Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Democracy vs. republic

On my 2011 post Deconstructing the Ten "Cannots" of Political Economy, (apparently) new commenter John Nicholas remarks,
I for one DO NOT want a democracy! We live in a Republic for a reason, it helps to protect the minority,the weak, from the masses.

Leaving aside for the moment that "democracy" and "democratic republic" are generally used as synonyms, which is the sense used in the context of the thread (Donald Trump and George W. Bush notwithstanding, we generally elect our republic's representatives by majority vote), the alleged superiority of a republic to a democracy is a bit of received wisdom, perhaps an article of faith, that deserves critical examination.

It's difficult to untangle theory and practice. Any system of government can be implemented poorly, so even observing that the American republic in particular does not, in fact, protect minorities and the weak except when such protection is actually demanded by the masses themselves, does not by itself argue that republics are inferior to democracy. One does not have to read the Constitution and the Federalist Papers all that closely to conclude that the working class and the propertied class constituted the "factions" that most concerned the founders of the American republic, and they were primarily concerned with defending the "weak minority" of the propertied against the masses of workers. However, perhaps this failing is a failure of implementation of our specific republic, not a theoretical weakness of republics in general.

Similarly, one can examine a poorly-implemented democracy (such as one in which every citizen votes on every matter, however trivial or inapt for social decision-making) and declare in insufficiency of that particular implementation. A working government has a lot of moving parts, and there are a lot of ways any particular government can go wrong despite the theoretical soundness of its basic structure.

Every other feature of government — e.g. rule of law, independent judiciary, centralization/devolution, or constitutionally established individual rights — is compatible with both a republic and a democracy. The crucial difference between a republic and a democracy is that a republic relies on trustee representatives; a democracy does not.

The key theoretical advantage of a republic is that these trustees will be more likely to act in the public good than would ordinary citizens under their own authority. But this key difference does not seem to pass the smell test. Why is the citizenry competent to elect wise public-spirited representatives but not competent to simply act with wisdom in the public interest? If some "faction" does not have an absolute majority, they would have to compromise to achieve majority support for some of their agenda, just as a trustee representative must compromise between factions to be elected by a majority. But this supposed theoretical advantage is illusory.

The real justification of a republic is to privilege a ruling class, some subset of people in the republic who monopolize rule. (The occasional "outsider" might sometimes be elected, but they are soon co-opted into the ruling class.) "Democratic" elections serve two purposes: first, simply to generate the illusion that the people rule themselves. More importantly, no ruling class is monolithic; the illusion of democracy does give people some scope to exercise pressure to mediate conflicts within the ruling class. A democratic republic is superior to an outright oligarchy, but only just.

The big drawback of a republic, a drawback that seems inherent to the form itself and not an accident of particular institutions, is that trustee representatives come to see themselves as apart from the people, representing the interests of the ruling class(es) rather than the people. Lenin writes about this phenomenon in The State and Revolution, and we've seen any number of modern examples, notably Barack Obama's privilege of Wall Street over Main Street after the global financial crisis. Indeed, the entire Republican party clearly represents the capitalist class and the Democratic party the professional-managerial class; no faction in government represents workers and ordinary people.

When the interests of the ruling class harmonize with the means of production, then ruling class politics is relatively benign. But when contradictions develop between the relations of production and the means of production, the republic's trustee representatives are tied too strongly to the outdated relations and fight to the death by the side of the obsolete ruling classes. Only a true democracy can promote and follow revolutionary changes.

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