What Did the Founders Mean by “Democracy”?

In the context of rightwingers’ asserting all over the Internet that “this is a republic, not a democracy,” I’m going to quickly review here the question of what the founders meant when they used the term “democracy.” For while the right is wrong in asserting that this isn’t a democracy — it is supposed to be one, now — some assertions in response, explaining the founders’ uses of the terms “republic” and “democracy,” are wrong too, and wrong in ways that erode public understanding of how we got from an elite republic to a democratic republic.

What did the founders mean when they said “democracy”?

They meant many different and at times contradictory things.

Yet a common response intended to shut down the glib right-wing “republic not democracy” assertion makes the founders simplistically consistent in the opposite way, as summed up in the law professor and activist Lawrence Lessig’s Medium entry on the subject, posted back in 2016 and recently revived on Twitter:

Yes, it is true, the Framers meant to establish “a Republic.”

And yes, they openly and repeatedly criticized “democracy.”

But the “democracy” they were criticizing was “direct democracy,” and the “Republic” they were championing was “representative democracy.”

Lessig’s claim that when the framers criticized democracy they meant only to criticize direct democracy — holding a popular referendum on every law and issue, with no representative layer — doesn’t stand up to a second’s scrutiny. Of course the framers disliked direct participation and favored representation: they didn’t want the electorate voting to pass and repeal laws; they wanted the electorate voting to choose representatives who would vote on passing and repealing laws. Some of the founders wrote eloquently on the virtues of a representative system: Lessig cites Madison to that effect. And it’s true that Madison and others sometimes explicitly used “democracy,” to refer disparagingly to direct democracy, in contrast to a representative “republic.”

But that was all talk, in the sense that the founders had no experience of direct democracy. Continue reading

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Thomas Paine and the Democratic Revolutionaries: Egypt 2011, America 1776

To the young democratic resisters in Egypt, some of whom I’ve heard saying in street interviews that they admire the American Revolution, I want to say something complicating. (No, I don’t literally think they’re taking time out of changing their country and the world to follow my blog — but hey, you never know!) This: It’s a somewhat bleak fact that the only successful American founding-era revolution for democracy occurred in Pennsylvania in 1776 — and that wasn’t the Continental Congress’s declaring independence from England.

This may be annoying. There may be times for believing in the big, uncomplicated American narratives, and this may be one of them. But Egyptians want democracy, and our famous Declaration was not a declaration for democracy, and since that’s what my books are about, I’m seeing events in Egypt a certain way.

(For what it’s worth, that is. Back when I was shouting and waving my fist in the steet, I didn’t live in a military dictatorship. And I sure didn’t go back the next day to sweep up. Respect.)

Anyway, the real 1776 democratic revolution I’m talking about is at once an inspiring and a cautionary one for worldwide democratic revolutions today.

I should note that everything I know about politics in Egypt I’ve learned from the papers and the radio in the past month. Like so many others, I’ve followed the uprising there with bated breath because of its nonviolence and the strange — possibly unique? — relationship of the military to both the protestors and the regime. With everyone else, I await next steps. Will a government that has been a military one for generations actually enable real elections and subordinate the military to representative civilian authority? Maybe. But if so, the ironies will be many. BBC and others have reported that it is the younger officer corps (not young, younger) that groks the civilian-control thing — and that’s because unlike their Soviet-tutored elders, they’ve grown up under the influence of the U.S. alliance and studied in our war colleges. That would mean our long alliance with a military dictatorship may have had a liberalizing influence on its military. Hm.

There are of course a host of parallels and precedents in U.S. revolutionary history that might provide both inspiration and warning for modern democratic movements. George Washington, a general, did famously hand over the reins of power after his presidency. Of course, he’d been elected in the first place (though not with any real competition). And the army he’d once led had been disbanded some years earlier. Which didn’t stop his administration from flirting, putting it politely, with militarism. And nobody has ever been more sick of being president than George Washington. . . Still, when it comes to subordinating the military to the civilian authority, we may hope that Egyptian generals would consider emulating both the myth and the reality of our American Cincinnattus’s republican integrity.

That was a republican integrity, though, not a democratic one. Washington was no believer in democracy. Nor were any of the other famous founders. And Egyptians want democracy. So while the generals should follow Washington’s example, young people seeking inspiration for democracy in the American revolutionary period need to look to figures who do not show up in certified histories of the American Revolution.

Well, one of them does, so let’s start with him: Paine. Continue reading