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The word “democracy” is sometimes called forth like flood waters - an impactful force let loose but also a deluge without constraints. Donald Trump recently used it to criticize the GOP primary. He said:
I was ready for a democratic race, meaning, you know, democracy. And this is not democracy, this is not democracy at its finest.
There are similar outcries – “We live in a democracy!” or “Democracy is not for sale!” - each of them powerful in their buckshot blast. But Americanized democracy isn’t like mud … formless and splatterable against whatever wall it’s thrown. In American, it’s shaped and constrained. It’s not “pure democracy,” but actually, a shield against purity’s dangers.
The Mischief of Pure Democracy
In The Federalist Papers, No. 10, James Madison drew a line in the sand between “pure democracy” and a “republic” (a/k/a constitutional republic or representative democracy). The former, he defined as:
a Society, consisting of a small number of citizens who assemble and administer the government in person ….
The latter, a republic, he defined simply as:
the delegation of the Government … to a small number of citizens elected by the rest ….
Technically, a democracy equals majority rule. But our democratic republic, it’s a representative government placed in check by the people’s law, i.e., the Constitution.
Why the Critical Distinction?
Because “pure democracy,” as Madison put it, “can admit no cure for the mischief of faction.”
Minority factions aren’t the danger. Pure democracy enables the majority to defeat the minority’s “sinister views by regular vote.” But in a majority faction, mischief lurks. As Madison said:
When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government … enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest, both the public good and the rights of other citizens.
A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert results from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual.
John Adams, echoing Madison, foresaw the ravages in a majority’s supremacy. As he colorfully put it:
My fundamental maxim of government is never to trust the lamb to the wolf.
Madison would argue that the word “democracy” - as a catch-all - is all wrong. The word “democracy” – in its purest form - champions not valuable rights but the wrongs Madison warned against two centuries ago.
A Harmless Difference?
If The Federalist Papers are taken as the constitutional gospel, then no, not harmless. Madison, however, did not speak for everyone. A savior exists for those who freely wield the word “democracy.” That savior … John Adams, who said:
The strict definition of a republic is, that in which the sovereignty resides in more than one man. A democracy, then, is a republic, as well as an aristocracy, or any mixture of both. … [Madison’s] distinction between a republic and a democracy, cannot be justified. A democracy is as really a republic as an oak is a tree, or a temple a building.