America is not a democracy. To be precise, it is a nationally-federated constitutional republic.
This distinction, however, has sadly been largely erased from the national lexicons, pointed out only by those who are immediately dismissed and scornfully labelled a pedant.
Yet, that this is not an issue of semantics is all too evident in the reaction to the presidential election. Anti-Trump protestors, justifying their histrionics by babbling about “democracy!”, claim the election was stolen by a rigged electoral system which does not reflect the will of the people.
This is partially true. The electoral system does not reflect the will of the people, at least not directly. However, this is not its purpose because America’s political system is grounded in republican principles.
The Founders never intended for direct representation to exist anywhere but in the House of Representatives. Civics classes belabor the long, contentious argument which existed over how to apportion representation. What this debate misses, though, is that “equality” had different meanings. Yes, technically it is more egalitarian to have the same number of representatives for each state, but in in another sense this is actually unfair to states which have larger populations, usually centered in areas of industry, and who contribute more in taxes to the government’s operation.
Hence the decision to create a bicameral legislature (the Articles of Confederation had a unicameral legislature) which maintained equal power between the states by giving them the same number of representatives and allowed a more direct form of representation based on population sized in the popularly elected House of Representatives.
The competition between the interests and the states and the interests of the people created another check within the federal system in the minds of the Founders, which played an important role in the electoral college. States, though they have no federal voice now, were an important dynamic of federal governance since the vast majority of law was carried out at the state level.
The electoral college therefore recognizes the importance of giving both the people and the states a say in electing a chief executive. Hence Article II, Section I of the Constitution:
“Each state shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.”
What the electoral college does is help protect the interests of all political actors. States are bigger constituencies; they have more diverse political and economic interests than do cities, whose populations would determine elections in a direct system of representation. The electoral college allows both the people and the states to indirectly have a say, thus including and mitigating their interests in an ingenuous check on power.
Written by the greatest expert on the meaning of the Constitution, its lead author James Madison, Federalist 39 explains the intent of the electoral college perfectly:
“The House of Representatives, like that of one branch at least of all the State legislatures, is elected immediately by the great body of the people. The Senate, like the present Congress and the Senate of Maryland, derives its appointment indirectly from the people. The President is indirectly derived from the choice of the people, according to the example of most of the States.”
That this is a republican, not a democratic model is again made clear in Madison’s writing:
“Could any further proof be required of the republican complexion of this system, the most decisive one might be found in its absolute titles of nobility, both under the federal and the State governments; and in its express guaranty of the republican form of the latter.”
Why is this distinction between republicanism and democracy so important? Again, Madison, this time in Federalist 10, whose words seem almost prescient in the context of this election, explains the dangers of “pure democracy”:
“by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert results from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would at the same time be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.”
It is perhaps not surprising that such nuance is above the grasp of those storming through the streets whining that, just because an election did not go their way, democracy is broken. However, it is appropriate that, believing themselves to be in a democracy, they stoke the mischiefs of faction and reinforce the Founders’ thinking.