Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Democracy without freedom

Dialogue from the 2002 movie Spider-Man:

Peter Parker: Spider-Man wasn't trying to attack the city, he was trying to save it. That's slander.

J. Jonah Jameson: It is not. I resent that. Slander is spoken. In print, it's libel.
I hate when people try to win an argument by appealing to a pedantic distinction with no relevance to the discussion. For example, how many times have you heard someone say, "The U.S. is a republic, not a democracy"?

I've heard that statement a lot from defenders of the Electoral College, as if to suggest that opponents are aiming to turn the U.S. into a direct democracy.

Let's review the distinction. In a pure democracy, people vote for policies; in a republic, for representatives who will enact policies.

What on earth does this distinction have to do with the Electoral College? If anything, having the president chosen directly by the people would bring this country closer to the standard definition of a republic. The president is a representative, not a policy.

People who pull this distinction out of the hat are simply showing off, making it sound as if the other person is ignorant of something we all learned in grade school.

The know-it-alls may be the entire reason we keep this distinction around. It's not a very useful distinction. Apart from specific initiatives, pure democracy is virtually nonexistent. It's almost impossible to implement in a country of any significant size. And it isn't even something that most people hold up as an ideal.

We admire the U.S. system because of the freedoms it gives us, which a pure democracy would have a hard time maintaining. It is in that sense only that we invest the word democracy with its glowing connotations. When President Bush talks about spreading democracy in the Middle East, he certainly doesn't mean the direct kind. When the know-it-alls have their backs turned, everyone uses the word this way. Indeed, the main synonym for republic is "representative democracy," so it's really silly to act like a republic is anything other than a form of democracy--probably, in fact, the best form.

What's even more interesting is that the ancient Athenian government, which gave us the word democracy, would never be considered one in today's world. There, "the people" voted directly for policies, but the majority of the populace was excluded from this privileged group. That's where we got our concept of "pure democracy," even though it was nothing of the kind.

Maybe we ought to abandon the republic/democracy distinction entirely. It makes republics sound somehow defective. And it's unlike the way most people use the word in practice. In common parlance, a democracy is simply a country that grants every citizen some political power. Now there's a useful definition that may help us reclaim the term from the know-it-alls who only confuse the issue.

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