RALEIGH – We do not live in a democracy. We live in a republic.
How often have you heard someone make this point? I believe I’ve heard it hundreds of times. I’ve heard it uttered in a variety of contexts, by angry protesters, erudite professors, suave politicians, and derisive comedians.
If the terms are defined in a certain way, the statement is correct. A true democracy, in the classical sense, would be a governmental unit in which citizens wield political power directly, through the equivalent of town-hall meetings or popular referenda. A true republic, on the other hand, would be a governmental unit in which citizens wield political power indirectly, by participating in periodic elections to select representatives who make decisions on behalf of their constituents.
Most popular governments, ancient and modern, have actually mixed elements of both. Still, we obviously live under a government that is more republican than democratic. While voters wield power directly in some cases – to approve public debts, for example, or decide the fate of constitutional amendments – the vast majority of decisions are made by legislative, executive, or judicial authorities who are considered to be representatives of the public.
The practice of political representation is, however, only a necessary element of republican government. It isn’t the only one. In the American political tradition, at least, we also typically assume that republican government requires a separation of powers, checks and balances among the branches of government, openness and neutrality in the operation of government, and written constitutions conferring specific duties on governmental representatives as well as imposing firm limits on their power.
You’ll find a theme winding its way through all of these issues, and it’s essentially an anti-democratic one: that good government is more than just a rote application of majority rule.
Naturally, in the long run a government that constantly makes decisions contrary to the will of most of the citizens under its jurisdiction is not a government that will continue to command the allegiance of those citizens. The concept of popular sovereignty lies underneath both democratic and republican models of government. But popular sovereignty is not just a series of snap public-opinion polls. Some citizens are more active than others. Some citizens change their minds over time, as do their elected representatives.
Constitutional republics recognize these realities by slowing down the legislative process, subjecting major decisions to approval by multiple chambers and branches of government, staggering elections so that no one party or faction is likely to hold all the power at any one time, and sometimes by giving numerical minorities the ability to stop ideas supported by simple majorities from being turned into binding law.
Consider two examples from current North Carolina politics: Gov. Beverly Perdue’s vetoes and proposed constitutional amendments.
Perdue is a Democratic governor facing an overwhelming Republican legislature. She was narrowly elected in 2008, a Democratic year, and has rarely enjoyed majority support among the voters of North Carolina since 2009.
Yet Perdue has been entirely within her rights, and the state’s republican traditions, when vetoing bills passed by the GOP legislature. So far the governor has vetoed 11 bills, most recently an abortion measure. Only one, her veto of the 2011-13 budget, has been overridden by the Republican supermajority in the Senate and a bipartisan coalition in the House.
Speaking of supermajorities, the General Assembly is expected to return to Raleigh later this year for a special session to consider amendments to the North Carolina constitution. Possible amendments include term limits for legislative leaders, prohibition of same-sex marriage, and protections against eminent-domain abuse.
In each case, it is likely that a majority of elected lawmakers will be in favor. But that won’t be enough. State constitutional amendments require a favorable vote by a three-fifths majority of all the members in each house (not just three-fifths of those in attendance), followed by a statewide referendum.
Be it through vetoes, supermajority requirements, or other tools of the trade, a republican form of government seeks to ensure that major changes in government policy aren’t based on a fleeting whim or a single election. Even if the immediate results aren’t to your liking, you should recognize that the system as a whole has served our republic well for more than two centuries. And turnabout is fair play — in the not-too-distant future, it may be a conservative governor or legislative minority that makes use of such tools to block precipitous action by a mistaken simple majority.
Let’s leave the dance with the same date we brought, okay?
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.