by Scott Thompson

Conservatives and right libertarians sometimes argue that the United States is supposed to be a republic, not a democracy. According to this argument, a republic is an elected government in which the individual has sovereign rights, and a democracy is a “tyranny of the majority” in which the minority has no rights.

This argument is not based on the dictionary definition of either word. Merriam-Webster defines a republic as a government overseen by a president or other elected figure instead of a monarch, and in which political power is held by a voting electorate. It defines a democracy as a government in which political power is held by the people as a whole and in which the majority rules—it says nothing about minorities being deprived of rights.

The right libertarian argument in this case is based on a fictional distinction between the words, since they are clearly not mutually contradictory based on the dictionary definition. A republic can be democratic or undemocratic, but the definition has nothing to do with the level of individual sovereignty either way.

In practice, is the government of the United States a democracy according to the dictionary definition? It would be hard to argue that it is, given that large majorities express preferences for universal health care and other policies that have absolutely no chance of being passed by our elected representatives. If most people say they want something but their elected representatives won’t do it, then how is that a democracy?

The next question is why. In a recent conversation with a family member, I expressed the opinion that the structure of our current form of government could never be expected to produce results different from those it has produced up till now. My family member disagreed, arguing that our constitution is fundamentally sound but that the application of it has become corrupted over time.

Shortly afterward, I started to read a book about the French Revolution. I was surprised to learn that the French Republic tried to pass a law that would have freed all slaves in the French colonies—but that lobbyists for the plantation owners blocked the law from passing, with the result that the revolutionary government of “liberty, equality and fraternity” used its soldiers to try to suppress the Haitian slave uprising.

The French Republic wasn’t corrupted over time—it was corrupted instantly, because a representative government can only ever be an oligarchy in practice. When the will of the people can only be expressed through an elected few, those few will either be the wealthy and powerful or they will do their bidding, however immoral and hypocritical.

So maybe the libertarian right is right about this one after all. Maybe a government based on elected representatives is not a democracy and never can be. But that’s exactly what’s wrong with it.