The Presidency: Do We Need It?
by Paul Barrow
I worked for a newspaper publisher several years ago during the Nixon administration who, as a zealous Republican, shared with me, a young naive, fledgling writer, his undoubtedly most coveted position that Republicans don't believe in a democracy. They believe, he declared, in a republic. I thought at the time, boy, that sure took balls to say. Don't live in a democracy and don't want to live in a democracy.
It took awhile for the realization to really set in that, if this is Republican catechism 101, there has to be a lot of people in this country who consciously do not want to live in a democracy. What that also suggests is that when we as progressives raise our voices of indignation, appalled by what we see as very undemocratic initiatives being unveiled with an almost predictable discipline from the White House, taking the moral high ground perched with our sad selves upon the fine pillars of democracy, it damm sure isn't good strategy. Power only understands power. Judy Ramsey, my Co-Director, pointed that out awhile back in another article. Our belief that moralizing will somehow persuade our masters to be a little more considerate of our views is like asking a slave in Georgia in 1789 to protest the immorality of his lack of voice in the matter of any contemplation of his being put up for auction. Obviously, that doesn't work very well if the person you're trying to lay a guilt trip on doesn't feel guilty. He doesn't, of course, because he believes in a different kind of morality.
The problem here is in the semantics we use to define what it is we've really got in this country. We have egg yolk and egg white, two very different properties, and we've scrambled them so much we can't see the difference any more. One part holds the very essence of life; the other something left over on the fringes that is viewed as parasitic to the rest. The distinctions between a republic and a democracy are obviously not lost on Republicans, but I believe that they clearly are for the rest of us. Half of us know that we live in a republic. The other half think that we live in a democracy and merely call it a republic.
That's really a critically dangerous concoction to eat for breakfast because the metaphor goes astray through the implication that a republic and democracy are somehow merged into some sort of bland blob like imitation halloween puke that has no central core. It would only be correct if the appearance represented something real. What non-Republicans believe about democracy is the illusion that we all believe in democracy and also have some semblance of one. But when someone like Dick Cheney uses the word democracy, he means a republic, and he really means a republic.
While the liberals, progressives and Democrats and a few other fringe lunatics fume that this condition or that condition in society isn't democratic, the other half are saying, Well, so what? We don't live in a democracy, and we don't want a democracy. We live in a republic. A Republican's idea of democracy is what John McCain likes to call socialism. Equal what? Re-distribution of what? The other half of us believe that we have a democracy and simply call it a republic because we have a "representative" form of government. The other half know that we live in a republic and are actively constructing legal mechanisms that reinforce it and strengthen it with absolutely no illusions about it ever being a democracy. Does it make any difference?
This is a videotaped interview conducted by United Progressives Co-Director Paul Barrow with Dana D. Nelson, Professor of English and American Studies at Vanderbilt University, about her book Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People, just published in September 2008. 57 minutes. Watch the video
Dana D. Nelson has just published a book that demonstrates very clearly that it does. In Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People, she shows how presidents have been accumulating power very gradually over the entire course of American history. And there's where another illusion rests. We believe that they don't have a right to do it. It doesn't ever seem to register that the Supreme Court interprets law based upon Constitutional foundations that favor republicanism rather than either democratic principles or the contradictory and impossible effort to balance the branches of government that were put in place by the founders. The very idea that republics are better than democracies goes directly back to the founders' belief, from which the Court receives its authority, that too much democracy could be dangerous.
Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution: Republican Government
The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.
The inclusion of this reference to "domestic Violence" refers to nothing more than the possibility that the people might not like things being shoved down their throats. Republican government in the national government, to the founders, as proposed in Madison's "Virginia Plan," William Paterson's "New Jersey Plan," and Alexander Hamilton's "British Plan," all meant layered authority in a hierarchy that represented only superficially any differences from a monarchy, because it established a ruling class, elected or not, and gave the power to the chief authority, the president, to veto anything the people wanted, and at his own discretion. To people who are ruled over rather than who rule themselves, there's not much difference between being ruled by one man or one hundred men who conspire with one another to shape law to fit the views of that one man. Charles Frankel, a Columbia U professor, wrote in an introduction to a published copy of Rousseau's Social Contract, "As a matter of right, any pact of subjection, any agreement that one man or group of men has a right to command others, is but an acceptance of slavery and without moral justification."
Rousseau himself asked: "Where shall we find a form of association ...by which every person, while uniting himself with all, shall obey only himself, and remain as free as before?"
Democracy is self rule, rule by the people. In our republic, we sacrificed our rule for representative rule, and representative rule becomes slavery the more it deviates from our own will. With a bicameral legislature, our representatives -- the closest we have come to being represented on the basis of population -- sacrificed their rule to the Senate, which could veto their bills, and the Senate ultimately sacrificed its rule to the president, simply because he could veto everything. With that kind of system, bills don't get passed unless the higher branches of the ruling class approve them.
James Madison certainly proposed some amendments to the constitution that held an entirely different view, and would have been responsible, no doubt, for upending the entire constitution had all of them been accepted. In 1789 two states still had not ratified the constitution, and despite passage in others, it was certainly not with the blessings of the people, who had no voice in the matter, and a lot of menacing signs among the rabble were afoot, leading Madison and others to consider offering several amendments. Twelve, in fact, of Madison's proposed amendments, designed to appease the populace and get himself elected to office, actually reached the states for ratification. The first two of the twelve were rejected, and the last ten are now known as the Bill of Rights. What is much more interesting is what was contained in first of the two amendments that were rejected. Although the second ultimately was adopted as the 27th Amendment, the first of the two never could possibly have made it into this world:
"First, That there be prefixed to the constitution a declaration, that all power is originally rested in, and consequently derived from, the people."
That's the very core of democracy, and it was rejected, not by the people, but by their republican "representatives." They didn't believe that "all power is originally rested in, and consequently derived from, the people. They believed that it is derived from a special class, their class. They had to swallow the Bill of Rights, because that ensured their own safety and that certain elligible property owners, mostly themselves, would be treated equally but not many others. But they didn't have to swallow the absolutely horrendous notion that power is derived from the people.
Since then, we have grown accustomed to thinking that our form of government is both a democracy and a republic, when it isn't really possible for the two to co-exist at all, simply because you cannot distribute power unequally and call it a democracy, and not without the inevitable consequence that those who have the greater share of power will use that very advantage to accumulate more of it; they are rightfully quite paranoid about losing their advantages and see a continual need to insulate themselves from "the turbulence and follies of democracy."
A republic and a democracy have diametrically opposed propositions that form the foundations of their core ideas, and the fact that we don't seem to realize that has led to the kind of abuse Ms. Nelson so graphically points to One proposes that power should be concentrated in the hands of a few, led by one man. The other proposes that power should be distributed equally through the proposition of one person one vote.
A one person one vote concept implies inherently an equal distribution of power. It implies that the people rule, not a republican oligarchy or a president. It implies that my will is just as important as yours. If the phrase "of, by and for the people" had been included in the Constitution rather than the Gettysburg Address, democracy might possibly would have had a chance to withstand the attack upon those principles faimilair to a democracy framed in the Bill of Rights. If our one person one vote system was structured so that the people rather than Congress voted on measures now before the House or the Senate, that would be a whole lot closer to anything considered self rule. The government would then have to expedite the wishes of at least the marjority of the people rather than simply ignoring them as they do now, for just one example, in continuing to advance our wars in the Middle East.
A democracy is concerned with the people and the general will. A republic is concerned with power and who holds it. A republic therefore is constructed simply to manage who holds it, not to manage the concerns of the people and how they prefer to live. We don't vote for what we want enacted into law. We vote for someone to make our choices for us. We simply treat our oligarchy to a game of musical chairs, but that's about it.
We believe that our representatives are elected to protect democracy for us, but it's quite the opposite. When you elect someone, you give them over to republicanism. You give them the freedom to make choices for you, not simply to express your will, but to express their own will even if it is in opposition to yours, simply because they see fit. They gain office by pretending to show an interest in representing your will, but they have complete discretion on whether or not to do that. They immediately become members of this capitol hill fraternity, this great smoking room on the hill, where the mission inside the beltway is to sustain power in the republic. People elected to Congress join a private club in which relationships become key to getting things done. Most realize after they get there, if they hadn't already, that Congress is a huge corporate money machine that will generate thousands, even millions, in personal compensation through mostly legitimate contacts and above-board dealings that are the recognized stock in trade between private industry and government. In order to sustain that, they join in a conspiracy to represent these interests, not yours, to advance their personal fortunes, to become multimillionaires through the advantages of office, and to insulate themselves from the prerogatives of the electorate. They begin serving the more powerful interests in Congress and the president and forget their constituencies at home, of which only 15 to 30 percent care enough to vote anyway in any typical senate or house race. Their lack of concern for their constituency is shaped by the opportunities they are afforded when in Congress to establish inroads into the fortresses of power, to gain influence, and to secure extraordinary privileges and benefits for themselves. It's the perfect pathway to becoming a member of the elite.
Unfortunately, my Republican employer was right: a republic, even if we get to select our king, is not a democracy. In a republic, as he defined it, the citizens are supervised and protected from their own tendency toward folly, even though they are allowed some freedom to direct their own affairs through "representative" proxy. And it is the president and the office of the presidency that is a true hallmark of republics, a chief authority figure at the top who has become the modern-day substitute for a monarch. It is that figure which primarily distinguishes a republic from a democracy. and it is in that authority that true power is derived, which, as John Yoo, the true Republican that he is, proposed, was handed to the president directly from the British royalty when they capitulated in the Revolutionary war. If James Madison was wrong -- that power is not derived from the people -- then John Yoo would be quite correct in assuming that leadership of our government was indeed handed over to us from the king. And that's the assumption that was acknowledged by the founders in rejecting Madison's first proposed amendment. Power to republicans is not and was never derived from the people. It is held in spite of the people, and at their complete expense.
Real democracies, it may come as a surprise to some of you, and as Dana D. Nelson has so clearly articulated, don't need presidents. Democracies don't hand the full weight of their accumulated and collective, unarticulated wisdom over to one man to articulate for them. Democracy is something we do, not something we have. It is when we ourselves engage the process and make decisions ourselves that we have democracy. Democracy, as defined by the Greeks meant (demos), "the people," and (kratos)," rule." In a republic, the people are not sovereign. In a democracy, they are.
Democracies and republics obviously stand at opposite ends of the spectrum of who rules. If you play chess and start out the game by giving away your queen, your bishops, and your rooks, what are the odds that you're going to be in the game very long?
Bad for Democracy raises many more questions than could possibly be answered in one review. Issues such as just how a government could work without a president is possibly the most intriguing, and needs further study and discussion, and hopefully we can get to that later. I urge readers to comment, and to buy this book and take on the challenge of studying these questions seriously, including the most important: "Do we need a president?"
Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People
University of Minnesota Press
Author: Dana D. Nelson