Sunday, March 12, 2017

Federal Republic

"Now, you're not naive enough to think that we're living in a democracy, are you, Buddy?"
--Gordon Gekko (Wall Street)

When quizzed about the form of government put forth by our founding ancestors, many people reflexively call it a democracy. This is mistaken. The United States was designed as a federal republic.

Federal refers to a system of government where states unify (the United States) and delegate some authority to a central (federal) government. The states retain all powers not expressly delegated to the central government so that they can remain independent in their own affairs.

Republic means that the people hold the supreme power of the land. They exercise that power through elected representatives, through laws and a legal system that represent them, and the right to secession. Representation via elections does not necessarily mean that all citizens of a republic are allowed to vote, that all votes count equally, or that decisions are based on simple majority (50%+) vote.

Classically defined, democracy is a system of government where decisions are made by the faction who can marshal the most votes. It its purest form, democracy constitutes discretionary rule. Laws are determined by the dominant faction and change when the faction changes.

One way of thinking about the difference between a republic and a democracy is that in a republic, sovereignty rests with the individual while in a democracy, sovereignty rests with a group.

Our founding ancestors were famously skeptical of pure democracies. The word 'democracy' does not appear in the Declaration, the US Constitution, or any of the original state constitutions.

The founders did, of course, envision that much of the power vested in the people of the United States republic would be enacted through voting and elections. But few decisions regarding federal government representatives were specified to be made by classic democratic majority rule-type voting. The president was to be elected via an Electoral College that, while requiring more than half of its votes to be cast for the winning candidate, overweighted the votes of smaller, less populated states in order to increase their voice in the matter.

Senators were to be chosen by state legislatures (subsequently modified by the 17th Amendment). The six year senatorial appointments (subsequently elections) were staggered so that 1/3 of the Senate would change every two years. Supreme Court justices were to be nominated by the president with the approval of the Senate.

Only the House of Representatives (house of 'commons') was to be composed of representatives "chosen every second Year by the People of the several States." But even in this case, because there is no constitutional specification for a majority vote, it can be assumed that each state has discretion in deciding how the voting process would work.

It should also be noted that the framers specified several situations requiring super-majority votes. Treaties proposed by the president, for example, required 2/3 approval by the Senate. Constitutional amendments required 2/3 approval from both the House and the Senate followed by ratification of the amendment by 3/4 of the states.

Indeed, our founding ancestors seemed intent on avoiding, and in some cases confounding, pure democratic majority vote decision making processes in order to preserve the federal republic design.

No comments: