Occasionally, to make a point, a pundit or Internet troll will pompously assert that the United States “is a republic, not a democracy.” The occasion for this sophistry is usually when something that the majority of people favor goes against what the writer wants. Well, the statement is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go quite far enough — a democracy, you’ll recall, is based on majority rule, period, and as such is prey to what John Adams called “the tyranny of the majority,” wherein the needs/rights/concerns of the minority are ignored or trampled.
A republic, on the other hand, is a form of government that is established by a charter that lays out the broad outlines of governance and that is administered by representatives of those who are being governed, with a head of state whose powers are derived from the charter and whose office is not hereditary.
The United States was the first country to institute a hybrid of these two, called a “democratic republic.” In this form, most fully elaborated by Madison in Federalist Paper number 10, the source of the power of the government is the citizenry and is exercised through representatives who are accountable to the citizens by means of frequent re-election (or not) and such safeguards as initiative, referendum, and recall. The Constitution, the charter of this democratic republic has, over the years, become increasingly sensitive to the danger of the tyranny of the majority, and so the rights of minorities — minority voting blocs, minority races, genders, sexual preferences, religions, etc., have come under greater and greater protection.
In government over the past four years the notion of “majority” has been stretched to its thinnest. The executive branch has been held by the Democrats, with the legislative branch split. Even in the judiciary, the Supreme Court has often split 5-4 on important issues. The popular vote in the presidential election was won by about 2.2 million votes out of a total of approximately 125 million cast, or 3.3 percent. In 2004 George W. Bush won by 2.4 percent and claimed a mandate of “political capital,” so some have claimed an even “greater” mandate for President Obama, but as I said in this column a couple of weeks ago, “mandate” is in the eye of the beholder.
What does seem clear is that governing in this climate must be based on collaboration and compromise. Either party has the power to stop the wheels of government by itself, but neither has the ability to govern alone. The country cannot afford the gridlock we have seen for the past four years — there are important matters that must be dealt with — health care, the deficit, climate change, jobs. The litany is as familiar as it is daunting, but without action things can only get worse, and action is only possible if both sides are willing to work together.
President Obama has shown a certain willingness to compromise. On the other hand he was elected to lead and govern and his platform was clear, so in all integrity and good conscience there are places where he will and must stand. He has already said as much on the issue of extending the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy, and it seems reasonable to expect similar stands on health care and some other areas. Members of the GOP have shown encouraging signs of flexibility — repudiation of the “Grover Norquist pledge” has begun and will hopefully grow. John McCain’s rants notwithstanding, it seems reasonable to hope that if the president nominates Susan Rice for Secretary of State in his second term, that nomination will be considered on its merits and not on the specious grounds of a statement made during the Benghazi tragedy. Whatever their public rhetoric, all but the most rigidly doctrinaire right-wingers in the Republican Party must recognize that the most extreme elements of their platform were rejected in the election.
I’m not suggesting that this means the GOP should just roll over or that the Democrats should try to roll over them — on the contrary, if we are to be true to what the Founders intended in establishing the world’s first democratic republic, both sides should recognize that there is support for both views and that only compromise and collaboration will allow for effective action against the very real problems we are facing. Woody Allen said, “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” In this case the correct choice is neither, but a new path forged by reason and the triumph of concern for the general welfare over narrow partisan interests.
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