The enigma of the American Democracy

Commentary

Enigma: (/əˈnɪɡ.mə/) A perplexing, baffling, or seemingly inexplicable matter.

Democracy: (/dɪˈmɑː.krə.si/) The belief in freedom and equality between people; a system of government based on this belief.

America: (/əˈmer.ɪ.kə/) A democratic republic in North America, more formerly known as the United States of America

Now that I’ve gotten those basic definitions out of the way, I guess I need to add one more:

democratic republic is a form of government operating on principles adopted from a republic and a democracy. As a cross between two exceedingly similar systems, democratic republics may function on principles shared by both republics and democracies.

Get that? Pretty clear, huh?*

*(Just to muddy the waters a little more, there are many, particularly Republicans and other people on the right, who would rather refer to the United States as a “Constitutional Republic” rather than a “Democratic Republic.” This is semantics, a way to remove any derivative of the word “democrat” from the picture. In fact, there are even those who prefer to refer to our system of government as a “Constitutional Democratic Federal Republic.” But not only is that too long, it uses that nasty word, “Democratic!”)

Perhaps we should dig a little deeper.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary,

  • Republic: “A state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives…”[
  • Democracy: “A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.”[

Still confused? Let’s call in an expert. In this case, Eugene Volokh of the UCLA School of Law. Professor Volokh is a Ukrainian-American legal scholar known for his scholarship in American constitutional law, conservatism and libertarianism. He’s a former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner.

According to Volokh, “the United States exemplifies the varied nature of a constitutional republic—a country where some decisions (often local) are made by direct democratic processes, while others (often federal) are made by democratically elected representatives. As with many large systems, U.S. governance is incompletely described by any single term. It also employs the concept, for instance, of a constitutional democracy in which a court system is involved in matters of jurisprudence.”

There are some democratic republics in which not all persons are necessarily citizens, and not all citizens are necessarily entitled to vote. Suffrage is commonly restricted by criteria such as voting age, sometimes by felony or imprisonment status (as in the Florida “democratic republic,” despite a “democratic” vote by the people to allow it) or by skin-color (as in, well, we know where).

If this is still too confusing for most Americans, perhaps providing some examples of other self-identifying democratic republics could be insightful.

Here are some current Democratic Republics:

  1. People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria
  2. Democratic Republic of the Congo
  3. Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
  4. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea)
  5. Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos)
  6. Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal (Nepal)
  7. Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
  8. Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe
  9. Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

Add the United States of America to the list above and we can have another “G”- thing…the “G-10 of Democratic Republics! The only person I’m aware of who would be comfortable attending that meeting would be Donald Trump (as long as it wasn’t held in a “shit-hole” country. (I’m talking to you, Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

Past Democratic Republics before coups, wars/revolutions and wall “take-downs” included:

  1. Somali Democratic Republic (Somalia)
  2. Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam)
  3. People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen)
  4. Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan)
  5. German Democratic Republic (East Germany)

But I digress. So let’s go back to Professor Volokh to understand the enigma I alluded to earlier.

To refresh your memory, an enigma is a perplexing, baffling, or seemingly inexplicable matter. Given that, what could be more enigmatic than the American system in which “some decisions (often local) are made by direct democratic processes, while others (often federal) are made by democratically elected representatives?” And the determination of who will be making those decisions is predicated on who is in power at the time of the decision. Which leads to, as we’ve seen in the last week or so of Supreme Court decisions, a veritable “follow the bouncing ball” of decisions and laws. Those local decisions, for example, sometimes short-handed into a concept called “states’ rights” are only states’ rights when the “right” is favorable to certain groups. When it’s not, federal rights are invoked.

The most obvious examples of this dichotomy is the conservative support of states’ rights when it came to slavery and Jim Crow, as well as more recently with regard to issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and separation of church and state. But when more liberal states passed, for example, laws restricting certain gun rights, the conservative right yelled foul and used the court system, up to and including most recently and tragically, the Supreme Court, to strike those state laws down.

If that’s not an enigma, I don’t know what is.

So, America is a “republic” only if it suits one’s specific interest? But how about a democracy? Is America a democracy? Not even close.

Remember, the founders established our current system of government to put some brakes on the majority. As George Thomas recently wrote the The Atlantic:

“When founding thinkers such as James Madison spoke of democracy, they were usually referring to direct democracy, what Madison frequently labeled ‘pure’ democracy.

In essence, Madison argued against a pure democracy, which had a checkered history in the late 18th century, and was sometimes referred to as the “tyranny of the majority.”

So how has that worked out 200+years later?

Not that well, unless you think the “tyranny of the the minority” is a good idea.

To wit:

  • A voter in Montana gets 31 times the electoral bang for their presidential vote than a voter in New York;
  • A voter in Wyoming has 70 times the representation in the Senate as a voter in California;
  • The Republican Senate majority that recently confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, was elected by 14 million fewer votes than the 47 senators who voted against her confirmation;
  • In the 2020 presidential election, Al Gore garnered 543,895 more votes than George Bush, but Bush became president
  • In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton received 2,868,686 more votes than Donald Trump and…well, you know what happened
  • In 2020, Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Joe Biden by more than 7 million votes, but because of his (undoubtably) illegal attempt to manipulate Electoral College votes in a number of key states, he claimed that he “won in a landslide” and the “election was stolen” from him. And, MORE THAN 70% OF REPUBLICAN VOTERS BELIEVE HIM!

Sorry to be such a downer. But what better day to publish a story like this on Independence Day? The day that these words were codified:

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

Kingly tyranny then, minority tyranny now. Not much progress

Let me close with this. In the U.S. we celebrate Independence Day every July 4th. Interestingly, while we do have a “Constitution Day” federal holiday in the United States, it was only established in 2004 as an amendment(!) to an Omnibus spending bill. And I’d bet before reading this, most people didn’t know of the existence of this “Constitution Day,” nor when it falls (September 17). Now that you know, will you walk around next September 17 wishing friends and neighbors a “Happy Constitution Day?” You won’t…unless you like people muttering under their breath, “Who’s the nutcase?”

But when many of us were in grammar school, there was one thing, besides the “Pledge of Allegiance” we were required to memorize; the “Preamble to the Constitution of the United States.” In case you forgot, it goes like this:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Did we actually think about those memorized words back then. If you were like me, you didn’t. But should we be thinking about them now? Thinking about how some of those words have played out in the past 200+ years?

  • …form a more perfect union;
  • …establish justice;
  • …insure domestic Tranquility;
  • …promote the general Welfare;
  • …secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

You be the judge. Are we a “perfect union?” Is there “justice” for all? Does “domestic Tranquility” co-exist with January 6? Are we really willing to promote the “general (i.e., everyone’s ) Welfare?” We’re the “Posterity;” have we really been “blessed” by Liberty?

Happy July 4th to one and to all!

Published by Ted Block

Ted Block is a veteran “Mad Man,” having spent 45+ years in the advertising industry. During his career, he was media director of several advertising agencies, including Benton & Bowles in New York and Foote, Cone and Belding in San Francisco; account management director on clients as varied as Clorox, Levi’s and the California Raisin Advisory Board (yes, Ted was responsible for the California Dancing Raisins campaign); and regional director for Asia based in Tokyo for Foote, Cone where he was also the founding president of FCB’s Japanese operations. Ted holds a Bachelor’s degree in communications from Queens College and, before starting in advertising, served on active duty as an officer on USS McCloy (DE-1038) in the U.S. Navy. Besides writing Around the Block, Ted is also a guest columnist for the Palm Beach Post.

5 thoughts on “The enigma of the American Democracy

  1. A few comments.

    You can’t have freedom and equality at the same time. People have different talents and abilities. People are nor biologically created equal.

    Something cannot be more perfect. My eighth grade English teacher would explode if I gad written perfect, more perfect and most perfect as a conjugation if the word perfect. It us either perfect or it is not. Perfect means it can’t be improved.

    A democracy is where a majority vote wins. In a democracy snd law, including the constitution can be changed by majority vote. We don’t have that . Constitution can’t be amended by majority vote of the legislature or even of the people. The dictionary you quoted should be updated to correct the definition.

    In 1790, you had a republic or a monarchy. Not a republic or a democracy. Meaning the head of government was hereditary from one kung to the next by divine right, or the head of government was selected by citizens or people. Not by a majority vote of all people, but by a group of people selected by some process devised among themselves. But my point is, not be a majority vote of all the people,

    The choice was to establish a written constitution with rules and rights which was made almost impossible to amend. Or to establish a legislature which could change any law by majority vote. The founders chose the former.

    The choice is king tyranny, minority tyranny or majority tyranny. A democracy would be majority tyranny. Our founders were not in favor of that. They chose something else.

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  2. Excellent “civics class” Ted! Enjoyed it very much except for the lingering truths that the majority of votes does not always get the person the populace wanted!

    The Electoral College is antiquated in this day and age and only a tool to subvert popular opinion for the republicans at this point.

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  3. Teddy Downer … and you’re just reflecting the feelings of many of us. Were we like the frog in the slowly boiling American pot, and just didn’t notice the heat was rising? Or was it not taking trump seriously, seeing him as a buffoon who could never win. New Yorkers did, laughing at him, after many years of reading his exploits on ‘Page Six’.

    And mostly not understanding the feelings of the great unwashed, who jumped at any opportunity to vote for someone who told them ‘they were right to be pissed off’ … and he would “fix it”.

    And that’s how I feel thousands of miles across the sea. Can only begin to imagine how you all feel.

    Keep the faith … if there’s any left.

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  4. This is not going to be a helpful comment, but more apoc.y.?ryphal! There are so many things wrong with your nation right now, and though I fight for you as hard as I can, the time could be very near when you decide there are too many things wrong! Maybe it is time to gather up the things you do right, and scrap the rest. Start over, but from a higher position. The real power seems to stand in the hands of those who want to destroy your nation. Perhaps (a big perhaps) you should let them desttroy it, and then rebuild it on the ruins of the old one.

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