Voice of the People

Is America a democracy? Of course--most people would say, Of course. But in the Pledge of Allegiance we recite a line that says "and to the republic for which it stands." The truth is that America is not a democracy but a republic. So what's the difference? One difference is the role of public officials. In a democracy, as Irving Kristol explains, the public official is a "common man, who has a mandate to reflect the majority." His duty is not to vote his own convictions but to be a mouthpiece for the people. In a republic, on the other hand, the public official is not a common man but someone with special expertise and character. Someone who can rise above the clamor of the crowd. Someone educated in the historical concept of the common good. Someone who doesn't vote by public opinion polls but by constitutional principle. When the American Founders set up our government, they were adamant that they wanted a republic, not a democracy. They distrusted pure democracy, where the will of the people reigns supreme. They knew the will of the masses is volatile and easily swayed. Yesterday we contrasted the American revolution with the French revolution, which was brewing at about the same time across the Atlantic. The French revolution was inspired by the democratic ideals of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who said the basis of government is the General Will of the people. The American Founders disagreed profoundly. They had escaped the tyranny of the monarch, and they wanted to avoid the tyranny of the masses. They proposed that the basis of government is not the will of the people but their rational consensus. It's summed up in the phrase "the consent of the governed." This was to be a system where popular passions are sifted through a process of reasoned and principled debate, until a consensus is reached. That's why Americans don't vote directly on issues but go through representative bodies, like the congress and the senate. The people vote for their representatives and in turn the representative bodies weigh and deliberate on the views of the people. The American Founders chose this system because they regarded it as consistent with the biblical teaching that all human beings are fallen. Rousseau had recommended a system based on the General Will, because he viewed the will of the people as infallible. But our system frankly recognizes that people often want what is wrong or harmful. It therefore constructs a series of barriers through which every idea must pass before becoming law. What does all this mean for us in an election year? Simply this: That since America is a republic, we have a responsibility to elect public officials who fit the republican mold. I mean republican with a small "r": men and women of character, who can rise above the clamor of the crowd, who are firmly grounded in our constitutional and legislative history. That's a tall order, I'll admit. But it's the only kind of leader our republic was made for.


Chuck Colson


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