Friday, March 10, 2006

Democracy or Republic - make your choice

A little philosophical food for thought...

We hear a lot about "being a democracy", but the fact of the matter is (which the majority of US citizens really don't understand) that the US as a nation is not a democracy - we are a Federal Republic.

We are the United States of America - not just America.

Let's look at a few definitions:
  • de*moc*ra*cy : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority
  • re*pub*lic : A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them
  • fed*er*al : formed by a compact between political units that surrender their individual sovereignty to a central authority but retain limited residuary powers of government
Yes, each state is in itself a republican democracy. But our country is a federal republic.

Sound confusing? It can be if you don't take the time to think it through.

In a democracy, everyone plays by the same rules and the same laws. This is the case within a state but not so in our complicated form of national government where federal laws and guidelines supplement (and at times compete with) individual - and quite separate - state laws that vary from state to state.

In a democracy everyone's vote carries the same weight. Again, this is the case within a state but not within the federal government. Think the Electoral College. And how about the House of Representatives? Not only do individual citizen's votes note count the same throughout the country (there is no national popular vote), but even each State itself doesn't have the same voice in government. Sorry, but Connecticut doesn't have the same power as California. More electoral votes, more representatives. The overall dynamics are complex.

In a national democracy, each area is governed by a branch or outpost of the single national government. Yet in our country each state is governed by its own independently elected government.

In a national democracy, each area is judged under a single legal and court system. In the US, each state maintains it's own judicial branch including its own state Supreme Court.

We have always been a complicated governmental system struggling to understand and define where one layer of government ends and the other begins. And it just keeps getting harder every day as state and federal officials fight over turf wars.

Think of all the state versus federal issues still in the headlines today after decades of debate and conflict. Abortion, euthanasia, medical marijuana, gay marriage. Who has jurisdiction and who has control?

To hear the Federal government side, you would believe that the time has come for us to move to a national federalist society having one set of laws governing all citizens. And in many ways, the last few decades have moved us closer to that ideal. More and more federal laws are created that trump state laws, and more and more state laws are found to be unconstitutional when taken out of state courts and moved to federal courts. The lines of what is a state issue and what can be a federal issue have blurred.

Some would say this is good - shouldn't everyone in the country have the same rights and be subjected to the same laws? And some would say this is bad - shouldn't a state have the right to mold itself as its people desire, and then people of like-minded beliefs can live and be governed in social harmony? And some would say it depends on which law we're talking about. It is a very grey area.

But one thing remains clear: We are not currently a national democracy.

Issues continue to erupt specifically to test the state versus federal jurisdiction lines, such as the new South Dakota law banning abortion directly in violation of the federal ruling making it legal, and the federal government making medical marijuana illegal in direct contradiction to a California law which allowed it. As these issues grow, the biggest question we need to answer is:

Do we really want to be a national democracy? Or do we want to remain a republic of independent states?

The choices we make now will determine our future existence as a nation. And that's what makes it all so very important to address today.



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