Democracy? Or Republic?

Part Four in a series on America’s conception of democracy.

The movement to abolish the electoral college is accelerating, as labels like “anti-democratic” gain traction with America’s incurious credentialed class. This effort can only be understood by addressing the underlying debate: Should America aspire to direct democracy? Or should it seek to remain a representative republic?

The republic-versus-democracy conflict rests on even deeper footings, however: scale and spectrum. To understand their role, some background is necessary ……

Point One: Democracy is a process. It frames conflict. It brings structure to the discourse surrounding that conflict. And, when functioning reasonably well, the process leads to decisions that resolve the conflict.

Point Two: The process of democracy can be structured in a variety of ways. No society has finalized “The Correct Form of Democracy.” Every attempt relies on a different set of processes.

These various forms distribute along a spectrum. At one pole of that spectrum sits representative democracy, where citizens only engage in the process at specified times. At the other end is direct democracy, where participation is hands-on and frequent.

Each approach has advantages and drawbacks. For example, direct democracy can be quite effective, but it functions well only at small scales. In contrast, representative democracy addresses the limitations of direct democracy, but it can gravitate toward centralized and opaque decision-making over time.

Scale ranges from the individual to the global, with interim sizes (like local and regional) lying between. Scale impacts both ends of the spectrum. For direct democracy, it manifests as a question: “At what size does the group become too large for direct democracy to function adequately?” For representative democracy, the question is broader: “At which scale(s) is a person most effectively represented?”

Here’s the key point: In a representative democracy, one person can be “represented” at a variety of scales. In other words, each of us can participate in several different democracies simultaneously.

Such concurrence is difficult in direct democracy.

Thus, at the heart of the “abolish the electoral college” movement is the assertion that only one scale matters in the practice of democracy: the national stage. Those who clamor for direct election are hostages to this assumption. To them, the truly important decisions are made at the top, in Washington DC, New York, and Silicon Valley. Every other scale of government exists only to execute those decisions.

The constitution’s framers prioritized the full spectrum of scales and intended to preserve them. For example, they understood that New England town meetings could forge effective local decisions. Similarly, they favored the concept of states rights as an intermediate scale of representation. Ben Franklin’s description of the constitution’s framework as “a republic” implied two elements: (1) a representative democracy, and (2) empowering a wide variety of scales.

America’s growing conflict over the electoral college requires a parsing of questions much deeper than those currently being discussed. Do we want a direct democracy in which all decisions are made at the national scale? Or will we return to the framers’ vision of a representative democracy, practiced simultaneously at a number of scales?

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