Is Democracy the Best Form of Government for America?
Photo by Marija Zaric / Unsplash

Is Democracy the Best Form of Government for America?

What we have now isn’t working.

There will be those who only read the title, rushing to point out that America’s form of government was intended to be a Republic and not a Democracy. Benjamin Franklin responded to socialite Elizabeth Willing Powel’s question about what form of government the delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774 had chosen. Franklin’s response was, “A republic … if you can keep it.”

Republics date back to ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle East. Definitions vary, with the common characteristics being not a monarchy, having representative government, and being governed by laws like a Constitution instead of majority rule.

In theory, America is a representative democracy where the citizens elect members to the House of Representatives and Senate who act according to their will on a national level.

Similarly, we elect state and local officials, all with the presumption that these people will act on our behalf. It is understood that these representatives sometimes have access to information unavailable to the public. We expect them to act as we would if we knew.

America isn’t a monarchy. Presidents may sometimes speak as kings and issue executive orders, but the Constitution still constrains them, and the Congress and Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) can act as checks and balances.

We have governing laws that are subject to interpretation by SCOTUS. There may be concerns about the partisanship of SCOTUS, but the Constitution exists and helps us remain a Republic.

The argument that America has faithfully remained a Republic, which was Ben Franklin’s concern, or whether it was ever truly a Republic, goes back to a representative government elected by the people. Representative government in 1774, 2024, and all the years in between,is but an illusion.

Indeed, representatives are chosen, but the choice has never been given to everyone. Restrictions on who can vote, how Congressional maps are drawn, and how Presidential electors are chosen have always meant that relatively few people have made decisions for the many.

The Founders never intended for America to be a Democracy. They feared the people and considered themselves far wiser than the citizenry. Cobbling together a union among states with widely disparate interests was no small feat.

The Electoral College was born out of fear that Northern states would outlaw slavery and impose emancipation on Southern states whose economy depended on enslavement. Many Northern states benefitted from slavery, which may have eased their minds at the compromise.

The Electoral College was designed to give more power to smaller, less populated states in selecting Presidents. Seven of the first eleven Presidents were from Virginia, a slave state. Another of the first eleven was from South Carolina.

The three-fifths clause was designed to give slave-holding states additional representation. It is often misinterpreted as saying enslaved people had 60% of the rights of a white person. They had no rights at all that a white man was bound to respect, according to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the Dred Scott decision. Scott “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” — Chief Justice Roger B. Taney

At our country's founding, the Americans who were ineligible to vote for their representatives far exceeded those who could. With few exceptions, one had to be a land-owning male, almost all of them white, to exercise that right. Black men got that right in 1870 with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.

After the Compromise of 1877 and the passage of the Posse Comitatus Act in 1878, the federal troops protecting Black voters left the South, ending Reconstruction and ushering in Jim Crow. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Black people had full voting rights, though voter suppression in many forms continues until this day.

Women didn’t generally get the right until 1920 with the Nineteenth Amendment. Many Asian-American women didn’t get their rights until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.

Native Americans have been fighting and clawing for full voting rights, making advances in 1920, 1948, and 2008. Those living on reservations are still fighting issues like improper addresses on photo IDs issued by the state.

The Electoral College has resulted in our Presidential elections being dictated by the voters in a few swing states. The end result is that voters outside those states are the new “flyover states.” The opinions of those voters mean little except to pollsters. The majority of House Districts are safe seats.

Members of Congress are no longer concerned with representing their Districts but with those who fund their campaigns. In a country where 86% of the people favor some form of gun background checks, Congress is unwilling to pass legislation along those lines.

61% of Americans favor legal abortions, yet several states have voted to make legal abortions illegal in most instances, some imposing the procedures to be completed before most women know they are pregnant.

America’s first elected representatives were mostly wealthy white men, and the laws they established and the Courts that enforced them were made with them in mind. Everyone else fought for their seat at the table, never wresting power from the wealthy.

If being a Republic means the people are in control, then Ben Franklin was right to be concerned. The Republic has been lost, and many questions have been asked as to whether it ever existed.

What would America look like if it were more of a Democracy? Suppose the popular vote determines the outcome of presidential elections. What if a Supreme Court Associate Justice was an elected position and didn’t have a lifetime appointment?

If the Constitution were written in 2024 by well-meaning patriots, would we have a Second Amendment that Patrick Henry demanded to protect the slave patrols?

Suppose we weren’t locked in by originalism and the thoughts of men who had no concept of our technology and scientific advances. They might incorporate meaningful penalties for enriching themselves by doing the bidding of billionaires.

I rather like the concept of a Republic. A true Democracy is subject to the whims of an easily swayed populace. If we can work out having representatives who reflect the will of their constituents, I think it’s the best form of government around.

I’d replace the Electoral College with the popular vote. We used to have multiple political parties that might come and go. The current two-party system provides little incentive to reflect the will of the people, which is often different from the will of the Party.

The financial incentives for some to send others to war are still too great. We can do better, and the key is not to give up. Our government cannot be great if people give up. The key is to require our representatives to reflect our will and vote them out when they refuse.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of William Spivey's work on Medium. And if you dig his words, buy the man a coffee.