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Republic, democracy and demagoguery

The word ‘democracy’ has broad meaning, and really isn’t the right word for some of the political contexts debating over the question whether ‘the US is a republic or democracy’.

The more accurate expression is that ‘the US is a republic not a demagoguery’.

Let’s separate “what it should be” from “what it really is”, and further “what it really is” from “what it was”. These are different things.

There is simply no valid dispute over the fact that the US, according to what was intended by the framers, was indeed meant to be a republic, not a demagoguery. It is a fact. Outside the Constitution itself, even semi-serious reading of the papers and opinions in the past, especially the early times, would clearly show that. The entire political system, especially the system of representatives of the people (the House), the system of the representatives of the states (the Senate), the system of Electoral College, was deliberately set up to guarantee that it is a republic instead of a demagoguery.

It is that way because the framers wanted a system that not only prevents the tyranny of a few over many, but also to prevent the tyranny of the many over a few.

The whole thing is not a mere mathematical equation. It is a human system. It assumes that the society has the capacity to produce “wise individuals” as people’s representatives to act on behalf of the people according to some long-term principles the majority would agree, but not what the majority want right now on specific issues.

The above assumption that principled representatives do exist and can be elected may be increasingly challenged by our progressively deteriorating social conditions, but there’s no denying that this is the operative assumption of the U.S. Constitution and the political system.

We cannot argue that the above is not true, for doing otherwise would be dishonesty. One may argue that it is only ‘what once was’, and may also debate it is different from ‘what really is now’, or can even argue that “what was” and/or “what still is” are all wrong, and we want a different system now. But we cannot pretend such arguments are constitutional. If some people do want those changes, they just need to be honest, not pretending that they are keeping the U.S. Constitution.

If people want that, the U.S. Constitution may stand as a resistance, but is not an absolute barrier. In an ultimate sense, the government is a result of what people want. You can have a system to filter out some of the temporary motions, but you cannot stop a long-term mass movement.

It really is up to the people. And this is a time when people really need to understand what they are voting for.

When asked “what have we got?” Benjamin Franklin famously said, “a republic, if You can keep it.”

Note that Franklin said if ‘You’ the people, not if ‘We’ the politicians, can keep it. Ultimately, people get what they want, and they also get what they deserve.

In the Western societies, grassroot resistance has usually worked as a balance to government abuses. But in the digital age where the facts can be forged or selectively reported to create exaggerated sampling effect, to take advantage of people’s dissatisfied sentiments, there is a danger of knee-jerking reactions lacking adequate understanding of the underlying issues. Misunderstanding and misconception lead to wrong decisions and wrong policies.

It’s always a struggle and an act of balance.

Even when the government has indeed become largely untrustworthy, categorically rejecting and resisting law enforcement is not a solution. The only hope of a democratic society is to elect wiser representatives, lawmakers and officials, who are more trustworthy and capable to change the system for the better.

But if all that fails, if a democratic society fails to elect trustworthy and wiser leaders to form an adequate government (either because the society fails to produce good candidates, or the voting system is so corrupt that it does not yield the right results, or people themselves are so corrupt that they fail to discern), then the remaining choices are few. There may only be two clear choices:

autocracy or anarchy.

And the history has taught us that autocracy is always a better choice than anarchy.  

Note that demagoguery isn’t a permanent choice, because demagoguery is only transitory and always ends up being either autocracy or anarchy.

The cold truth: If a society’s majority values and beliefs no longer support democracy (either because they no longer want it, or because they have become objectively unworthy of democracy whether they want it or not), then autocracy is what it deserves. One just hopes that it does not slip into anarchy.