A chapter on the origins of America’s governmental system from Dr. Krason’s 2012 book, The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic.
We hear it said often that the practice of something does not measure up to the theory behind it. This is the case with political orders as with other types of entities, as well as with individual persons.
In Federalist 10, James Madison says that in “a pure democracy…there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention…and as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” With such an utterly unflattering assessment by the main author of the Constitution, one wonders how we might be able to refer to the United States as a democratic republic? Martin Diamond, Winston Mills Fisk, and Herbert Garfinkel, in their book entitled The Democratic Republic, say that the U.S. is “democratic”—in the representative, not pure, sense—because it features majority rule, and is “republican” because it was intended to demonstrate such characteristics as restraint, sobriety, competence, and liberty. There was intended to be majority rule, to be sure, but within the context of preserving minority rights; that is, the minority could not be suppressed or its liberty destroyed. As Diamond, et al. say, our Constitution is “faithful to the spirit and form of democracy…[but] guards against its dangerous propensities.” The latter are not just the tyranny referred to by Madison, but also folly, feebleness, and ineptitude. It seeks to “reconcile the advantages of democracy with the sobering qualities of republicanism,” and “to render a democratic regime compatible with the protection of liberty and the requisites of competent government.” The consent of the governed, then, is at the heart of the American political order, but its force is mitigated by the restraints of representative institutions, the rule of law, and social, cultural, and moral influences. This insures that the majority’s will not only is not abusive, but also that the common good of the political order will be promoted.