dealing with human nature. This plays on the self-serving interest of the majority to protect itself, but still limiting its power, rather than giving it carte-blanche power. Madison believed that representatives in a republic would ensure that both majority and minority interests would be protected.
Americans today have lost the distinction between a republic and a democracy, and consider America as a pure democracy. You rarely hear America called a republic anymore because school children rarely recite the “Pledge Allegiance to the Flag,” which pledges “to the Republic for which it stands.”
So, is America acting like a pure democracy? It is. Even though we still have representatives who elect the president, these are not voters with “enlightened views and virtuous sentiments” that “render them superior to local prejudices and to schemes of injustice” that Madison dreamed about. These representatives have become pawns in a pure democracy which permits the majority to run over the minorities.
White anglo-saxon protestants (WASPS) were the old majority who ran the country for their benefit. Today, old minorities have become the new majority. But the only thing that has changed is that there is a new sheriff in town. But it is the same town – a town called Democracy. The new majority can now run over the old majority. Both old and new majorities have long forgotten Mill and Madison who wanted to protect both majority and minority interests.
And the Pledge has been forgotten by many, as well. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
American society has become a “Jerry Springer show” with an emphasis on stirring up conflict rather than bringing people together and forming coalitions. The Election of 2012 was a significant example of how the old majority, which had no ability to form coalitions, lost out to the new majority. It is interesting to note that the new majority’s interest in coalition building has been flagging after the election.
It’s almost as if the newly elected American politicians are focusing on a worldwide power base. The problem is that a new worldwide economy will have only one point of failure. That’s extremely dangerous and suicidal. Once the worldwide economy fractures and breaks apart, and it will only be a matter of time, then the hidden agenda of the totalitarian leaders will be evident. By then it will be too late for anybody to stop it.
So, I guess the answer to the question is that we are a doomed democracy unless Americans form a republic coalition, bringing us together in one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.