After leaving Independence Hall, Benjamin Franklin was asked by Elizabeth Wiling Powel, “Well, Doctor, what have we got ... a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s answer was, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
His response was in apparent reference to the fragile balance required in the government model as intended. It is an interesting story. The message is as true today as it was in 1787.
What do we expect of elected officials in our American democracy? The question is a vital one and not as simple as it seems on the surface. Digging deeper, we find several important phrases. Let’s break it down.
First of all, there is the widely used expression American democracy, (self disclosure: I use it frequently).Yet nowhere is the term “democracy” used in the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution. The American founders designed a representative democracy (as opposed to a direct democracy such as used in Ancient Greece). The Founders preferred the term “republic” to “democracy” because it described a system they generally preferred.
In the system designed by the Founders, representatives are chosen by the people to make decisions for the public as a whole. To protect the minority from being overrun, representatives must adhere to a constitution. This protects the rights of the minority from the will of the majority. And they believed the representative elected body should be manageable in size for doing the business of government.
There are also many instances of direct democracy in place in the United States. Many states use “ballot issues” as a method for direct voting on an issue that can become law. A referendum is another vehicle for direct voting, often used to provide funding authority for schools and other forms of local government. Nonetheless, even when direct democracy is in place, it is still subject to the regulation of the elected representatives at the state or (in some cases) the national level.
The second phrase, elected officials, seems pretty straightforward. Yet there are several issues surrounding how officials are elected. Voting regulations become vitally important in determining the makeup of voting districts ... who, when and how people are permitted to vote. And in a deeply polarized America, low-turnout primary elections can result in general election candidates with more extreme views…candidates who may be unwilling to listen to the issues from the opposing political party.
It is common for elected officials of both parties to defend their position as “based upon fairness.” Unfortunately, the focus on fairness is typically aimed at benefiting political party loyalists, rather than the larger population as a whole. It should be noted that nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or U.S Constitution is there a reference to political parties. Yet party leaders frequently portray supporters of the opposing party as “un-American.”
What do we expect?
Perhaps we need to take a deeper look at the final phrase in the question; what do we expect? Do we expect elected leaders to represent us to the best of their ability? Or do we expect the political parties to know what’s in our best interest?
As voters, are we able to support the concept of a representative government as the American founders intended. Are we satisfied (or dissatisfied) with the workings of government? And do we vote accordingly for our elected representatives? Or are we caught up in the partisan conflict and surrender our vote to political party leaders? Do we expect elected officials to represent us ... or handpicked political party leaders?
The question remains, as citizens and voters, what do we expect?
Lee Rasch is executive director of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin. Visit leaderethicswi.org for more information on the group.