Three Assumptions the Republic Must Question

The Eleventh (and Final) Essay in a Series on Democracy

Few citizens regard American society as healthy today. And few have a fix for the deepening problems we face. Useful solutions will not emerge until several of the theoretical assumptions underlying today’s political system are re-examined.

Here’s a list of three assumptions that – when questioned – can help you to re-orient your thinking ……

Trend One: The Deification of Democracy

Today’s common mantras call for vague concepts like “saving our democracy,” “protecting our democracy,” or “preserving our democracy.” These shrill cries share an approach: they place one particular idea on a pedestal.

This view of democracy differs starkly from the view taken by America’s founder’s. Figures like Franklin and Adams disparaged it. They would have agreed with Winston Churchill’s far more forgiving assessment: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Gradually, through America’s recent history, the political class has taken the opposite approach. Democracy has become deified.

Ironically, this trend was accompanied by a concurrent reduction in the level of control that citizens have over their own lives. A dangerous and propagandistic centralization of power has occurred each time democracy has become more direct. Centralized power, in itself, is necessary to some degree, and can often be a benign force in society. But today’s excessive levels of centralization are feeding a growing authoritarian dysfunction in America.

To reverse the trend toward top down control, the concept of democracy will need to be approached with a more skeptical attitude.

Trend Two: Process versus Principle

The founders placed democracy within their constitutional form of government because it stood the best chance of preserving the beliefs they held dear. But democracy differs, in its basic nature, from the other “founding ideals” …… important ideas like justice, rights, liberty, equality, peace, and freedom.

Those ideals are principles. Democracy is a process. Democracy is useful only in its potential for preserving those principles.

When the process is valued more than the principles, however, a political system devolves into dysfunction. Hence, the situation we’re experiencing in early twenty-first century America.

Trend Three: A Disregard for Scale

Most media pundits look at every development through a national lens: events in remote parts of the country are interpreted as: “Here’s what we need to fix in America.” Somehow, the solution to each these “problems” is always to give more control to bureaucrats and politicians in Washington, technocrats in Silicon Valley, or top-down commercial corporations in New York City and elsewhere.

The strictly national approach is not what Ben Franklin envisioned when he described America’s new government as “a republic.” The original framework empowered states, localities, and individuals to the same extent as it empowered national interests. Any discussion of democracy without taking into account this sharing of power between a variety of scales will lead to authoritarian attempts at controlling citizens’ lives.

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.

Oligarchs for Democracy!

Part Eight in a Series on Democracy


Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.

Similarly, no part of the political circle can be labeled as inherently good or evil.

But …… long-term imbalances in the distributions of positions do allow those with evil intent to get traction in a society. When too much power is concentrated in one location – and is unchecked by citizen-empowering initiatives – a Stalin or Saddam can gain control.

In the shallow discourse of recent decades, accusations of evil were framed as “left versus right”. Since 2008, however, assessments have become more realistic. The growing power of “the elites” is now discerned as a threat.

Today’s elites congregate at the top of the political circle, pretending to fit the flawed framework of “right,” “center,” and “left”. These labels do apply. But only in a limited way. On the right reside oligarchic bankers, military interests, and corporate CEOs. On the left, academic and statist bureaucrats join the social media monopolies. At the upper pole sit deep state agencies, central banks, and globalist actors, like George Soros and Klaus Schwab.

Both major political parties have facilitated today’s imbalance. Republicans often took the lead throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with members like Mitt Romney and Pat Toomey continuing the tradition. But it is today’s Democratic Party, despite its past defense of working people’s interests, that now hurtles toward an unprecedented and unbalanced concentration of political power.

The two-party machinations were slow and methodical. And yes, some members were, and are, evil. One method of choice was to gaslight Americans into an uncritical and shallow deification of democracy.

There are no coincidences in politics. And it’s no coincidence the march toward an unbalanced centralization of power was matched by a movement toward “pure democracy.”

Charles Marohn recently addressed this trend when he observed that …… as our country has become “more democratic” it has also become “less representative”. In other words, the emasculation of local/regional government has increased the power-distance relationship between citizens and those who hold meaningful power.

The 1913 shift to direct election of U.S. senators established the precedent for greater power-distance. By removing decision-making from state legislatures (and consequently, from locally-elected legislators) the seventeenth amendment concentrated power in Washington. This proportional relationship between centralized power and “pure democracy” isn’t random. It’s an axiom of politics.

Those who seek to concentrate power further are aware of this axiom. But it’s unrecognized by propagandized citizens who giddily cede their constitutionally-protected powers to distant “authorities.”

The popular HR-1 bill currently making its way through congress is the latest example of this process. If it passes, it won’t be the last. Powerful centralizing forces will then be emboldened to challenge the electoral college’s legitimacy.

This dangerous trend toward imbalance will inevitably facilitate evil acts. The antidote is for Americans to grasp the difference between “a democracy” and “a republic” …… medicine to be explored in future posts.

Democracy As Circle

Part Seven in a Series on Democracy.

There exists a set of beliefs that almost every citizen holds to be self-evident, and America’s faith in them remains strong, whether our political position leans liberal or conservative. These “foundational ideals” – like justice, liberty, democracy, freedom, equality, and rights – are complex and amorphous. Yet they work together to energize our society.

A sharp and unacknowledged distinction divides these concepts. Democracy is a process; the other beliefs are principles. The two parts are then governed by a hierarchy: process must follow behind principles. Unfortunately, our society’s gradual deification of democracy has subverted this natural hierarchy …… leading to today’s dysfunction.

Politics is the core mechanism of democracy, of course. It sorts into three stages: (1) Conflict arises. (2) Collective discourse develops to address that conflict. (3) Then, if the process is sound, decisions emerge. As new conflicts are generated, the three stages repeat.

It’s no coincidence that these stages are addressed by the political circle. The terms politics, democracy, and political circle function like synonyms. They describe the same process ……

It should be noted that Benjamin Franklin’s term for this process – republic – is also a synonym for the circle, and it parallels democracy ……

The American republic was structured as a process of conflict-definition, discourse-engagement, and decision-making. It includes elements of democracy. But it includes other safeguards also.

So …… what does the republic attempt to protect? The framer’s spoke often about the foundational human ideals of justice, equality, liberty, rights, and the like. The republic’s structure safeguarded those founding ideals.

Various regions of the political circle have attempted to guard specific principles, claiming them as their own. For example, “libertarians” in the lower right quadrant attempt to uphold “liberty”. More recently, the newly-invigorated lower left has championed “freedom” and “rights” as it battles first amendment infringement.

Perhaps the foundational principles do self-organize into some ordered form on the circle. It’s more likely, however, that they don’t reside on that structure at all. Instead, they all sit at the center …… combining their complex, idealistic, energetic, self-contradictory, and amorphous characteristics. No specific political position can lay claim to them there.

We can think of these principles as resembling a large campfire, whose intense interactions generate large amounts of energy. None of us can get too close their heat. Instead, we encircle it, paying close attention …… while remaining linked to our neighbors who also surround it.

But an important question has been missing from mainstream discussions of politics: What causes us to sort into specific positions around the circle?

The answer is that an underlying structure – or set of calculations – informs where each individual places themself around this fire. Each citizen views the founding ideals from a different vantage point because each citizen answers two fundamental questions in his or her own way ……

…… What values do I believe our society should uphold?

…… What form of power is the best path to those values?

These commingled questions bring order to our discussions. They lead to decisions about the American republic’s foundational principles.

Does Democracy Play Well With Others?

Part Six in a series on democracy.

“Bayonet Charge” by Winslow Homer

At some point, during the passage of time, the concept of democracy ascended to the position of first principle in the minds of many Americans. It became an alpha belief …… the prime driver of our society.

Does democracy deserve to hold this exalted place?

Democracy was initiated by our country’s founders, but it wasn’t necessarily championed by them. Instead, they ranked it behind other ideals. For example, Ben Franklin asserted that liberty was of greater importance. (“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what they are going to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote”) Likewise, Thomas Jefferson elevated the concepts of “rights” and “equality” in his independence declaration. Democracy wasn’t mentioned.

Liberty, rights, and equality weren’t the only beliefs to bid against democracy for the founders’ loyalty. Nor are they the only ideas that compete for ours. Other timeless concepts, like justice and freedom, also demand our attention when new conflicts arise.

The elevation of one concept above others has created a dangerous imbalance that remains unacknowledged. Our nation’s “love of democracy” is rarely calibrated against other important beliefs. Unfortunately, democracy can be used to remove our liberties. One vote can create inequality. Only a delicate balancing act can prevent such overreach.

Above all, a crucial distinction escapes us: Democracy is a process. The other beliefs are principles. We fail to distinguish that the process exists to uphold the principles. The system doesn’t work in reverse.

Democracy is often fraught with errors, and therefore cannot be regarded as superior to the principles it was designed to uphold. One example is found in America’s winding path toward universal suffrage. While that noble achievement is commonly championed as a “victory for democracy”, it’s more accurately described as a victory for “rights,” “liberty,” or “equality.”

In truth, democracy often failed during efforts to acknowledge the right of all citizens to vote …… especially in the case of African Americans. Initial steps toward black suffrage were made only after a bloody war: a conflict between two democracies that had previously been one democracy. Later efforts stalled for almost a century before Jim Crow was overturned. Those malicious laws were also erected in the name of democracy.

A more nuanced set of priorities must be established: while the processes of democracy can help to further entrench important principles within the nation’s governance, they have also, at times, stood in the way of those ideals.

Democracy is indispensable. There’s no realistic alternative to its role in supporting concepts like rights, equality, and freedom. But it is not an end in itself: merely the best available means to an end. When this role is misunderstood, democracy can be wielded against the principles it was designed to uphold.

By placing one belief on an idealistic and purist pedestal – at the apex of importance – Americans are neglecting other foundational beliefs. The process is overrunning the principles it was meant to sustain.

What’s Really the Matter with Kansas?

Part Five in a series on America’s conception of Democracy.

I lived in New York City for several years and in the state of Kansas for a similar duration. They are two of the eight American Nations I’ve had the good fortune to observe firsthand. (Colin Woodard posited a total of eleven.)

These experiences led me to the unconventional thesis that debates about our democracy can be distilled to down two places. America can be described as “Kansas versus New York City.”

This pairing might strike you as asymmetrical: One is a state; the other is a city. But each represents a development pattern: Kansas is rural; NYC is urban. They reside on either side of a duality that sits at the heart of some important upcoming decisions about the future of our democracy.

The conflict between urban and rural has simmered under the surface of America’s decision-making process for years …… with urban/suburban interests gradually gaining power. Now, an inflection point has been reached. Will metro areas accumulate so much power that rural spaces lose political self-determination, in a weird case of life imitating The Hunger Games? Or will the pendulum swing the other way?

These questions lie beneath the electoral college debate. Kansas is one of the few states (Wyoming, Vermont, and Montana are similar) where population centers remain small: the urban vote is dwarfed by rural priorities. Conversely, in the state of New York (like Illinois, Oregon, California, and others) one or more metropolises dominate political decision-making.

This can be described as sets of parallel contrasts ……

…… Rural versus urban

…… States versus cities

.….. Distributed versus concentrated populations

…… Distributed versus concentrated political power

These pairs function like synonyms: Distribution, rural, and state on one side versus concentration, urban, and metropolitan on the other.

Another duality parallels them, too. But its commonality goes unnoticed ……

…… The electoral college versus popular presidential election.

It’s no coincidence that the abolish activists mostly reside within concentrated coastal metro regions, while electoral college defenders are ensconced in flyover states. For verification, witness the figures who demand electoral college change, like NYC representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former New York Senator Hillary Clinton. A recent bill to abolish the college was sponsored exclusively by representatives of major population centers, mostly on the east and west coasts.

This pattern was established decades ago when America shifted to the direct election of senators. The seventeenth amendment was promoted as “more democratic.” In practice, however, it caused rural areas to lose agency. Much local and regional control was ceded to a corporate-influenced east coast metropolis.

Like before, today’s direct election activists frame their message as “seeking better democracy.” But the outcome would lead to another grant of power to densely-populated areas. Political power itself would become more centralized.

The elites of New York, and their allies, seek to disenfranchise distributed power. The first blow was struck by the seventeenth amendment. The next effort is against the electoral college. They hide the stick of concentrated power behind a carrot of direct democracy.

What is Your Assessment of the Citizen?

Photo: AndrewHorne

A person can view the American citizen in one of two ways. He or she can attribute agency to the citizens – trusting them to be actively responsible in the management of their lives and relationships. Or, the citizen can be viewed as someone who should passively accept direction and aid from their betters. This initial tendency determines an entire downstream range of political viewpoints.

The active versus passive assessment has little to do with a person’s values. Someone who leans liberal might see the citizens as responsible …… or they might not. The same dynamic applies to someone else who leans conservative.

It also doesn’t apply to a person’s standing in life. Someone’s record of success might have been high, or moderate, or “not-so-much.” It has little bearing on how they view the capacity of others to manage their own lives.

So, this appraisal of competency and trustworthiness doesn’t apply to most human categories. But it does apply to the question of power. Those who favor centralized solutions – whether elites or commoners – see the bulk of their fellow citizens as lacking life skills. In contrast, a person who favors decentralized power has placed great faith, in most cases, in their neighbors’ capacity for getting on with life. This faith tends to be consistent, whether the quantity of neighbors numbers one, or 330 million.

Examples asserting a passive view of citizens abound. In the corporate media, we see it in a willingness to propagandize information. In the two major political parties, it can be observed in strained efforts to pander publicly, while making backroom deals privately. In the policies forged by those parties, obsequious efforts to provide free perks are in ample evidence. This bread and circuses mentality – encouraging passivity – has characterized the approach of concentrated power for at least five thousand years …… and probably for far longer.

In contrast, decentralized power has always preferred to allow fellow citizens to actively assemble – and disassemble – as they see fit.

In short, the passive-active judgment applies to the vertical axis of the political circle. It does not apply to the horizontal axis. It’s an orientation that’s key to understanding the twenty-first century’s rising political conflicts. This re-birthed form of conflict began its slow move toward center stage a few decades ago, and has since been supplanting the left-right debate in importance.

The struggle can’t be understood with outdated terms like “liberal” or “conservative.” But Americans still attempt to discuss it within that framework. Terms like centralized and decentralized must be applied instead.

It can be productive to ask a question whenever some prominent political figure places himself or herself in front of the cameras. “Do the underlying assumptions of this person’s stated positions posit the citizens as recipients of some powerful entity’s wise policy prescriptions?” Or do they expect you to act responsibly as a member of your family and community?

It’s helpful to ask such questions of those who attempt to shape your opinion. It’s also helpful to ask them of yourself.

The Two Types of Truth

Americans fail to notice a pair of tectonic plates deeply buried beneath our conflicts. And our inability to acknowledge their crucial impact has created unseen distortions within collective discourse ……

Example Conflict One: A person who believes strongly in “the right to life” finds himself – or herself – in political opposition to someone who believes in “the right to choose.” This is one form of conflict. It focuses on values.

Example Conflict Two: The Federal Reserve pursues centralized management of the nation’s economy through its control of a fiat currency (the dollar). But its opponents believe “the market” should determine the form and value of money (through decentralized entities like precious metals and cryptocurrencies).

These examples represent two types of conflict. Each differs in its fundamental structure.

In one dispute – fiat versus gold – opposed parties analyze data and derive differing conclusions based on the logic applied to that information. In the other, abortion is a matter of conscience. Each opposed party “knows” within its heart what is right.

In Conflict Two, the competing proofs finish at different places. In Conflict One, the two parties start at different places …… before either combatant attempts a debate.

Two types of “truth” are at work in these examples. In the data-driven debate, truth is seen as objective; the underlying assumption is that a process of analysis will ultimately determine which side is correct. But the values disagreement can’t be resolved through analysis. It represents a different type of truth: subjective truth.

Clear definitions can be provided for each type of truth ……

In an objective conflict, a given position can eventually be proven true or false.

In a subjective conflict, a given position can never be proven true. Nor can it be proven false.

This distinction is rarely drawn within today’s political debates. Instead, discourse becomes chaotic or nonsensical as each participant labels himself or herself as the objective thinker …… while those who disagree are labeled as immoral or unintelligent.

Ironically, such accusations divide into the types of truth. Someone labeled “unintelligent” is deemed to be deficient in their capacity for analysis – a prime component objective truth. And a person labeled “immoral” is accused of having no conscience – a marker of subjective truth.

Our inability to see this important distinction is a spatial problem in its origins. On a one-dimensional model, partisan language is jumbled onto a single line, where definitions of terms are stretched too far ……

To resolve this confusion, a two-dimensional model must be referenced, where each axis represents a specific type of truth. The vertical orients toward the objective. The horizontal is subjective.

As humans, each of us holds to a complex combination of beliefs. Some of those beliefs are objective. Others are more subjective. Our political positions reflect that complexity. But they can be clarified by answering two fundamental questions ……

The objective question: …… Should power be centralized or decentralized?

The subjective question: …… Should our values be conservative or liberal?

When plotted on the political circle, our weighted answers provide better distinctions between positions ……

Seven Qualities of Centralized Power

photo: AfricaStudio

When a society adopts a one-dimensional paradigm, two terms garner most of its attention: left and right (aka: liberal and conservative). This has been the case in America for several generations. It’s the root cause of today’s deepening turmoil.

No society is one-dimensional, however. And when the complex intersections of our political preferences are discussed using limited language, cross-talk and conflation emerge.

The solution is to draw distinctions about power. Its “vertical” observations must be added to our ongoing “horizontal” conversations about values: the interwoven fabric of two axes can then be examined.

The qualities of citizen-based power were examined earlier. Here are characteristics exhibited by centralized power ……


This concerns the control of data. Centralizers restrict its flow, allowing only a few highly-vetted loyalists to view information. This “classified” approach opposes the citizen-empowering preference for transparency. The power poles disagree on who “needs to know” …… the few versus the many.


You’ve heard the phrase “go big or go home.” The centralizer says: “Go big. And regardless of outcome, go bigger next time.” This quality explains why wars are centralizing events: the scale these existential contests is immense. It also explains why large monuments were left by top-down societies like those run by Pharaohs and Roman emperors. Perhaps the most monumental achievement in history was the landing of a man on the moon …… an indication of America’s shift toward centralized power.


Centralists create reams of regulations, where complicated rules seek some simple goal. This contrasts with citizism’s preference for emergence, where a simple set of initial rules (and conditions) leads to the complexity of self-organizing systems.


“Go local” is never the emphasis of a centralized organization. Concentrated power seeks a national/global orientation. This tendency has made the country’s largest cities very successful. It also favors the media organizations that focus on national players and policies.


Like the other characteristics on this list, quality five applies equally to the left and right sides of the political circle. On the upper left, governmental bureaucracies attempt to set policy for an entire nation. On the upper right, corporations control markets with top-down plans for national or global domination. The two high quadrants often work together toward these ends.


Closely related to quality five, this characteristic is about silos. Every member of an organization holds a position within a vertical org chart. Most seek to move “upward” where they can control more power. But only those with proper credentials will reach “the top.” This tendency contrasts sharply with the flexible, decentralized organizations favored by the lower pole.


Centralized power always seeks uniformity, despite its recent mantras about diversity. A monolithic set of common beliefs is pursued. Like other qualities, this one can’t describe differences between the left and right.

Other characteristics are also exhibited by centralists. Their need for predictable structure sits in opposition to the citizist’s comfort with some chaos.

Four Problems with Partisan Partitioning

Political analysis tends to run in well-trod pathways, with its thinkers reliant on a set of insufficiently questioned assumptions. Here are four that inflict damage on our collective discourse ……


Traditionally, the partisan population has been sorted into two camps: conservative and liberal. Lately, more sophisticated thinkers have added a third: the libertarians. A few members of the credentialed class then take this trend to its limits by dividing the political world into countless categories of belief (theo-conservative, radical centrist, collectivist, etc.).

Both of these approaches – “too few” and “too many” – lack a clear conception of the partisan landscape. In contrast, a productive worldview accommodates a few foundational groups, plus the precise divisions derived from their complex intersections.

America is not divided in two. Nor in three. Instead, four main groups structure the political playing field. Two are focused on power (centralized versus decentralized). Two are oriented toward values (liberal versus conservative).


It’s so common to define conservatives as “those who follow tradition” that it’s difficult for many folks to consider the right-leaning category within any other framework. But tradition is a derivative quality, not a primary characteristic.

In the case of conservatives, they support certain traditions because western societies were paternally-oriented for centuries. Within other historical spans, however, liberals have established traditions that they’re equally unwilling to part with. Just ask one of them to contemplate the discontinuation of an FDR-era entitlement program, for example.


An assumption is made by most political pundits that the real action is in Washington DC, Brussels, Silicon Valley, Beijing, Wall Street, or a similar seat of centralized power. This causes those thinkers to regard local entities as unimportant backwaters. For example, most state capitals are considered unworthy of attention, unless some governor makes a national play …… or a local tragedy triggers debate on a hot-button national policy initiative.

It’s not inconceivable, however, that the greatest advances in our century will be of the grassroots variety. Agricultural movements like permaculture, organic farming, and local sourcing hold the keys to several current problems, including those affecting the environment. These efforts are joined by other incrementalist approaches – like crowdsourcing, new urbanism, and micro-lending – that could change our society’s trajectory. Citizen-empowering approaches are worthy of more attention.


The phrase, “talking heads” gets at the assumption behind excessive wordsmithing: sophisticated, well-dressed pundits elucidate voluminous answers to the world’s thorniest issues. And yet, those problems rarely get solved …… or they get worse …… or they’re punted to the default solution of ever-increasing power centralization.

But a concept presented in seven syllables is not more productive than a concept expressed with three.

In contrast, spatial explanations are treated, at best, as ingenious little tricks that might communicate some metaphor. More often, they’re regarded as illegitimate. Spatial constructs are rarely treated as foundational analytical tools. Therefore, we fail to make progress against many of the deep problems our society faces.