It's a Republic!
As I write this, all across the country folks are taking a break from their daily grind by celebrating our nation’s independence and all things American. However, all too often what we are celebrating is lost in fireworks and – even worse – the confusing rhetoric of our politicians.
Quite frequently we hear the United States spoken of as a beacon for democracy. I suppose it is a pet peeve of mine, but I have grown weary of quotes equating the United States to democracy. Let me say it as plainly as I can: we are not a democracy.
Yes, we elect our representatives in democratic fashion, which is good, but that is not the distinguishing element of American government. Even in dictatorial countries like Iran they elect their president. So what makes us different from Iran and a hundred other nations around the globe that elect their leaders?
We are a republic. This means that we recognize a core set of beliefs as principles of government that not even a democratic majority can overcome. Indeed, from the beginning we held certain truths to be self-evident and set up a bill of rights to clearly define restrictions on the actions of our leaders. We find these ideals and curtailments in our federal and state constitutions.
I have heard democracy defined as two wolves and a lamb voting to decide what is for dinner, which is certainly true. Without some agreed upon restraints, minorities in our society are left to the tyranny of the majority. While we often think of this in terms of religious beliefs, etc., there are other serious implications for unbridled democracy. Perhaps one of those most threatening to the security of a nation is when a majority of the people decide that they can vote themselves funds from their fellow citizens by way of the federal treasury. If a nation reaches that point, it quickly descends into chaos as taxes crush individual initiative or debt skyrockets beyond the ability to repay. We seem to be getting nearer this tipping point.
Fortunately, our founders set forth on this continent a new nation, dedicated to certain propositions that they enshrined in our constitutions. The difficulty today is whether enough Americans still “get it” and can articulate what it truly means to be an American. We were a nation founded on ideas - not geography, not heredity and not democracy. One of these ideas was that the power of the federal government is very limited by Article I, Section 8. Unfortunately, our Congress has - for decades - not taken these limits seriously. If it did, our federal spending habits would certainly be curtailed.
When asked what kind of government our founders wrought, Benjamin Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” This is as true today in our country as it was in its beginning.
I have many friends who despair at the current state of affairs, and with good reason. But I still believe that Americans are of hearty stock. We are descended from liberty lovers who had more than enough from kings, dictators and tyrannical rulers. From all over the globe our ancestors abandoned friends, family and country to seek a life where they could live at liberty from the protection of mob rule and undue government interference in their lives. I believe we still have those instincts down deep, and we still have the opportunity to experience a new birth of freedom that would make our ancestors proud. Let’s get busy. Happy belated Independence Day!
State Rep. Tom Washburne serves as Vice Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He also serves on the Financial Institutions Committee and the Select Committee on Government Reduction. Rep. Washburne represents the entirety of Gibson County and portions of Knox, Pike, Vanderburgh and Posey counties.