Republicans are democrats and Democrats are republicans

Republicans are democrats and Democrats are republicans
(or Inflammable means flammable? What a country!)

This week1 I shall forgo, generally, the usual archaic affectations which I tend to, well, affect, when discussing politics.  That means fewer antiquated spellings and not so many sesquipedalian words.2  Moving right along, then, I have been knocking around an idea lately.  Knocking it around, as I say, while trying to resolve the interminable cognitive dissonance echoing around the politisphere.  I proceeded to run this half-baked idea by a rather bright friend of mine.3  He wasn’t convinced.  So I thought I should take the time to flesh it out a bit here and see if I can’t order my thoughts a bit more, at least to mine own satisfaction.

The premise, simply put, is that big-R Republicans have become small-d democrats and big-D Democrats have become small-r republicans.  This is more than a neat chiasmus.4 There’s two things going on here.  Namely, how people view government, and how they view themselves.  So let’s look at the government side of things first, shall we?

What is a republic and what is a democracy?  It’s a question worth pausing over.  We sing the praises of democracy every day.5  Yet as anybody who has ever completed 11th grade social studies will joyfully and pedantically6 point out to you, America is not a democracy.  America is a republic.  Why then did Wilson want to make the world “safe for democracy”  instead of “safe for democratically elected republics?”7 Why are we so keen to export democracy, protect democracy, encourage democracy?  More to the point, why did the glorious Founders – who by the way, couldn’t agree on very much, so can we all please stop using the term “The Founders” as if they all thought the same way about everything, but that’s another rant – see fit to establish a republic and quite obviously not a democracy?

Indeed, in the very narrow sense of one man-one vote8 this is the most democratic America has ever been, and in ways quite contrary to the intentions of the founders.  Consider that today: Women vote (constitutional amendment); Non-whites vote (constitutional amendment); Non-landowning citizens vote (passed by the several states); Senators are directly elected by the people (constitutional amendment).  The reasons for this were manifold.  Centuries of English tradition/progress dating to Magna Carta; racism; questions of interest; questions of class; questions of education; the epic and prominent failure of Athenian democracy and the comparative success of the Roman republic – just to name a few.  There are whole libraries on any one of these subjects and whole libraries on the ideological, philosophical and political origins of our constitution.9

But the question was, what is a democracy and what is a republic?  For my purposes here, when I refer to democracy, I am speaking in the very narrow sense of a direct democracy.  A democracy in which all citizens vote directly on all affairs without empowering others to vote in their name.  This is different from a republic in which the citizens vote only for representatives to act on their behalf.  Although the terms have broad and overlapping meanings today,10 this is the distinction that was understood at the end of the 18th century.11

Direct democracy, I believe, presupposes that the citizen population be possessed of a certain capacity to make decisions in their own collective interest.  A representative republic merely supposes that the citizen population is capable of finding the people most fit to make decisions in the collective interest of the state.12  For many of the founders and political thinkers of the 18th century, the ability to make decisions in the collective interest of the state was bound up with the notion of “virtue” – among other things, “above all, unremitting devotion to the weal of the public’s corporate self.”13  Virtue was not a thing generally believed to be conferred naturally upon every man.14 Thus, “‘republic’ conjured up for many…the triumph of virtue and reason, ‘democracy’ – a word that denoted the lowest order of society as well as the form of government in which the commons ruled – was generally associated with the threat of civil disorder…”15

Earlier I said that one half of the equation was how people view government.  Let the preceding stand, for the purposes of this discussion, as the difference between a republic and a democracy.  Or at least, let it stand as one way of viewing them.  Now let us consider how people view themselves.  In this context, I believe that people view themselves as either being capable of making informed and advantageous decisions on behalf of the state, or not.

Let us stipulate that all citizens will elect to office people who broadly share their principles.  This does not, of necessity, mean that those elected would, or should, make the same decisions as the people who elected them. 16  And herein lies, I think, a major difference between today’s self-identified Republicans and Democrats.  This difference, it seems to me, is at the heart of the epithet “elitist” which is so lately in use.  And it is also why, I think, the term is used pejoratively by the right and yet not disavowed on the left.  I remember during the Bush II administration, people on the right would call people on the left “elitists.”  People on the left would respond with something along the lines of “If by elitist you mean I want a smart, well-educated person to represent me in government – in short, the intellectual elite of society – then, yes, I am an elitist.”

I would like to speak from my own experience, if but briefly.  I graduated from High School.  I have a college degree.  I am now working towards a Master’s degree.  In each experience I was confronted by people who are smarter than me.  In each case I ran up against my own limitations.  The differences in ability, however, became more manifest the higher up the educational ladder I went.  I now run up against more people who are smarter than me more consistently.  I run up against the limits of my own abilities more often.  The result, I think, is that in High School I was more likely to think of myself as being just as able as the next person to make wise decisions in the interest of my country.  Less so now.  Take an issue like Syria.  I recognize the situation in Syria as being incredibly complex and difficult.  Now, my principles dictate that people ought to be free and that governments should not use violence against their own people.  This does not mean I favor military intervention in Syria.  It also does not mean that I do not favor military intervention.  It simply means that I think the situation is a mess and needs to be resolved somehow.  I don’t know how.  What would be the effects of a military intervention?  What would be the effects of arming the rebels?  What would the effects of an embargo?  And so on.  I’m not sure up I’m to making the right decision.  I’m not sure the people I’ve met who are smarter than me are up to making this decision.  I want people smarter than the smartest people I know making theses decisions.  In short, I want an intellectually elite class of people at the helm of the ship of state.  I will vote for those people so long as they share my principles.

That is my personal experience.  But I believe this is true of many on the left, of many who would be tarred with the epithet “elitist.”  It may be elitist, but it is also republican.  What I observe on the right, more often than not, is the opposite of this.  I observe people who believe they have the answers to complex problems and wish only to elect people like themselves who will carry out their direct wishes.  For this type of voter, it is not enough that their elected representative simply share their values.  The elected representative must do exactly as they would do if only they could be there themselves to cast the vote.  On the whole, quite a democratic position, I would say.

It is clear then that all voters have strong beliefs and opinions.  For every individual, these beliefs and opinions are guided by a personal set of principles.  These principles, by and large, are honest, good, noble and well intentioned.17  In the end how we view our government and how we choose who we elect has a lot to do with how we view ourselves and our relationship to our government.  For all this, it is an odd quirk of history that at this time, Democrats may be republicans and Republicans may be democrats.

  1. As if I’ve been doing my job of updating this blog on weekly basis. []
  2. Well, besides that one, obviously. []
  3. Let’s call him Cash Banks. []
  4. Though, be fair, I hope you will at least grant that much. []
  5. Well, I mean, I tend not to.  But people do. []
  6. Funny how these two go in hand in hand, isn’t it? []
  7. Incidentally, have you ever noticed how it’s invariably the totalitarian states that call themselves “people’s republics?” Discuss. []
  8. And certainly there is much more to democracy than this core principal. []
  9. A good place to start, for the curious, might be Gordon Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution (Vintage, 1993) and Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Belknap, 1967). []
  10. The OED gives for democracy: “Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In mod. use often more vaguely denoting a social state in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege.”  And for republic: “A state in which power rests with the people or their representatives; spec. a state without a monarchy. Also: a government, or system of government, of such a state; a period of government of this type.” []
  11. A gross and borderline obscene oversimplification.  And yet not entirely un-useful.  But for context, cf. Wood Radicalism generally, and Bailyn Ideological Origins, 281-4 for a distillation of the concept. []
  12. Of course this too is an oversimplification.  Madison, for example, supposed that people would vote their own interests and the government’s job was to balance these interests, the result of which would be to the collective advantage of the state.  Cf. Federalist 12. []
  13. McDonald, Forest Novus Ordo Seclorum, Kansas UP, 1985, p.70. []
  14. Let alone woman; indeed the stem of the Latin word virtus is vir which means “man.” []
  15. Bailyn, 282. []
  16. Another oversimplification; broadly speaking, the purpose of a bicameral legislature is to give voice to the people’s exact wishes and then to temper those wishes. []
  17. Though sometimes they are guided by racism, fear and selfishness.  Yet neither the right nor left has a monopoly on “virtue.”  Surely, “virtue” as defined above is something that is striven for on both sides. []