Herbert London: Democracy v. Republic

Feb 22, 2017

Plato argued that democracy by its very nature cannot work. The direct involvement of the people in the affairs of state will lead to a situation where takers outnumber givers thereby rendering the economy precarious. But that isn’t the only issue the demos introduces. Direct participation can lead to the belief a majority rules denying the rights of minorities or there is justification for “the people” to take matters into their own hands.

Since the beginning of democracy in Athens, the greatest danger to democratic institutions has been the demos, the people themselves. Each person in a democracy is an individual. But when individuals become “the people,” trouble may be on the horizon.

The Founders of this new nation, having immersed themselves in the classics, created a system that is a republic, with the will of the people manifest through the election of representatives and in which taking matters into constituent hands is both unnecessary and counterproductive. The problem facing the United States is that the Trump presidency has resulted in the belief on the part of many that this is a democracy demanding direct public intervention in the affairs of the nation. Hence, students justify violence at the University of California as a form of democratic action. Street demonstrations calling for overturning the president’s limited ban on immigration is rationalized as democracy at work. Alas, it is democracy at work, but Americans live in a republic.

That distinction is lost on a public uneducated in the difference. Rabble rousers discuss the right to assemble, but assembly doesn’t infer violence. Freedom of expression is a First Amendment right, but even that right is limited by “clear and present danger.” A republic recognizes constraints overlooked by the flock of direct involvement.

Having stretched the idea of democracy into new and unexplored avenues of public participation, the republic itself is imperiled. The Ferguson effect, in which people believe they were wrongfully treated by the police, justifies taking to the streets. The republic, that relied on the seamless transition from one government to the next, is facing a new and relentless challenge that is based on a misconception.

Even foreign policy, once the domain of experts whose experience offered equanimity, now offer amateur guidance on the basis of which group is least offended by policies. The standards are elastic until such time as they cease to have meaning. Mounting pressure exists to give leftist democrats a stage on which to perform, assuming they will destroy themselves. At the moment, that seems unlikely, but history is not at an end and the confusion between a democracy and a republic is ubiquitous.

For the new democrats, it is feelings that count. It is reminiscent of Baudelaire who wrote “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling.” These proponents of direct involvement are romantics who wear their feelings as winter vests. Why doesn’t the whole society share their concern? Where are the demonstrators who share our outrage? A voice of the demos shouts into the wind.

Abraham Lincoln argued, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper that he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.” Lincoln is right as far as his argument goes. If sentiment misguides the public by wrongly asserting democratic impulses rather than the natural constraints of a republic it will fail as will the state itself. This is the time to once again teach the young that they reside in a republic, thank God.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

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