The Most Successful Revolution

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What is the difference between a democracy and a republic? In a democracy the will of the people is supreme. In a republic it is not the will of the people but the rational consensus of the people—a rational consensus that is implicit in the term “consent”—which governs the people. That is to say, in a democracy popular passion may rule—it need not, but it may; in a republic popular passion is regarded as unfit to rule, and precautions are taken to see that is subdued rather than sovereign. In a democracy all politicians are, to some degree, demagogues: they appeal to people’s prejudices and passions, they incite their expectations by making reckless promises, they endeavor to ingratiate themselves with the electorate in every possible way. In a republic there are not supposed to be such politicians, only statesmen—sober, unglamorous, thoughtful men who are engaged in a kind of perpetual conversation with the citizenry. In a republic a fair degree of equality and prosperity are important goals, but it is liberty that is given priority as the proper end of government. In a democracy these priorities are reversed: the status of men and women as consumers of economic goods is taken to be more significant than their status as participants in the creation of political goods. A republic is what we would call moralistic in its approach to both public and private affairs; a democracy is more easygoing, more permissive, as we now say, even more cynical.

The Founding Fathers perceived that their new nation was too large, too heterogeneous, too dynamic, too mobile for it to govern itself successfully along strict republican principles, and they had no desire at all to see it governed along strict democratic principles, since they did not have that much faith in the kinds of “common men” likely to be produced by such a nation. So they created a new form of popular government, to use one of their favorite terms, that incorporated both republican and democratic principles in a complicated and ingenious way. This system has lasted for two centuries, which means it has worked very well indeed. But in the course of that time we have progressively forgotten what kind of system it is and why it works as well as it does. Every now and then, for instance, we furiously debate the question of whether or not the Supreme Court is meeting its obligations as a democratic institution. The question reveals a startling ignorance of our political tradition. The Supreme Court is not—and was never supposed to be—a democratic institution; it is a republican constitution that counterbalances the activities of our various democratic institutions. Yet I have discovered that when you say this to college students, they do not understand the distinction and even find it difficult to think about.

So it would seem that two hundred years after the American Revolution we are in a sense victims of its success. The political tradition out of which it issued, and the political order it helped to create, are imperfectly comprehended by us. What is worse, we are not fully aware of this imperfect comprehension and are frequently smug in our convenient misunderstandings. The American Revolution certainly merits celebration. But it would be reassuring if a part of that celebration were to consist, not merely of pious clichés, but of a serious and sustained effort to achieve a deeper and more widespread understanding of just what it is we are celebrating.