By Stephen Palmer
May 18, 2008
The common belief — which is grossly incorrect — is that the American form of government is a democracy.
Our founders were clear that democracy is the worst form of government.
A more correct — albeit simplistic — answer is that we are a republic.
A more sophisticated answer is that we are a constitutional republic.
The most thorough answer comes from the Federalist Papers.
James Madison didn’t use these exact words, but he described the American form of government as an Extended Limited Commercial Federal Democratic Republic.
“Extended” refers to geography — never before in history has there been a republic that covered so much territory.
“Limited” refers to the fact that the Constitution expressly defines what the government can and cannot do.
Commercial refers to our national character.
The Founders said that there were three main national characters: martial, religious, and commercial. Rome had a martial character, as does China. Ancient Israel had a religious character.
Since religious and martial-character nations tend toward tyranny, the Founders chose commercial.
By federal, Madison meant as much power as possible was preserved with the People, and that the federal government only existed for specific and limited purposes.
The idea of federalism is that the closer one gets to the People the more power there is, while the closer one gets to the federal government, the less power one finds.
Democratic refers to the idea that we are a social democracy, although not a governmental democracy.
Social democracy is the concept that intrinsic in our culture is the understanding that all men and women are created equal, that no individual is better than another, and that everyone has equal opportunity to succeed.
Why It Matters for Freedom
As James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper #10:
“…democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
“Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.”
In a pure democracy, all it takes to pass a policy is simple majority vote. But what happens if the policy encroaches upon unalienable rights? If 51 percent vote in favor of it, the 49 percent who voted against it will be tyrannized.
Furthermore, what always happens in a democracy is that very few people are even actively involved — which means that it always degenerates into some type of aristocracy or oligarchy, or rule by few.
To quote James Madison again:
“A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.
“The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
“The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, 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.
“Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.”
In other words, a republic has a much greater chance of protecting and preserving unalienable rights than does a democracy.
Democracies in history have always degenerated into mobocracies that tyrannize minorities, and they have always failed.
Beware of those who say the American form of government is a democracy — they will infringe upon your unalienable rights in the name of equality.