Democratic Republicanism in Early America

There was much debate and confusion around various terms, in early America.

The word ‘democracy’ wasn’t used on a regular basis at the time of the American Revolution, even as the ideal of it was very much in the air. Instead, the word ‘republic’ was used by most people back then to refer to democracy. But some of the founding fathers such as Thomas Paine avoided such confusion and made it clear beyond any doubt by speaking directly of ‘democracy’. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the first founding document and 3rd president, formed a political party with both ‘democratic’ and ‘republican’ in the name, demonstrating that no conflict was seen between the two terms.

The reason ‘democracy’ doesn’t come up in founding documents is that the word is too specific, although it gets alluded to when speaking of “the People” since democracy is literally “people power”. Jefferson, in writing the Declaration of Independence, was particularly clever in avoiding most language that evoked meaning that was too ideologically singular and obvious (e.g., he effectively used rhetoric to avoid the divisive debates for and against belief in natural law). That is because the founding documents were meant to unite a diverse group of people with diverse opinions. Such a vague and ambiguous word as ‘republic’ could mean almost anything to anyone and so was an easy way to paper over disagreements and differing visions. If more specific language was used that made absolutely clear what they were actually talking about, it would have led to endless conflict, dooming the American experiment from the start.

Yet it was obvious from pamphlets and letters that many American founders and revolutionaries wanted democracy, in whole or part, to the degree they had any understanding of it. Some preferred a civic democracy with some basic social democratic elements and civil rights, while others (mostly Anti-Federalists) pushed for more directly democratic forms of self-governance. The first American constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was clearly a democratic document with self-governance greatly emphasized. Even among those who were wary of democracy and spoke out against it, they nonetheless regularly used democratic rhetoric (invoking democratic ideals, principles, and values) because democracy was a major reason why so many fought the revolution in the first place. If not for democracy, there was little justification for and relevance in starting a new country, beyond a self-serving power grab by a new ruling elite.

Without assuming that large number of those early Americans had democracy in mind, their speaking of a republic makes no sense. And that is a genuine possibility for at least some of them, as they weren’t always clear in their own minds about what they did and didn’t mean. To be technical (according to even the common understanding from the 1700s), a country either is a democratic republic or a non-democratic republic. The variety of non-democratic republics would include what today we’d call theocracy, fascism, communism, etc. It is a bit uncertain exactly what kind of republic various early Americans envisioned, but one thing is certain: There was immense overlap and conflation between democracy and republicanism in the early American mind. This was the battleground of the fight between Federalists and Anti-Federalists (or to be more accurate, between pseudo-Federalists and real Federalists).

As a label, stating something is a republic says nothing at all about what kind of government it is. All that it says is what a government isn’t, that is to say it isn’t a monarchy, although there were even those who argued for republican monarchy with an elective king which is even more confused and so the king theoretically would serve the citizenry that democratically elected him. Even some of the Federalists talked about this possibility of republic with elements of a monarchy, strange as it seems to modern Americans. This is what the Anti-Federalists worried about.

Projecting our modern ideological biases onto the past is the opposite of helpful. The earliest American democrats were, by definition, republicans. And most of the earliest American republicans were heavily influenced by democratic political philosophy, even when they denounced it while co-opting it. There was no way to avoid the democratic promise of the American Revolution and the founding documents. Without that promise, we Americans would still be British. That promise remains, yet unfulfilled. The seed of an ideal is hard to kill once planted.

Still, bright ideals cast dark shadows. And the reactionary authoritarianism of the counter-revolutionaries was a powerful force. It is an enemy we still fight. The revolution never ended.

* * *

Democracy Denied: The Untold Story
by Arthur D. Robbins
Kindle Locations 2862-2929

Fascism has been defined as “an authoritarian political ideology (generally tied to a mass movement) that considers individual and other societal interests inferior to the needs of the state, and seeks to forge a type of national unity, usually based on ethnic, religious, cultural, or racial attributes.”[ 130] If there is a significant difference between fascism thus defined and the society enunciated in Plato’s Republic,[ 131] in which the state is supreme and submission to a warrior class is the highest virtue, I fail to detect it. [132] What is noteworthy is that Plato’s Republic is probably the most widely known and widely read of political texts, certainly in the United States, and that the word “republic” has come to be associated with democracy and a wholesome and free way of life in which individual self-expression is a centerpiece.

To further appreciate the difficulty that exists in trying to attach specific meaning to the word “republic,” one need only consult the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.[ 133] There one will find a long list of republics divided by period and type. As of this writing, there are five listings by period (Antiquity, Middle Ages and Renaissance, Early Modern, 19th Century, and 20th Century and Later), encompassing 90 separate republics covered in Wikipedia. The list of republic types is broken down into eight categories (Unitary Republics, Federal Republics, Confederal Republics, Arab Republics, Islamic Republics, Democratic Republics, Socialist Republics, and People’s Republics), with a total of 226 entries. There is some overlap between the lists, but one is still left with roughly 300 republics— and roughly 300 ideas of what, exactly, constitutes a republic.

One might reasonably wonder what useful meaning the word “republic” can possibly have when applied in such diverse political contexts. The word— from “res publica,” an expression of Roman (i.e., Latin) origin— might indeed apply to the Roman Republic, but how can it have any meaning when applied to ancient Athens, which had a radically different form of government existing in roughly the same time frame, and where res publica would have no meaning whatsoever?

Let us recall what was going on in Rome in the time of the Republic. Defined as the period from the expulsion of the Etruscan kings (509 B.C.) until Julius Caesar’s elevation to dictator for life (44 B.C.),[ 134] the Roman Republic covered a span of close to five hundred years in which Rome was free of despotism. The title rex was forbidden. Anyone taking on kingly airs might be killed on sight. The state of affairs that prevailed during this period reflects the essence of the word “republic”: a condition— freedom from the tyranny of one-man rule— and not a form of government. In fact, The American Heritage College Dictionary offers the following as its first definition for republic: “A political order not headed by a monarch.”

[…] John Adams (1735– 1826), second President of the United States and one of the prime movers behind the U.S. Constitution, wrote a three-volume study of government entitled Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (published in 1787), in which he relies on the writings of Cicero as his guide in applying Roman principles to American government.[ 136] From Cicero he learned the importance of mixed governments,”[ 137] that is, governments formed from a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. According to this line of reasoning, a republic is a non-monarchy in which there are monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements. For me, this is confusing. Why, if one had just shed blood in unburdening oneself of monarchy, with a full understanding of just how pernicious such a form of government can be, would one then think it wise or desirable to voluntarily incorporate some form of monarchy into one’s new “republican” government? If the word “republic” has any meaning at all, it means freedom from monarchy.

The problem with establishing a republic in the United States was that the word had no fixed meaning to the very people who were attempting to apply it. In Federalist No. 6, Alexander Hamilton says, “Sparta, Athens, Rome and Carthage were all republics”( F.P., No. 6, 57). Of the four mentioned, Rome is probably the only one that even partially qualifies according to Madison’s definition from Federalist No. 10 (noted earlier): “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place,” in which government is delegated “to a small number of citizens elected by the rest” (ibid, No. 10, 81-82).

Madison himself acknowledges that there is a “confounding of a republic with a democracy” and that people apply “to the former reasons drawn from the nature of the latter ”( ibid., No. 14, 100). He later points out that were one trying to define “republic” based on existing examples, one would be at a loss to determine the common elements. He then goes on to contrast the governments of Holland, Venice, Poland, and England, all allegedly republics, concluding, “These examples … are nearly as dissimilar to each other as to a genuine republic” and show “the extreme inaccuracy with which the term has been used in political disquisitions.”( ibid., No. 39, 241).

Thomas Paine offers a different viewpoint: “What is now called a republic, is not any particular form of government. It is wholly characteristical [sic] of the purport, matter, or object for which government ought to be instituted, and on which it is to be employed, res-publica, the public affairs or the public good” (Paine, 369) (italics in the original). In other words, as Paine sees it, “res-publica” describes the subject matter of government, not its form.

Given all the confusion about the most basic issues relating to the meaning of “republic,” what is one to do? Perhaps the wisest course would be to abandon the term altogether in discussions of government. Let us grant the word has important historical meaning and some rhetorical appeal. “Vive la Republique!” can certainly mean thank God we are free of the tyranny of one-man, hereditary rule. That surely is the sense the word had in early Rome, in the early days of the United States, and in some if not all of the French and Italian republics. Thus understood, “republic” refers to a condition— freedom from monarchy— not a form of government.

* * *

Roger Williams and American Democracy
US: Republic & Democracy
 (part two and three)
Democracy: Rhetoric & Reality
Pursuit of Happiness and Consent of the Governed
The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation
The Vague and Ambiguous US Constitution
Wickedness of Civilization & the Role of Government
Spirit of ’76
A Truly Free People
Nature’s God and American Radicalism
What and who is America?
Thomas Paine and the Promise of America
About The American Crisis No. III
Feeding Strays: Hazlitt on Malthus
Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
American Paternalism, Honor and Manhood
Revolutionary Class War: Paine & Washington
Paine, Dickinson and What Was Lost
Betrayal of Democracy by Counterrevolution
Revolutions: American and French (part two)
Failed Revolutions All Around
The Haunted Moral Imagination
“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”
“…from every part of Europe.”

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence
A Vast Experiment
America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest
When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

Against Capitalism: Democracy & Socialism


This post is inspired by some articles I’ve been reading and by a discussion I was having with my pro-capitalist conservative father. The subject that I write about below involves the analysis of capitalism, socialism, social democracy, and democracy. My intentions weren’t to create a singular coherent argument backed by numerous cited examples. I just wanted to clarify some basic distinctions that aren’t well understood by the average person, especially the average conservative and right-winger (probably not even understood by the average liberal).

I will divide this post up into two parts. The first part was my response to a specific article. The second part is various thoughts of mine that I gathered together.

Part 1

Socialists everywhere – The Daily Iowan

In ancient Rome, the emperors provided the capital’s inhabitants with “bread and circuses.”  Ever since, that combination has been shorthand for rulers buying off the ruled with the necessities of life and spectacle.

“In Rome, that spectacle involved gladiatorial and other elaborate games of death that took place in the Colosseum.  In this age, our rulers, the 1% whose money has flooded the electoral cycle, are turning the election itself into our extended circus.  This year, a series of Republican televised “debates” have glued increasing numbers of eyeballs to screens — and not just Republican eyeballs, either.  Everyone waits for the latest version of a reality show to produce the next cat fight, fabulous gaffe, late-night laugh line, confession, denial, scandal, or plot twist, the next thumbs up or, far better, thumbs down on some candidate’s increasingly brief political life in the arena.

“Think of it as their bread and our circus.  Who can doubt that, like the crowds of Rome once upon a time, we await the inevitable thumbs-down vote and the YouTube videos that precede and follow it with a kind of continuing bloodlust?  The only problem: however strange all this may be, it’s not, at least in the old-fashioned sense, an election nor does it seem to have much to do with democracy.  The fact is that we have no word for what’s going on.  Semi-democracy?  Unrepresentative democracy?  1% democracy?  Demospectacracy?

“Of course, we still speak of this as a presidential election campaign, and it’s true that 11 months from now more than 60% of the voting age population will step into polling booths across the country and cast ballots.  But let’s face it, if this is an election at all, it’s certainly one stricken with elephantiasis.  Once, as now, a presidential race had primaries, conventions, campaigning, mudslinging, and sometimes even a few debates, but all of this had limits.  In recent years, the limits — almost any limits — have been disappearing.  Along the way, the process has expanded from an eight-month-long affair that most voters only began to attend to sometime in the fall of election year to a perpetual campaign, perpetually discussed, reported on, and displayed.

[ . . . ]

“What any of this has to do with democracy, as opposed to spectacle, influence, corruption, the power of the incredibly wealthy to pay for and craft messages, and the power of media owners to enhance their profits is certainly an open question. Think, at least, how literally the old phrase “money talks” is being updated every time you hear the candidates, or see their ads, or get a robocall from one of them, or receive a geo-targeted mobile adof theirs on your iPhone or Android.

“It’s clear enough — or should be by now — that the electoral process has been occupied by the 1%; which means that what you hear in this “campaign” is largely refracted versions of their praise, their condemnation, their slurs, their views, their needs, their fears, and their wishes.  They are making money off, and electing a president via, you.  Which means that you — that all of us — are occupied, too.

“So stop calling this an “election.”  Whatever it is, we need a new name for it.”

 * * * *

I was having a discussion with my dad about a related topic. We were discussing welfare. Surprisingly, his conservative and my liberal views on the matter converge on a certain agreement. Welfare, as it is presently structured, is like the Roman’s “bread and circus” (or, at least, the bread part which is balanced by the media circus, especially the political media circus).

This is the problem. Bread and circus isn’t merely dysfunction. Welfare works, but it just doesn’t effectively solve the problems some would like it to solve. What bread and circus did for the Romans was to prevent revolution and that is what welfare does for many countries in the modern world, the US being the focus of the discussion. If welfare were to end tomorrow, revolution would begin tomorrow. Welfare is the bandaid put on the gushing wound of capitalism.

Even my dad agreed, despite his being a libertarian-leaning fiscal conservative former businessman and former business management professor. My dad is a well off white conservative and so it would be easy for him to simply blame the poor, the minorities, the immigrants… as many like him (in this demographic niche) do on a regular basis.

 * * * *

My dad explained his reasons.

From my point of view: The manual labor jobs are simultaneously decreasing in number and in pay, partly because of outsourcing of industry and because machines and computers have made many jobs more efficient while making many other jobs obsolete.

From my dad’s point of view: What has increased are knowledge jobs that are worked by people who have high levels of education and tend to have above average levels of intelligence.

This presents two problems.

The first problem my dad pointed out. The portion of the population that is highly educated and above average in intelligence isn’t increasing, generally speaking. The proportion of society remains basically the same. Throughout history, manual labor was always the primary employment available… until now. So, what is to be done with all the excess and unnecessary people who are less educated and/or average-to-below-average in intelligence? We keep those people in place by giving them welfare so that they don’t starve, so that they don’t turn to crime and revolution.

The second problem I pointed out. It is in an extension of the first. As far as I can tell, there is no clear evidence against and much reason to assume that the increase in certain sectors of jobs (such as knowledge jobs) isn’t keeping up with the decrease in other sectors of jobs (such as manural labor). This is particularly true recently. A lot of jobs have been lost. Despite big businesses doing better than ever, despite companies gaining more efficient work and hence more profit from their employees, big businesses aren’t hiring more which comes after a period when they got rid of vast amounts of employees. According to our present capitalist model, there is no reason they should hire more people.

On top of this, also consider the loss of benefits and job security, consider the stagnating wages along with the inflation and rising costs that are making those wages worth less, consider rising economic inequality along with its attendant social and health problems… and I’m sure many other factors could be added.

 * * * *

I was particularly focused on the aspect of technology replacing humans. Even some high-paying knowledge jobs are becoming obsolete.

For example, I was reading about how many newpapers no longer hire proofreaders because editing software does a good enough job. On the other end, my job as a parking ramp cashier is being threatened because management wants to put in all self-pay stations. Similarly, at O’Hare airport I’ve heard that the toilets are self-cleaning. Within the next decades, many jobs will become obsolete because of technology. Any job that is manual, repetitive, systematic or somehow with clear rules and goals (which includes many knowledge jobs) will eventually be replaced by robots and computers (maybe as a member of the older generation, my dad has faith that robots and computers won’t replace humans, a misplaced faith in my opinion).

Most jobs people do now won’t exist in the future. Furthermore, if capitalism is left to its own devices, these jobs won’t necessarily be replaced by better jobs or might not be replaced at all. So, either we have a capitalist society where welfare and oppression (our growing prison system being an example) keeps the unemployed in line or we develop a new type of economic and social system. More of the same or something new. Those are the only two choices.

* * * *

My understanding always refers back to democracy by which I mean the entire range of social democracy. I suggested to my father that we need more civic participation and engagement (an anarchist hearing this would immediately start ranting about statism). What we have now is the opposite.

Republicans have been trying to disengage much of the population such as by making voting even more difficult which inevitably further disenfranchises the poor and minorities (not to imply the Democratic Party has been trying to engage the disenfranchised to any great extent; it’s simply that the Democrats don’t attack this demographic in the way Republicans often do). This is predictable as conservatives have an inherent mistrust of democracy, but conservatives also used to have an inherent mistrust of capitalism and some conservatives are starting to wonder why they lost this mistrust. It’s hard being a conservative for all they ultimately trust is something like organized religion. Capitalism is merely a protection against socialism and even against true grassroots democracy, but conservatives must assess how well capitalism (especially in its present corporatist form) is protecting those traditional values and individual rights they claim to love so much.

My democratic suggestions, however, do start to appeal to conservatives during troubled times. Conservatives forget about community during economic upswings and find the value in community once again when the pendulum swings back. What conservatives don’t understand is socialism is simply the purest or most absolute form of community. Socialism isn’t about any particular type of community, whether hierachical or anarchistic, whether statist or minarchist. Socialism is just about making community the center of a society. This is simply traditional culture at its roots. Most early people, especially tribal, lived to varying degrees of collectivity. Socialism doesn’t deny individual aspiration or betterment. It just puts it in the context of community rather than putting community in the context of the individual. Individual efforts shouldn’t be a detriment to the community which would also mean to the detriment to all the other individuals in that community. That is insanity, our present insanity in fact.

In the discussion with my father, my specific suggestion was something like a works project. We have so much decaying infrastructure. We have so many things that need to be done in our society that no one is doing. At the same time, we have so many unemployed people who aren’t doing much despite most of them wanting to do something worthy. Most people don’t want to sit around doing nothing. People want to have meaning and purpose, to feel like they are contributing to their familes and their communities, to know that they are using their talents and at least to some degree living up to their potential. We have cities filled with trash, parks closed down for lack of money to maintain them, we have public employees being fired because of budgetary concerns, and on and on. Much of this work can be done (at minimal costs, relative to the costs of welfare) by the unemployed which includes both the educated and the uneducated, although in some cases such as construction basic training might be required (the training itself would be a good thing as it would also make them more employable in the private market).

In the past, my dad was always suspicious of such ideas. They verge on the socialist. However, when speaking with him last night, I was able to communicate the potential wisdom and benefit of such a proposal. My dad still thinks socialism doesn’t work, although through various examples (the sewer socialists, the Harmonists, etc) I’ve brought doubt to his former certainties. What he still doesn’t quite grasp is that socialism and social democracy are just different degrees of the same phenomenon.

Part 2

Democracy and capitalism are at odds. Democracy moves toward diffusion of and sharing of power. Capitalism, unlike a free market (a free market being a hypothetical that has never existed on the large scale, large corporations become bureaucracies and use centralized planning just like any socialist state), moves toward monopoly of power (by way of monopolizing capital: he who rules the capital rules capitalism). Democracy can only function when there is a functioning social democracy. Social democracy is simply the first and most basic manifestation of socialism. Democracy, social democracy and socialism are antithetical to capitalism, but they aren’t antithetical to any genuine free market.

See the real world examples of socialism in the US. The Shakers and Harmonists, although failing because of their celibacy rules, were some of the most successful and innovative businesses in the US when they were operating, both societies having existed for about a century. The sewer socialist mayors of Milwaukee, social democracy at its finest, governed one of the most well run cities for decades which they did so by fighting corrupt big business and promoting local small businesses that contributed to the community (maybe closer to a genuine free market), a time during which the economy boomed in Milwaukee. The collectivist Eastwind Community (a living example of a commune) has operated a number of successful businesses for decades.

The sad irony is that to fight against communism is to fight against democracy. Neither socialism nor democracy can exist without the other. Communist countries that undermine democracy will fail, just like democratic societies that undermine socialism/social-democracy will fail. It’s not an all or nothing scenario. It’s a balancing act of simultaneously seeking the common good, public freedom, and individual rights.

 * * * *

As I talked to my dad last night, I pointed out the example of Milwaukee. He said that is more an example of social democracy. Yes, but that misses the point. Social democracy is just one facet of socialism.

Conservatives like my dad (along with many misinformed moderates and, sadly, liberals as well) don’t recognize the socialism in social democracy for a simple reason. They don’t actually know what socialism is. They have such a distorted vision of socialism as bogeyman that any real example of functioning socialism must be rationalized away or somehow seen as a very limited exception… and so not worthy of being taken seriously.

At the time in the US, what the Milwaukee sewer socialists had been doing was radical socialism. They were collectivizing many aspects of society that had formerly been left private. The socialists made these things part of the government because the private sector was failing at it or not even attempting to do it. The private sector didn’t care about pollution, about clean air and clearn water, especially not in terms of the poor. The owners and operators of big businesses that were causing most of the pollution didn’t care that poor people were dying. They didn’t care because they could afford to live far away from the polluted areas and they could afford to have clean water brought to them.

The Milwaukee sewer socialists were so successful that their brand of socialism has become the norm in the US. Also, it wasn’t that all of this was simply spending other people’s money to help the poor. As I’ve already pointed out, during their time of governing, their policies helped make the local economy boom. They did this by prosecuting corruption and regulating the crony capitalism that was rife among big businesses at the time.

Like many conservatives and right-wingers, my dad is always repeating the talking point that socialism is the spending of other people’s money.

First, this is a generalization that is based on many unstated assumptions (ownership isn’t as simple as those on the right assume; as Paine correctly noted all of the earth — all the land, air, water and other resources — is part of the commons, private individual ownership being a very recent concept).

Second, it could be turned around by pointing out that capitalists use other people’s resources to make their profits in the first place (they use the commons that the government sells them at below market prices and usually by the force and protection of the government, force that is paid for by other people’s money being spent to benefit corporations; just think of all the wars the US government keeps having in countries that just happen to have lots of resources such as oil or happen to be key locations near such countries).

I don’t mean to pick on my dad. He is a smart guy. The problem isn’t specifically about him. Most Americans, left and right, are misinformed about socialism. The problem is that he is representative of the average American and hence of the mainstream culture in America. My criticisms go beyond any single person. I grew up in this same culture and it has been a struggle for me as well. We all are born ignorant and we all are bottle-fed propaganda and misinformation. All that we can hope is that our knowledge and awareness increases as we age, a struggle that only ends when we die.

From what I know and understand at this point in my life, this is how I see our dilemma: The choice we are facing at present really isn’t socialism vs capitalism. Rather, the choice is between democratic socialism vs corporatist socialism.

It’s the success of socialism that allows conservatives like my dad do dismiss it as if they weren’t surrounded by it. That is the problem of success on the left. Any progress that is made will eventually be embraced by the right and will become the new norm (for example, in the way most conservatives support Social Security), but the right will never give the left any credit for the new norm even when they benefit from it and take it for granted. People stop seeing the socialist infrastructure of society and only see the capitalist system that is made possible by it.

What they forget is that many things are possible beyond our present corporatist socialism. Capitalism isn’t inevitable. It’s a choice we have collectively made and so we can collectively choose once again. We can choose a socialism that benefits the many instead of just the few.

 * * * *

It’s very simple. Social democracy is the key element to the entire discussion. Here is what social demoocracy proves and demonstrates:

Social democracy is the meeting point of socialism and democracy, and hence it manifests qualities of both depending how fully that meeting is integrated into a functional system. But it goes further. It isn’t just a meeting point or even the manifestation.

Neither democracy nor socialism could exist outside of social democracy. When it is attempted to separate them, one gets democracy or socialism in theory (i.e., in rhetoric) but not in actual practice. The Cold War was a fight of rhetoric between a failing democratic state and a failing socialist state, both in reality fighting over the same imperial power and dominance which had nothing specifically to do with either democracy or socialism.

If you care about either democracy or socialism, you must care about social democracy. And if you care about social democracy, you must care about both socialism and democracy. It’s thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

 * * * *

I’ve heard that socialism doesn’t work so many times from conservatives and right-wingers that it boggles my mind. What does such an assertion even mean?

I pointed to several successful examples of socialism just in the US. I could add many more such examples, especially in the Northern Midwest: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, etc. Even consider North Dakota which most people don’t connect with socialism (‘The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture’ by James R. Shortridge, p. 112):

“North Dakota was the second state to become radical. Its Norwegian settlers, accustomed to a more socialistic system than they found in America, responded strongly to feelings of “absentee control and extortion” by the “grain lords” who controlled the transportation, storage, and grading of their wheat crops. Their political vehicle, the Non-Partisan League, assumed power in 1916, after a 10-year period of incubation, and estabilished a state-owned system of grain elevators, banks, and hail insurance, as well as other measures based on the Wisconsin model.”

Outside of the US, I could also point to some Northern European countries that have socialist governments or else strong socialist traditions within their politics. Also, there are the highly successful European Basque with their socialist-run companies.

The odd part isn’t that these conservatives/​right-wingers are merely claiming that socialism doesn’t work but that it has never worked, that it never will work, that it can’t work. When faced with examples to the contrary, they make excuses.

Anyway, what is the point? It’s like saying tribalism doesn’t work after centuries of genocide having wiped out most tribal societies. Yes, many capitalist societies have been militaristic empires or wannabe empires. And, yes, many socialist attempts have been violently wiped out or otherwise socially oppressed. Is the point merely that capitalists are best because they are the most aggressive in pushing their agenda no matter what the cost? If so, this may be capitalism but it ain’t a free market. Why would someone be proud of such ‘success’ and put it forth as something to strive for?

I could make a similar criticism about free markets. Crony capitalism and corporatism have been endlessly successful, at least in oppressing and destroying all alternatives, but free markets have never succeeded where ever they have been tried. The seeming success of free markets always ends up being their doom when they are taken over by monopolists, plutocrats and fascists.

Furthermore, what is this so-called ‘socialism’ that they think has never been successful in all of history? Talking to people making this argument, I often find that they separate social democracy from socialism. But what is left of socialism if you remove all traces of social democracy? To a socialist-leaning liberal like me, social democracy is the very heart of socialism. There is no hope of socialism without social democracy.

Socialism, in most places, includes: public roads, public libraries, firemen/women, police, ambulances, emergency rooms, basic public goods and services such as water plants, public schools, state colleges, city/county/state/federal parks and public lands, coastal waters, waterways such as rivers and streams, the FDA that ensures the safety of food and drugs, the EPA that keeps the air and water clean enough so that pollution won’t kill you, unemployment benefits, disabilty benefits, welfare, medicare, medicaid, on and on and on. We are surrounded by socialism in endless forms.

Another way to put it, socialism is about the commons, where community merges with sense-of-place (to understand the value of the commons, see this article and this video). Caring about the commons means caring about yourself for the reason that the commons are what defines us as a social species and defines each of us as part of a living community: a community of people and a community of environment. Shared land (resources), shared living (communities), and shared governance (democracy) all meet together in the commons (the manifestation of socialism and social democracy).

In terms of countries, one socialist idea (that more anarchistic socialists disagree with) is a centrally planned economy (which is a way of seeing the economy as part of the commons since it is, after all, a public affair that impacts every person, nothing private about it at all… in the way getting  punched in the nose isn’t private). China’s centrally planned economy has been massively successful (not that I agree with the purposes this serves in the same way I don’t agree with the purposes of the former Harmonists, but purely in terms of economic success it can’t be denied). David Harvey has mentioned that the most successful example of a centrally planned economy was the US during WWII.

In the US, one of the greatest (and one of the most disappointing) examples of socialism is the military with its public-minded purpose, collectivist culture and socialist health care. In terms of how much the government (local and federal) operates and manages, the US itself is an example of successful socialism in action (see: my argument defending the efficiency of government). It’s not that the US is entirely or even mostly socialist, but if you took away the socialism from American society it wouldn’t be recognizable as the country we now know. I realize many are trying to do this by privatizing everything. That would be sad considering that privatizing usually just leads to a dysfunctional socialism where the profits are privatized while the costs continue to be socialized (see: The Conservative Nanny State by Dean Baker).

Like most countries around the world, the US has a mixed economy. It isn’t entirely unregulated capitalism nor is it entirely socialist. It has elements of both. This balance is far from perfect, but we should at least be honest and well-informed enough to acknowledge it for what it is.


I thought I should add some concluding thoughts to clarify where I’m coming from.

I consider myself a liberal, but for the sake of precision it would probably be best to call me a left-liberal. I like the general label of ‘liberal’. The problem is that this label has become almost meaningless. To the right-winger, liberal means left-winger, specifically of the Commie variety. To a left-winger, liberals seem like at best moderates (i.e., centrists defending the status quo of power and wealth) and at worst watered down conservatives (the difference between neoconservatives and neoliberals merely being that of emphasis).

In terms of the above commentary, I promote socialism in a social democracy sense. So, you could call me a sewer socialist or municpial socialist or you could call me a Fabian. I’m not a radical, but I am a strident defender of democracy. My sense of democracy is social democracy. My relationship to socialism is the following. I think social democracy is a stepping stone to socialism in that even those who are afraid of socialism can often accept social democracy. Social democracy is the baby pool of socialism, less scary for those still developing socialist swimming skills. I understand socialism in terms of democracy for I don’t think socialism is possible without democracy. I’m not even sure anti-democratic statism as found in some so-called communist countries can fairly and reasonably be called socialism or no more socialist than any other form of statist government.

I’m not a radical. I believe in reform and I’m not entirely against revolution when all alternatives have become impossible. My lack of radicalism probably is more of a personality trait. I’m not an aggressive person. I like the idea of gradual change and I like the ideal of cooperation/compromise. I don’t want to live in a world of conflict and fighting. Even if a revolution was going on, it might still take a lot to cause me to become a revolutionary.

Even though I could be considered a left-liberal, I can’t quite bring myself to embrace left-wing politics in their entirety. It’s more the attitude of most left-wingers that I can’t embrace. Likewise, I’m sure most left-wingers don’t wish to embrace me. Most socialists probably wouldn’t consider me a fellow traveler. So, my analysis of socialism may not (with heavy emphasis on the ‘not’) be supported by more radical socialists who are the movers and shakers in the socialist movement. I’m more or less an ordinary guy who simply wants to live in a fair and equal society. Even so, I try to keep my knowledge of the world above average when possible. The fact that my moderate liberalism seems radical from a mainstream perspective is no fault of my own.


I was editing this post in order to clean it up a bit and clarify a few things in my writing. As I did this, I was noting my frustration. I was wondering about its source.

In my analysis, I used my dad’s conservatism so as to have something off of which I could bounce my own liberalism. I’m more of a socialist than my dad, but that isn’t saying much. My knowledge of socialism is shaky in that I’ve never done a careful survey of the history of socialism, but I have done some research on it and I have thought about it quite a bit. So, my frustration, instead of being about my limited knowledge, is about how my limited knowledge makes me even more aware of how limited is the knowledge of the average American. It would be nice if everyone, myself included, had a better working knowledge of socialism.

I get into discussions about socialism and it isn’t always clear to me what the word ‘socialism’ means to other people. What often is clear to me is that the way right-wingers and conservatives define socialism isn’t the way socialists define socialism and yet those on the right are perfectly fine with projecting their preconceptions about socialism onto socialists, thus pretending socialists actually believe in the caricature of socialism that anti-socialists portray. If those on the right aren’t criticizing the socialism proposed by socialists, then whose socialism are they criticizing? The only answer I can come up is that those on the right are simply criticizing their own version of socialism. That is fine as far as it goes. I’m willing to bet pretty much all socialists would join in criticizing the right’s distorted and biased dystopian vision of socialism.

Still, I don’t know that this gets at the core of my frustration. I could name many words and ideas that are misunderstood by various people. Those on the right certaintly could do the same thing. Arguments over what something means are dime a dozen. Maybe my frustration is more basic in that the difficulty of communication can feel like a tiring if not impassible barrier. I would be unfair if I blamed this problem entirely on the right. Communication is a two-way street.

So, what is the problem with communicating here? In essence, socialism seems like a rather simple idea. It just means people working together using shared resources toward a shared goal. From my perspective, those on the right aren’t able or willing to see this simple idea and what to make it into something big and scary. Am I wrong about that? What critcisisms of socialism from the right are fair and useful? Everyone knows Stalinism is bad. Even most socialists these days loudly and openly criticize oppressive statism even when it uses the rhetoric of the left-wing.

The real disagreement is elsewhere, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. As far as I can tell: Anything the right doesn’t like about the government is socialism. And anything the right does like about government isn’t socialism. Am I being unfair in that assessment? Am I missing something here? Do I fundamentally not grasp what those on the right are trying to communicate in their criticisms?

I’m trying to understand, but apparently I’m failing.

US: Republic & Democracy (pt 2)

The other day, I wrote a post about the rightwing assertion that the US is a republic and not a democracy (US: Republic & Democracy). The basic confusion is that rightwingers are using a narrow definition of democracy that was used by some of the founding fathers.

“Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths… A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking.” (James Madison, Federalist Papers, the McClean Edition, Federalist Paper #10, page 81, 1788)

What the founding fathers meant by republic is what modern scholars mean by representative democracy. When you get right down to it, rightwingers don’t like ‘democracy’ because it shares the same letters in the same order as the ‘Democratic’ party. Anyways, it’s obvious that the founding fathers weren’t arguing against the democratic process of voting and representation. I don’t think most rightwingers are arguing against that either. So, it all comes down to semantics.

There is no inherent conflict between a republic and a democracy. To clarify, here is the Wikipedia definition of a Republic:

republic is a form of government in which the people or some portion thereof retain supreme control over the government,[1][2] and in which the head of government is not a monarch.[3][4] The word “republic” is derived from the Latin phrase res publica, which can be translated as “a public affair”

Both modern and ancient republics vary widely in their ideology and composition. The most common definition of a republic is a state without a monarch.[3][4] In republics such as the United States and France, the executive is legitimized both by a constitutionand by popular suffrage. In the United States, James Madison defined republic in terms of representative democracy as opposed to direct democracy,[5] and this usage is still employed by many viewing themselves as “republicans”.[6] Montesquieu included bothdemocracies, where all the people have a share in rule, and aristocracies or oligarchies, where only some of the people rule, as republican forms of government.[7]

I noticed someone even dedicated a webpage to this issue, titling it: The “Not a Democracy” Gnomes. The author states he has noticed this rhetoric going back to 2000, but I’m sure it goes back further. It’s just the internet (especially in its growth this past decade) has been a useful medium for popularizing and spreading such viral memes. Here is the first point the author makes:

The Gnomes Rely on an Absurdly Narrow Defnition of “Democracy”: as absolute, direct, simple and immediate majoritarian authority on matters of policy. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, they find problems with “democracy” so defined. They then depend on the reader to assume that their narrow definition of democracy matches the much broader common definition of democracy, and that therefore their criticism applies to that broader definition.

That is the same argument I’ve been making. These rightwingers use a definition so narrow that they make it seem ridiculous. Meanwhile, they ignore the long history of democracy in the real world. It reminds me of a conservative I once debated about the meaning of ‘socialism’. It turns out that this person had such a wide definition of ‘socialism’ that it involved all forms of government. Since he was a anti-statist conservative, it was convenient for him to define all state government as socialist. This is a weird way to win an argument, either over-simplifying or over-generalizing the terms of the debate.

Like me, the author goes on to give the actual, rather than imagined, definition of ‘democracy’:

The ridiculous nature of that argument is clear with the knowledge that a republic (the gnomes’ contrast to democracy) is actually itself one variety of democracy. Let’s look at the Oxford Modern English Dictionary definition of the word:

democracy. 1a) a system of government by the whole population, usually through elected representatives. b) a State so governed….

A “republic“, which provides for governance indirectly through elected representatives, is covered as a possibility under this definition.

The definition of “democracy” stretches back much further, of course, to the Greek, in which demos refers to “the people” and “cracy” to rule or authority. The broadest definition of “democracy” is therefore simply “the rule of the people,” the ideal of a citizenry engaged in civic life and enfranchised to take part in some meaningful fashion in politics, the exercise of decision-making in a sphere of authority (see Oxford here as well). Now why would some parties have a problem with this democratic ideal? Any ideas?

And the second point the author makes:

Proponents of democracy recognize it is an ideal. We do not live in a full democracy, since it has not yet been achieved. Especially after the latest election debacle, we’re all too aware of that. But the pursuit of the democratic ideal in the United States is a righteous quest with a long history, involving an ever-broadening emancipation of citizens. It is an overwhelmingly popular quest, and one which, in my opinion, should continue.

The democratic quest requires for its support a thoroughly educated and informed public, a tolerance for the questioning of authority and the spirit of community. For those who are opposed to these conditions and to their ultimate end, sending out the “not a democracy!” gnomes is a pleasant diversion. But the more educated, the more questioning, and the more civic we become, the more clear it is that the gnomes’ verbal minuet is trivial and therefore irrelevant.

I was wondering about the origin of this rightwing ploy to dismiss democracy. It sounds more like rhetoric than an argument. Somehow it’s being spread which makes me think it’s either a talking point in the rightwing media or else some particular group is using it for an agenda. Whatever the origin or motivation, there is certainly a memetic quality about this simple idea.

I suspected that one source would be Glenn Beck or someone like him. I was correct.

That isn’t surprising, but Glenn Beck isn’t the originator. What Beck preaches has been preached before by many others. So, I wasn’t surprised to see a video by the John Birch Society arguing against democracy.

I also shouldn’t have been surprised to see a video making the same argument in an interview by Alex Jones (interviewing Aaron Russo).

I did find it interesting that Milton Friedman was also spreading the same rhetoric.

If I had to guess, it’s probably the John Birch Society (or other similar groups) who have spread this rhetoric the most. The John Birch Society has been around for a very long time. As I recall, Cleon Skousen had some connection to that group. And, of course, people like Glenn Beck have been heavily influenced/inspired by the tradition of thought that includes Skousen and the John Birch Society. It’s the same tradition of thought that included the KKK back when it was a part of respectable society. This tradition of thought includes very specific beliefs and attitudes: patriotic nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiments, traditional family, white culture/supremacy, and Christian fundamentalism. These are the people who argue that America is a Christian nation. Instead of a democratic republic, they’d prefer to have a theocratic republic.

[…] the society we have which remember is not a democratic society and wasn’t intended to be. If you take a course in political theory here, I’m sure they’ll teach you that the United States is not a democracy. It’s what is called, in the technical literature, a polyarchy. […] Polyarchy is a system in which power resides in the hands so those who Madison called the ‘wealth of the nation’, the responsible class of men; and the rest of the population is fragmented, distracted, allowed to participate… every couple of years, they’re allowed to come and say ‘yes, thank you, we want you to continue another four years’ and they have a little choice among the responsible men, the wealth of the nation. That’s the way the country was founded. It was founded on the principle, explained by Madison in the Constitutional Convention, that the primary goal of the government is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

Reading the Wikipedia article on polyarchy, it’s not clear to me why Chomsky makes this distinction between democracy and polyarchy. Apparently, the originator of the term ‘polyarchy’ didn’t define it as excluding ‘democracy’. In fact, polyarchy would seem to be a specific form of representative democracy. As an anarcho-socialist libertarian, I understand that Chomsky would prefer a more direct form of democracy. It’s interesting that, for different reasons than the rightwinger, Chomsky also wants to narrow the definition of democracy. Whatever the reasons for Chomsky’s argument, Gore Vidal makes a similar assessment about the motivations of the founding fathers (On Europe and why the U.S. is not a democracy):

Many of us are descended from Cromwell’s men. That’s how we became to be such vicious Protestants. Well, if you want to see any of the founders, read the federalist papers. Any one of them looks like he’s near apoplexy, he’s about to have a stroke when he’s talking about the people. They hate the people. They want the people out of government. Their idea of bad government is Pericles in Athens. And that’s just, you know, forbidden country for our founders. They were Republicans, and they wanted a republic based on Rome, secretly based on slavery and based on imperial progress elsewhere in the world.

So from the beginning, we’ve been imperial. From the beginning, we’ve missed the whole point of the republican effort to create a republic in this brave new world.

People argue against the US being a democracy for various reasons. Some, on both the far right and far left, argue that the founding fathers didn’t intend democracy. Others might argue against our government being a democracy but that it includes democratic processes. Some counter that the democratic processes are failing or never existed.

Let me give my analysis. I would argue that our political system is either a type of democracy or, if you’d rather not call it a democracy for ideological reasons, it certainly contains democratic processes going back to the beginning of the country. Yes, these are imperfect, but the point is that they exist even if only in minimal form. I would, furthermore, argue that we don’t need to defend our republic against democracy. There are dangers in both republics and democracies, and I think the two systems balance eachother. I truly doubt it would be possible for a republic to exist entirely without any democratic elements and vice versa. Using the general definition of a republic as being other than a monarchy, a direct democracy would be the most extreme form of a republic. A direct democracy can and has existed on the local levels. Many communities have formed based on direct democracy, but a community would have to remain very small to maintain direct democracy. As an absolute ideal, direct democracy is an abstraction (and so is republicanism).

The founding fathers feared both monarchy and direct democracy…. or, to put it another way, a political system where the select elite has most of the power or a political system where the masses have great power. The founding fathers weren’t against the elite having power as they saw themselves as the elite, but they just wanted to guarantee that the power was evenly or meritocrously spread among all of the elite. They intentionally didn’t want to guarantee the average person (non-whites, females, working class, etc) had access to political power. Mostly, power was held by rich, white landowners (plutocracy). They believed in meritocracy and they assumed, as many Republicans do today, that the upper class men have earned or otherwise deserve their power. You have to at least give them credit for believing the idealistic role of disinterested aristorcracy that they saw themselves playing.

The founding fathers were scared of the average person for good reason. The French revolution demonstrated that the average person was a threat to rich people like them. I think similar reasons explain why modern Republicans are also afraid of what average Americans would do if given political power through direct democracy. It’s obvious, of course, why rich, white males continue to fear democracy. Beyond that, whites in general no longer hold the monopoly on political power they once had and whites are quickly losing their majority position. If you’re someone who identifies with being white and/or identifies with ‘white culture’, then democracy is a very real threat to you. Yes, just like you, the founding fathers were white. Many white conservatives like to take credit for what past white people did and claim the problems of society today are the erosion of traditional ‘white culture’. If you’re a conservative white person who fears what is becoming of the country, it is only natural to idealize the founding fathers who were white and idealize early America when whites had absolute power. It’s true that, if it weren’t for democracy, whites would probably still have all the power.

Since the time of the founding fathers, direct democracy has increased. From Republicanisn in the United States:

Over time, the pejorative connotations of “democracy” faded. By the 1830s, democracy was seen as an unmitigated positive and the term “Democratic” was assumed by the Democratic Party and the term “Democrat” was adopted by its members. A common term for the party in the later 19th century was “The Democracy.” In debates on Reconstruction, Senator Charles Sumner argued that the republican “guarantee clause” in Article IV supported the introduction by force of law of democratic suffrage in the defeated South.

As the limitations on democracy were slowly removed, property qualifications for state voters were eliminated (1820s); initiative, referendum, recall and other devices of direct democracy became widely accepted at the state and local level (1910s); and senators were made directly electable by the people (1913).

Women can vote. Non-whites can vote. The working class can vote. Not only can all of these people vote but they can also hold political offices. For our modern standards, a democracy where only rich, white men can vote and be elected doesn’t seem like much of a free society. Even most conservative white males who defend the good ol’ days have to admit that such a state of affairs was far from ideal. But, to be honest, that is exactly what a republic was prior to the increase of direct democracy. Democracy is messy and inefficient. It’s much easier to have a republic without democracy. Most fascist and communist governments are technically republics and many of them even identified themselves as such, but the founding fathers understood that having at least some democracy, however limited, was a good thing even for rich, white males such as themselves.

In conclusion, I’ll let Thom Hartmann have the last word. I’ll share a video where he argues the founding fathers were truly seeking egalitarianism and so were actually betraying their social class . It’s a much more positive vision of America’s beginnings. After the video, is a transcript from Thom Hartmann’s show. He summarizes perfectly the issue of republic vs democracy in American history.

(See here for full video.)

Thom Hartmann’s show, March 29, 2010:

If you want the most technical term, our country is aconstitutionally limited representative democratic republic. Our form of government, the constitution limits the power of government. We elect representatives, so it’s not a pure democracy. But we do elect them by majority rule so it is democratic. And the form of, the infrastructure, the total form of government, is republican, it is a republic.

In the early days of this country, James Madison basically created a distinction that didn’t exist before this, and this was in 1787. The, it used to be, if you look at dictionaries pre 1787, the words democracy and republic were interchangeable. The Roman republic was referred to as a democracy, the Greek democracy was refereed to as a republic. The words were interchanged. And in one of the Federalist papers, and I forget which one it was, I think 14 maybe, but it’s been a long time since I read them, in one of the Federalist papers in an effort to, which were put into the newspapers by Hamilton and Madison, and John Jay wrote a couple of them, to sell the constitution to people, because we were operating under the articles of Confederacy in 1787.

To sell the constitution, Madison created this artificial distinction. And what he said, basically, was that democracy, that we weren’t creating a democracy in the United States, and in a technical sense it is not a pure democracy, because like Greece, you had to have at least 6,001 people show up for a decision to be made. It had to be real majority rule. And so Hamilton, excuse me, Madison made the point that democracy could arguably be considered a form of mob rule, whereas a republic imposed, you know, an infrastructure of laws and prevented mob rule.

Now, what he omitted, intentionally, because he was trying to sell the constitution, he was trying to basically reinvent language, what he omitted was that we democratically elect our representatives. And later in his life, in the 1830s, after his presidency was over, keep in mind this was in the 1770s or 1780s, in the 1830s when he was an old man, when he was writing his memoirs, he came out and said, and there’s a whole, if you go to and look at my book reviews, the very first book review that I ever did for BuzzFlash, which was like five years ago, it’s the oldest one on the list, is all about this topic, or it has several chapters on this topic. And I forget the title of it now, but it’s a great book and it’s written by a guy who’s a constitutional scholar [“How Democratic Is the American Constitution?” by Robert A. Dahl.] And Madison in 1834 said, you know, after all these years, we can, you can use the words interchangeably. And that was about the time that the Democratic Republican party that Jefferson created dropped the word “republican” from its name. And that was about the time that Madison, who was one of the early founders of the Democratic Republican party started again using the word democracy.

So from the 1830s, so from the founding or in the mid 1780s until the mid 1830s we referred to America as a Republic. From the 1830s until the modern era we referred to it as a democracy, but then when Joe McArthur came along he started, he and some of his advisors, and Karl Rove really got on this big time, said, “wait a minute, calling this a democracy sounds too much like the Democratic Party. We should call it a Republic because that sounds more like the Republican Party.” And so the talking point on right wing radio has been, and Limbaugh’s been pushing this for 20 years now, has been that we don’t live in a democracy, we live in a republic, and that you shouldn;t call it a democracy, it’s a republic. And the reason why is because they like the word republic because it sounds like republican and they hate the word democracy because it sounds like democratic. And … that’s the bottom line, we live in a democratic republic.

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US: Republic & Democracy (pt 3)

US: Republic & Democracy

I keep noticing a particular belief among a certain kind of rightwinger. What they say is that the US government isn’t a democracy but a republic. I’ve seen this stated thousands of times in blogs and comments around the web.

I wonder what is the source of this claim. The fact that it keeps being repeated by so many people makes me think it’s a talking point often heard in conservative media. There is one thing that is obvious to me about this phenomenon. These people didn’t learn this idea by looking up the term ‘democracy’ in a dictionary or an encyclopedia or even Wikipedia.

Half of the statement is correct and half of the statement is false. The US government is BOTH a democracy AND a republic. To be more specific, the US government is a representative democracy and a constitutional republic. What these rightwingers fail to understand is that there are multiple definitions of democracy and multiple definitions of republic.

Even going back to Greek society, there was vast difference between Spartan and Athenian democracy. Sparta was a representative democracy with a political system that was divided. Athens was more of a direct democracy where even the lowest citizen could participate. The US is a bit of both these. The US is like Sparta in the following ways: representation instead of direct democracy, divided government, and a professional military. The US is only like Athens in one way: any citizen can participate and potentially become elected into government.

The only place where direct democracy operates in the US very partially is on certain major issues of local governance that are decided by citizen vote. I suppose also that jury by peers could be thought of as a watered down or constrained version of direct democracy. Still, the vast majority of the government is representative and the ‘mob’ of the citizenry has little direct influence.

The rightwingers are arguing that democracy is solely defined as direct democracy or, as some call it, mobocracy. But they are simply wrong. Their ignorance amazes me. Let me demonstrate by considering a random definition from a mainstream dictionary. I did a search and this is the top result (after Wikipedia):

Merriam-Webster, definition 1, part b (emphasis mine)

a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

Here is the confusion. Rightwingers are taking the following part of the definition as if it were the whole definition:

Merriam-Webster, definition 3

capitalized : the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the United States <from emancipation Republicanism to New Deal Democracy — C. M. Roberts>

Basically, it comes down to a simplistic play on words. These rightwingers are trying to make an argument that the Republican party is the party of real America, the party that represents the emancipation Republicanism of the founding fathers. The problem is that this argument is so simplistic as to be inane. There is absolutely no conflict between a constitutional republic and a representative democracy. US democracy is constrained by being indirect and by having the govt divided. Furthermore, US democracy is constrained by the constitution (and the constitution is responsive to the democratic process, i.e., amendments).

There are a few basic confusions.

The original meaning of ‘republic’ was simply a government that wasn’t a monarchy. The difference between a monarch and a president is that the former represents himself or represents the ruling elite and the latter theoretically represents the whole population and the country as a whole. As far as I know, this doesn’t require a constitution. The term ‘republic’ just basically means that the leader can’t simply act on whim and must be held accountable to the law like everyone else, but these laws aren’t necessarily the same as a constitution. A constitution is similar to laws, but the difference is that a constitution is what all other laws are based upon and that they must remain basically unchanged. Most republics probably tend towards declaring constitutions, but a strong legal system independent of the leader can serve the same purpose as a constitution. A constitution is just a safeguard in case the legal system fails. The constitution, of course, has no power in and of itself. Still, it’s powerful in being a symbolic mission statement of a society.

Let me now share part of the definition of ‘republic’:

Merriam-Webster, definition 1, part b(1)

a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law

That serves as an equally good definition of a representative democracy.

Two things come to my mind: 1) Henry Fairlie’s definition of a Tory; and 2) rightwing rhetoric about ‘mobocracy’ and ‘real Americans’.

So, how did Henry Fairlie define a Tory? The Tories support the British government… which includes the period of monarchy. The Tory has faith in government in general for the reason they mistrust capitalism controlled by the wealthy elite. The government represents the people or at least the country, but capitalists have no inherent loyalty to anything besides profit. I think this represents the basic distinction between conservatives and liberals in the US. Conservatives mistrust government and instead trust capitalism. Liberals have a basic faith in government while being wary of capitalism. This is demonstrated by how Democrats show stronger support for even Republican presidents than Republicans show for Democrat presidents. Liberals trust the government even when they don’t have one of their own in power because they see government as being greater than either party.

This brings me to the second point. Liberals also have more basic faith in the American people and human nature in general. Liberals believe humans are inherently good or at least have the inherent predisposition towards good. Conservatives believe that people need to be told what to do by traditional authorities (i.e., religious leaders) and by those who are seen as having earned authority (i.e., successful/wealthy capitalists). Conservatives talk about ‘real Americans’, but they don’t mean the average American. What they’re talking about is the specific group they belong to: fundamentalist Christians, ‘white culture’, etc. So, their notion of ‘real Americans’ is very narrow. The liberal notion of a real American is more broad and I doubt most liberals would even deny conservatives as being real Americans. Just look at the Democratic voters who evenly divide between identifying as liberals and conservatives (according to the 2005 Pew data: Beyond Red vs Blue).

I’d also point out that it’s because of conservatives mistrust of people and government that they emphasize the constitution so much. That is why they tend to think of the constitution as an unchanging document akin to a religious document such as the Ten Commandments. Conservatives trust principles and beliefs, traditional values and institutions; whatever they perceive as a living and unchanging tradition of their particular in-group. Democracy, even though ancient, isn’t a traditional part of Christianity and so not a traditional part of European culture. Greek ideas which inspired the Enlightenment Age were reintroduced to Europe from the Middle East and so Greek ideas are considered suspicious.

My main point in all this is just that it’s odd to see rightwing constitutionalists denying the very democracy that was created by the founding fathers. There are argument rests on the fact that when some of the founding fathers were using the term ‘democracy’ they were often referring to only direct democracy, although not always (Thomas Paine seemed to have meant something more broad when he wrote about ‘democracy’). Apparently, many of the founding fathers used the term ‘republic’ to mean representative democracy. However, in the modern world, the term ‘democracy’ is more commonly used for both direct and representative forms. The rightwingers using narrow definitions from a couple of centuries ago and dismissing modern meaning of words is rather pointless. The meanings of words change. That is just the way the world works.

Like it or not, the US government is a democracy. If (some) rightwingers for some strange reason wanted to get rid of democracy, they’d be forced to get rid of the republic itself which is built on the political process of democracy (voting, representation, etc). I’m assuming rightwingers don’t want to do this. So, why do they continue with the ignorant argument that America isn’t a democracy? Is it intentional ignorance in that there being ideoligically divisive in what they see as a battle that must be won at all costs, the battle of defeating liberals and Democrats? Or is it just passive ignorance of people who never read anything (including dictionaries and encyclopedias) outside of conservative media?

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US: Republic & Democracy (pt 2)