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Is the United States a Democracy?

Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.

Either Pericles circa 430 B.C. or urban legend—we’re not exactly sure. The only politicians present when these words might have been uttered are Senators Feinstein and McConnell, and they’re not saying.

You know how professional arguers on Twitter, sorry, I mean “X,” say pithy, annoying, and decidedly final things like, “This is a democracy!”? While the good ‘ol US of A operates under democratic, and sometimes idiocratic, principles, we’re technically a…

Constitutional Republic

Yeah, I know, more often than not, we seem to operate more like a constipational republic. Think about it. Things never move through the system smoothly, there’s a great deal of pain, and nothing short of a high-pressure enema will clear things up.

As the old saying goes, a democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. If you never read The Call of the Wild, the wolves will almost always decide on lamb chops for dinner unless they have coupons for pizza night. And then, the lamb is an appetizer.

In other words, everyone has an equal say and the majority opinion rules. Got 100 citizens? Then, 51 who agree on something call all the shots. Fair, right? This sounds pretty good on paper until you realize that whoever is in the minority has no say at all. 

A good example of a modern-day democracy is…

American Idol. 

Rather than relying on professional talent judges to determine if someone can sing, we rely on pre-teen girls and bots to determine who gets a multi-million dollar recording contract. And herein lies the problem. Pre-teen boys are far more interested in things like playing Call of Duty and trying to date pre-teen girls than texting votes to the American Idol computers, so the pre-teen girls have all the say about who is the next pop idol and who is headed for a career as a chorus singer. The minority group of pre-teen boys who do vote are simply outnumbered and, therefore, have no say in the outcome. It’s pre-teen girl mob rule, pure and simple, not to mention a travesty of justice. Someone should appoint a special prosecutor.

It’s All Greek to Me

Mob rule without minority representation is just one problem with pure democracy. Just ask the ancient Greeks.

Under inspiration from Cleisthenes in 507 B.C., the Greeks tried out the whole idea of demokratia (rule by the people). A noble plan for sure, and it certainly inspired variations on the pure democracy idea throughout history. While every person in Athenian society could not vote, all male citizens over the age of 18 could—about 10,000 people.

The primary decision-making body was the Ekklesia (Assembly), which was a rough equivalent to our Congress today. The Ekklesia met in person a whopping 40 times per year, and all 10,000 voting citizens were invited to participate.

Stop and recall the last school board, town council or neighborhood association meeting you attended. Now, imagine someone brought in a small college stadium full of people to bring forth their opinions after having spiked the refreshments with PCP, and you have a picture of a typical meeting.

There was also a Council of 500 (the Boule), selected by random lottery, which met daily and decided what business to bring before the Ekklesia, so the 5,000 or so had at least some guidance and prioritization going into their near-weekly meetings.

As the saying goes, there’s nothing new under the Sun, and cracks began to appear in the foundations of the everyone-decides-everything model. The public decision-making bodies began to be swayed into irrational and nation-harming decisions. Slick speeches and, in some cases, bribery, either direct or indirect, by voting to drain national resources in favor of policies that “sounded good” led to a series of consequences for the Athenian empire. After some disastrous mishaps with the Greek Navy, the Macedonians eventually took control. As it turns out, the population as a whole does not do an admirable job of managing the day-to-day business of running wars.

Lousy Logistics

As the Greeks discovered the hard way, the other problem with a “true” democracy is that everyone has to constantly vote on things.

Even with political technology advances like Twitter, YouTube and TikTok, getting everyone to comment on every decision presents a logistical nightmare. While pure democratic decision-making process seems to work passably for American Idol, you have to look at the dark side. For example, we elected Clay Aiken as the hottest new pop-performing talent in the country. No one said a democracy isn’t without risk. 

We’re used to pure democracy in action for American Idol, but just imagine for a second this process in action on the political front where we have to decide on issues of national importance.

  • Should we invade Canada?
  • Should the new post office in Toad Suck, Arkansas, be named after former Congressman Anthony Weiner, the purported inventor of the Shake Weight?
  • Is the group of congresspeople investigating the other group of congresspeople righteous, or are they just acting like a bunch of weenies?

I don’t know about you, but I fear the Internet. The internet still hasn’t decided who killed JFK or whether or not we actually landed on the moon, although in fairness, it has apparently decided the Kardashians should be awarded somewhere over a billion dollars.

A Solution: The Constitutional Republic

One way to solve some of the inherent problems associated with mob rule is to establish a system where the public selects members from amongst themselves to represent them. In theory, these people will allocate more time to understanding the issues, formulating rational policy decisions, and doing all that while getting filthy rich in the process. Also, in theory, this representative form of government protects the rights of the minority.

The underlying idea is that the people remain in control (republican form of government) as they have the power to remove their chosen representatives from office with their votes (democratic process) should they feel so inclined. As for the constitutional part, that’s the rule book that defines precisely how the representative system will function and how the rights of the majority and minority will be balanced.

Will it last longer than the Ancient Greek system? Time will tell.

Ever wonder about...

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How many stars are in our universe?

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