The Constitutional Convention in 1787 met behind closed doors and no one outside knew what had transpired in there. As Benjamin Franklin left the Independence Hall on the final day of deliberations – Mrs Powel of Philadelphia asked him “Well, Doctor, what have we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic, if you can keep it”, Ben Franklin replied.
Often this conversation has been misquoted as “A democracy, if you can keep it”. NRA’s Charleton Heston misquoted Franklin this way in a CBS 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace on December 20, 1998. For obvious reasons.
There is an inherent difference between a democracy and a republic. While democracy is the rule of the majority where vote and its voice is supreme; a Republic is built on laws which go beyond the majority rule.
The rights that citizens of the US have are NOT given to them by the majority, but “by their Creator” by virtue of being born human and being citizens of the US.
Because US is a Republic and not merely a democracy, these right cannot be usurped or violated by an unrestrained majority or by any monarch or tyrant. These rights enshrined in the Constitution are unassailable.
The US democracy is a representative democracy and not a ‘pure’ or direct one. That is where the concept of electoral college also comes in. Which, unfortunately, brings its own form of misrepresentation. This distinction has been drawn by many like John Adams, Noah Webster, St. George Tucker in Blackstone, and Thomas Jefferson.
James Wilson, one of the chief architects of the US Constitution differentiated between three forms of government – monarchical, aristocratical, and democratical – and asserted that in a democracy (representative or direct), the power is “inherent in the people, and is either exercised by themselves or by their representatives.”
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If one really looks at it, being a Republic is far more important than being a Democracy. However, a Democracy will descend into a Mobocracy if it is not a Republic. And Republic will become Tyrannical if not a Democracy! That has been the conventional wisdom. But is majority viewpoint always aligned to lawful conduct of the society?
What if there is a battle between the deepest prejudices of the majority and the collective human aspirations? What if democracy comes out of a society that has a history of human divide?
This feature of majority’s whims being supreme as opposed to rule of law were brought out beautifully by EB White:
It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. (Source)
As democracies around the world are seeing major changes in their soul itself – pushing for a nationalistic and less pluralistic societies, there is concern whether those who represent the majoritarian views do understand the crux of the Constitution that has ensured them to form governments. Trump, for example, not only has rather rudimentary, if any, understanding of US Constitution, but worse is derisive of those who know its letter and spirit.
When majority’s whims run into conflict with laws that came out of aspirational ideals that laws of the land are based on, then a tyrant is wont to upend the primacy of the society being a Republic with it being a Democracy as the primary goal. That is the reason why NRA’s Heston misquoted Franklin to make US into a nation that followed the dictates of the majority as opposed to being a nation of laws and rules.
Trump’s derision of those who insist on the word of Constitution is also to pave the way to take away the rule of law by installing the rule of the majority. Majority as defined narrowly by the electoral process. And, in this case, an electoral process which has failed to be representational (Hillary won the popular vote by 2.84 million (2.05% of the total votes cast!).
The question that one needs to revisit is the question the Mrs Powel asked Ben Franklin and his reply to her. We were bequeathed a Republic, not a democracy primarily. Can we keep it anymore?