A Republic, If You Can Keep It

Benjamin Franklin, by Jean-Baptiste Greuze / Wikimedia Commons

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, as Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall a Mrs. Powel approached him and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic, or a monarchy?” Without skipping a beat,the 81-year-old Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

A republic is a type of government in which the people retain control over how they are governed. The word itself comes from the Latin res publica, or “a public matter.” A monarchy (“one ruler”), by contrast, is what the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the authors of our Constitution worked so hard to get us all out from under.

A republic is a form of democracy — a combination of the Greek words for “people” and “power” — in which people periodically elect representatives to make the governing decisions on their behalf. In a pure democracy, people get together and make the decisions themselves.  About the only place you will find pure democracy in America anymore is the New England open town meeting. You can’t have a pure democracy in a nation of some 350 million people.

If you were of my generation, you would have known all this and more to the core of your being by the time you finished grammar school, having studied civics –the rights, responsibilities, and duties of citizens — for eight years as part of the social studies curriculum. Is there even  such a thing as a public school social studies curriculum anymore? I doubt it, and I’m almost certain there’s none in Kentucky, where Rand Paul has the temerity to run for the Senate without an inkling of what democracy is.

Paul, the bad-seed son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, famously announced that the United States is not a democracy, it’s a republic. And nobody in the state had the wit or wisdom to shout him down. There’s a YouTube video of him saying that school students should be taught that America is not a democracy. If you want to spend a minute and a half listening to an idiot blither, you’ve got the link in the previous sentence. If not, you can trust me on this: Rand Paul doesn’t know what he’s talking about — or, if he does, he’s as anti-American as anyone walking around free today.

What prompts this post is something I think I’ve spotted as a trend, and if it is one, it has Karl Rove’s filthy fingerprints all over it. Twice in the past few days I’ve heard a radio voice refer to our “republican democracy,” as opposed to our “democratic republic.”  I didn’t catch who said it first. I was too busy picking up my jaw off the floor. The second time I heard the term it came out of the mouth of Alan Stolberg, an assistant professor at the U.S. Army War College, in an NPR Morning Edition segment on whether military people should disagree openly with their commander in chief. What’s this about?

My guess — and I invite you to watch and see how close I come — is that it’s support for Rand Paul’s denial of the democratic foundations of our government and that if they get away with it those who would like to change this country such that (a) only elected individuals have any say at all , (b) that those who get elected by the moneyed interests that the Supreme Court has unleashed stay elected until hell freezes over or they die, whichever comes first, and (c) that our democratic heritage fades into oblivion.

Words can make this happen, so if you think the difference between “republican democracy” and “democratic republic” is trivial learn this now: words have the power to shape opinions, hence political decisions.  It was no accident that opponents of health care reform termed end-of-life counseling “death panels,” and inheritance taxes that actually affect a minuscule number of families “death taxes.” It’s no accident that right-wing extremists call the Democratic Party the “democrat” party.

Lest anyone miss the point: “Democratic republic” stresses that the people (demos) ultimately rule. “Republican democracy” says that those who are elected are in control. The first word is the engine, the second the caboose.  I’m not just talking about party designations here; I’m talking about where the power is.

If you let them get away with “republican democracy” in another generation people will think it’s perfectly normal that one party runs everything, all the time, and all others are on the fringes.

Lest you think I’m alone in this, read this, from an essay by Richard Beeman, professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania on the National Constitution Center website:

If there is a lesson in all of this it is that our Constitution is neither a self-actuating nor a self-correcting document. It requires the constant attention and devotion of all citizens. There is a story, often told, that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: “A republic, if you can keep it.” The brevity of that response should not cause us to under-value its essential meaning: democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health.

For more on how words shape opinions, read Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff, or my post “Framing the Discussion,” here.

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