Discerning Discrete Democracies

Part Ten in a Series on Democracy.

…… “Americans love democracy.”

…… “We must defend democracy around the world.”

…… “Our country is the greatest democracy on earth.”

Grand statements like these are regularly tossed about on the public square. Unfortunately, they’re so broad that democracy’s specifics are often assumed, but not assessed. This can be dangerous.

Throughout recent decades, the concept of democracy has gradually become deified. And when some process gets placed on a pedestal, social taboos constrain the discussions surrounding it. We fail to examine the sacred object’s intricacies. We don’t see its limitations.

Any discussion of democracy’s limitations must look back toward the founding figures of our country. They were skeptical of the concept. Some even disparaged it. Yet they still chose to place it at the center of their republic. Something in that structure caused them to become more comfortable with the process.

So, a question must be answered: “What is the relationship between a democracy and a republic?”

The answer distills to one concept: scale.

Scale, by definition, distributes along a continuum. We acknowledge the two ends of that continuum with the terms large scale and small scale.

Americans have gradually come to discuss democracy as if it were strictly a large scale endeavor. Our discourse focuses on presidential contests, nationwide popular votes, and the latest politician to ascend the national stage. This untested assumption underlies the new HR-1 bill, which places elections under centralized control, removing decision-making power from the states.

It would be easy to assert that “a republic” focuses on the opposite side of the continuum: small scale. But the idea of a republic is more broad. America’s founders envisioned a variety of simultaneous scales.

This establishes the basic definitions of two terms ……

…… A democracy – as currently discussed by mainstream figures – addresses only the largest scale of our society’s decision-making.

…… A republic – as envisioned by the country’s founders – encompasses the continuum of all possible scales.

Franklin and friends never eschewed the importance of national decisions: the 1787 constitutional convention was convened because the Articles of Confederation failed to address nationwide problems. But the smallest scale wasn’t neglected either. Their debates weren’t settled until individual liberties were protected by a Bill of Rights.

The constitution also addressed other scales along the continuum. States rights was one focus. And the rights of local jurisdictions to determine their own affairs were protected too.

America’s republic is often equated to a democracy, but that description is inadequate. A republic is actually a set of democracies: citizens participate on several levels concurrently: national, regional, local, grassroots, and informal. The constitution acknowledges this tension between the various scales of decision-making. It attempted to create a balance in which no particular level has an unfair advantage.

Today, we ignore this tension between scales. National affairs are granted the lion’s share of attention.

America now faces a decision: Will it continue to embrace a limited, failing conception of democracy? Or will it once again become a republic? The grand statements ignore this decision.

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