A Republic Worth Keeping
“America is over: Let’s just split into different countries,” was the headline of a recent Philadelphia Inquirer opinion piece.
The author continued:
“No one in our country seems happy today. … Our nation reminds me of those married couples who try to stay together ‘for the children’ but end up making everyone around them miserable…. Honestly, would breaking up the United States really be such a bad thing?”
The short answer is “yes.”
The writer continues his lament, “Our current situation leaves us with a feeling of futility as the ground constantly changes beneath our feet.” He then describes a sweeping series of presidential policy extremes from one administration, to the next, to the next, and asks, “Is this any way to run a government?”
The short answer here is “no.”
On the eve of another potential swing of the presidential pendulum, the American people are frustrated. But it goes much deeper than just the presidential race. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in August of 2019 (before the election kicked into overdrive) revealed “a deep and boiling anger across the country engulfing our political system.” These results matched those from four years earlier under a different administration, indicating that the discord goes beyond the current president.
A telling symptom of this national angst is the struggle over what to call our system of government. U.S. Senator Mike Lee ignited a tweetstorm during the vice presidential debate when he tweeted, “We are not a democracy.”
He continued, “The word ‘democracy’ appears nowhere in the Constitution, perhaps because our form of government is not a democracy. It’s a constitutional republic. To me it matters. It should matter to anyone who worries about the excessive accumulation of power in the hands of the few.”
Judging by the reaction to Senator Lee’s tweet, many Americans – even in the media – lack a basic understanding of our system of governance. The media storm that followed speaks volumes about a nation that can hardly expect to effectively operate a governing system it can’t even define.
Benjamin Franklin was the quintessential quick-witted American. As he was leaving the Constitutional Convention, a local woman, Mrs. Powell, asked him “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Without missing a beat, Dr. Franklin spoke through the ages, “A republic, madam – if you can keep it.”
Our form of government was more than mere semantics to the Framers who devised it. “We are a republican government,” Alexander Hamilton summed up the sentiments of the Founders while addressing the Constitutional Convention, “Real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of democracy.”
Paraphrasing Dr. Franklin, a democracy is like two wolves and a lamb voting on what they are going to have for lunch, and a republic is the balanced system of representation and laws that protects the lamb.
Speaking to the novelty of the new American republic, James Madison added:
“In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.” Federalist No. 51.
In the ratification debates, the anti-federalist Federal Farmer asserted that our compound republic is the only system “that can secure the freedom and happiness of this people” because one government can never address the diversity of America: “Different laws, customs, and opinions exist in the different states, which by a uniform system of laws would be unreasonably invaded.”
With governing power and focus increasingly drawn to Washington, and from Washington to the executive branch, each change in presidential administration leaves 49% of our nation feeling invaded. In a nation as diverse as the United States, one size does not fit all. One government cannot know all the intricacies of our unique communities. One government cannot encompass the breadth of our innovative and competitive genius. One government cannot give expression to our unique governing talent. One government was never meant to be the single point of attention or the single point of failure or success.
James Madison rejoiced that they had been able to constitute for our nation a completely new governing model to protect our “private rights and public happiness” and to secure our ability to be wonderfully different and yet wonderfully one. Madison believed this would be a system of government without which
“the people of the United States might, at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind.” Federalist No. 14.
The bottom line? America is not over!
It’s not time to split into different countries, but to rekindle our model of government where people can pursue their unique visions of happiness in their unique and united states. We can relearn how to be one for interstate commerce and international affairs and be many for matters of our lives and livelihoods.
How much better to simply “improve and perpetuate” the fabric of this novel republic, to embrace the uniqueness, the diversity and the dreams of Americans, than to give up on this American experiment?
Surely this republic is worth keeping. The Framers looked to state legislators as the “sure guardians” of this system, and state legislatures are beginning to take action. Please reach out to the Senior Director of our Center to Restore the Balance of Government if you would like help taking similar action in your state.