What kind of government do we have? Upon leaving the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked whether Americans had a monarchy or republic. "A republic," responded the grand old revolutionary, "if you can keep it."
Democracy was not even on the table. And yet quite quickly democracy increased, as more men obtained land, and then as other extensions of the franchise were put into law, decade by decade. But this progress of voting rights notwithstanding, it is quite clear that democracy strictly defined was not what the founders were up to.
So I have not been surprised to receive quite a few lectures from readers of these columns ? and of my free Common Sense e-letter ? on the nature of our republican government. My advocacy of further democracy, of initiative and referenda for both statutory and constitutional reform in every state of the union, couldn't help but spark controversy. "America is not now and never was a democracy," I'm repeatedly told.
I wish that were true, in a sense. I wish that we lived in a republic as imagined by the best of our founders. But Ben Franklin's great aphorism was a warning as well as a statement. And it is apparent that Americans have not heeded the warning. We have not kept our republic.
Not that keeping a republic is easy. Franklin's co-conspirator, Thomas Jefferson, explained: "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground."
As it is
So what do we have?
Not a democracy, for the betrayal of campaign promises goes on year after year and district after district without much comment.
And not quite a republic, either. The old idea of checks on government growth, and balances of power, have fallen by the wayside.
Both houses of Congress have ceded leadership to the executive, not only in matters of peace ? it has been over sixty years since Congress did its duty and actually declared war, though dozens of wars have been fought ? but in matters of domestic policy, too: regularly they blame every legislative tangle on a lack of leadership from the White House.