The Conservative and Democracy

In several recent comments, Mike D. has made a handful of points stating that conservatives should have a rather hostile view toward democracy as granting political power to the people can result in a lot of non-favorable results for the conservative mindset.  There is certainly some merit to this argument, but first I feel the need to clarify an important point.  First, you have to understand the fact that our country was not really founded as a democracy and is not really a democracy today.  “How can this be?” you ask.  Well, what is a democracy?  Historically there have been two types of democracy, direct and representative.  Direct democracy is a system whereby all voting citizens are allowed to vote individually on each law or rule that the state wishes to enact as well as create legislation.  This sort of democracy is rare by today’s standard, as a populous country such as our own would find the system to be quite unwieldy.  It does exist, to some extent, in states like California with procedures like the referendum, but it is certainly the exception, not the norm.  Obviously we do not have a direct democracy.  How about a representative democracy?  A representative democracy is one where by voting citizens elect representatives to promote their interests in some sort of national assembly.  Do we have that kind of government here? Yes, we certainly do; however, we are still only a quasi-democracy.

One very important feature of democracy is the idea of majority rule.  Whatever side has 50% +1 of the votes, be it through direct democracy or representative democracy, can enact whatever legislation they wish regardless of the wishes of the remainder of the population.  Believe it or not, many of the founding fathers did not want the government to be democratic and held a dim view of democracy.  As James Madison put it in The Federalist #10, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention, have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property, and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths”.  I am very thankful that we do not have majority rule, as do traditional conservatives.  But wait, we do have majority rule here.  Not so, the reasons why we do not include the constitution and its amendments, checks and balances, and federalism.  Although I run the risk of sounding like an episode of School House Rock, let’s start with checks and balances.  The United States Government as well as every state in the union (with the exception of the unicameral Nebraska) has both upper and lower houses of government.  In order for a basic bill to pass, both houses must approve it by majority.  After that, it is still not law, as the executive (be it the president or the governor) has to either sign or veto it.  If it is signed, it becomes law while if it is vetoed, it will not, unless both houses of the government can pass it again under a super majority (typically two-thirds or three-fourths).  After that, if challenged, the Supreme Court can rule the law to be in violation of the constitution and therefore it is no longer law.  This system of checks and balances serves the interests of the traditional conservative quite well, as a bill must pass through a significant number of hoops in order to become law, and defeat for any bill is quite likely.  Compare our system to that of the United Kingdom.  Their system is much closer to the democratic ideal of majority rule.  In Great Britain, they too have two houses in their parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords.  The real power rests with the House of Commons.  The House of Lords, unlike the Senate, cannot defeat a bill and can only return it to the House of Commons for further consideration.  In addition, their Prime Minster, unlike our President, is the leader of the majority in the House of Commons.  He, by definition, is supported by the majority in the House of Commons and therefore approves of the majority decisions.  In the U.S., divided government is quite common.  How many times in the last twenty years has one party controlled the House, Senate, and the Presidency?  It happened for a couple of years under George W. Bush, and from 1992 to 1994 under Bill Clinton, never under George H. W. Bush or even Ronald Reagan before him.  In addition, in Britain, the courts have no power to declare laws unconstitutional.  Yes, the system of checks and balances in our national government and state governments certainly stifle the prevailing winds of majority rule.

Then we come to the issue of the Constitution.  Supposedly the Constitution lays out what sort of powers the government does and does not have.  If you read the Constitution, the expressed powers of the federal government are very limited, and, as the 10th Amendment reminds us, powers not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states and the people.  Should the Federal Government create laws that exceed its authority then supposedly, if challenged, the Supreme Court should declare the law an illegal usurpation of power.  Unfortunately, for the most part, the Supreme Court has fallen down on its duty.

Another stumbling block for majority rule again, closely tied to the 10th Amendment, is federalism and the power of the states.  It used to be that if a state government had determined a particular law was in violation of the Constitution or the state’s laws, the state could simply ignore the law.  John C. Calhoun of South Carolina was the most vocal proponent of this principle known as nullification.  In addition, as Mike D. points out, there was also the idea of secession.  Should a state feel that the federal government was too far out of line with the wishes of its citizens, the state could secede, or withdraw from the union.  This was an option that was not to be taken lightly, but certainly served as an ultimate check against federal tyranny and usurpation.  Regarding the idea of secession, you may not know that one of the earliest discussions of secession occurred during the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson.  Unlike the more famous example in the 1860s, the states in question were in New England.  They were concerned that the purchase of the Louisiana Territory was unconstitutional and would severely weaken the influences of their respective states.  In response to this threat of secession, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1803 “God bless them both, and keep them in union, if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better” and in 1804 “Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part” which were markedly different responses than the one given by Lincoln some fifty years later.  After the war, the Supreme Court in Texas v. White ruled secession to be unconstitutional.  Despite this ruling, the idea of secession still exists.  Secession groups exist in a number of states today, with some of the most vocal in the states of Vermont, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

So, I suppose the take home message for this article is that we do not have a truly democratic government because we lack the critical component of true majority rule.  As to Mike’s statement, “The vote seems to be a problem for the conservative worldview because its very existence indicates a possibility for disagreement or potential change.” I would answer, sure, changes can happen, but they can do so under any form of government.  What if there was no voting?  Dictators can change the laws easier than any other form of government, but of course we are not a dictatorship.  Unitary, majority rule democracies like Great Britain can make sweeping changes too, but fortunately, we aren’t that kind of government either.  In countries where voting actually counts, voting serves as yet another critical and important check against our leaders.  Although our form of government is not by any stretch perfect, I believe the idea of quasi-democratic republic, protected from the fickle whims of the majority through the adherence of checks and balances, the Constitution, and federalism, serves both the nation and the conservative quite well.

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