Democracy? No, a Republic for the Opulent

Democracy? No, a Republic for the Opulent

On October 8, Senator Mike Lee tweeted the following: “We’re not a democracy.” Senator Lee, in this particular case, is correct. The United States is a constitutional republic, not a democracy. We have an Electoral College which chooses a President, not a popular vote. We have a U.S. Senate where the citizens of Senator Lee’s state, with a population numbering 3.2 million have the same number of votes as California with a population of almost 40 million. In a “democracy” there would be popular election of a President and proportional representation in the legislative bodies.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 intended the United States to be a nondemocratic republic which would protect the interests of a very small group of people over the majority of the citizenry.

None of this an accident. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 intended the United States to be a nondemocratic republic which would protect the interests of a very small group of people over the majority of the citizenry. James Madison described the group to be protected eloquently in those deliberations:

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge of the wants or feelings of the day laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe; when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government?

And what was Madison’s solution to this dilemma? The United States Senate:

… our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability.

Madison was not alone in his worries about majority rule. Nathan Strayer, a delegate from New York was even more precise:

The Advantages of Government cannot be extended equally to all … Distinctions will always exist … The Man in affluent circumstances has different feelings from the man who daily toils for a subsistence. The landed interest has now the supreme power. A century hence the commercial may prevail. The government ought to be so organized as to give a balance to it and protect one order of men from the predominating influence of the other. The senate ought to represent the opulent minority—If this is not done the system cannot be durable.

It was not necessary for Madison and Strayer to explicitly exclude women and slaves from this republic, that was already legal fact.

In a republic, the function of the senate is to protect the wealthy. In fact, Madison explicitly states that in a true democracy people would vote to be less poor and therefore the senate and the republic it represented was necessary to maintain social inequality. The Senate is a bulwark to protect the wealthy minority from the working class majority. The Senate becomes even more daunting when we consider that it is the Senate which votes to put justices on the Supreme Court, giving it effective control over two of the three branches of government.

"[Landholders] ought to be constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority." -James Madison

Initially, Senators were not even popularly elected. It was not until 1913, when the 17th Amendment passed, that popular election to the U.S. Senate became law. Even this did not make the Senate a democratic institution. Each state, even the smallest, still gets two Senators and the Senate continues to protect a small minority. That fact is obvious when we consider that the present Senate majority of 53 Republicans represent a cumulative share of only 41% of the popular vote.

So, although it doesn’t happen very often, Senator Mike Lee is right. The power of the Senate, the Electoral College and the Supreme Court makes it clear that the United States is not a democracy.