Is America a republic or a democracy? Is there a difference?
Presidential Power's Sunday Shorts look at President Obama's White House bubble, whether America is a democracy or not, and the great teleprompter non-story.
This Sunday’s Shorts:
The Bear Is On The Loose
At some point in their presidency, all presidents chafe at the isolation imposed by living in the White House “bubble” and seek ways to partake in some “normal” activities, even something as mundane as eating a burrito bowl at Chipotle. Of course, sometimes this is for photo opportunities, but more often it reflects a genuine desire to break the isolation that is an inevitable part of being president. On this topic, Harry Truman told the following story as part of the conversation that I recounted in Saturday’s post: “I sat on the porch one Sunday afternoon, and there was a ballgame down there on the Ellipse, and I thought I would go down and see the ball-game, and I started to walk down there, and I looked around and there were two or three policemen on one side and Secret Serviceman on the other side, and when I got to the fence, it broke up the ball-game – they all came over to look at me. By experience you learn those things. What President Taft said is true. It is an extremely lonesome job, and I can’t see why anybody in his right mind would want the job. It was rather forced on me.”
A Republic (Not a Democracy) – If You Can Keep It
I rarely disagree with the always interesting Jonathan Bernstein, but I’m going to take issue with Jon’s latest post, in which he argues that the terms “democracy” and “republic” are largely synonymous. Jon’s broader point is that those, like Philip Klein, who persist in claiming the American political system is a republic and not a democracy are splitting hairs. In fact, Jon argues, there are only different types of democracies, each characterized by different rules governing representation, decisionmaking, etc. To argue otherwise, he believes, “encourages sloppy thinking, including excuses for some seemingly undemocratic practice that we have no other reason to support.”
Well, maybe. But recall that James Madison writes "Federalist 10" with the specific intent to defend what some might call undemocratic practices embedded in the new constitutional system. In this essay he explicitly labels the newly-established governmental system a “republic,” and takes pains to distinguish it from a “pure democracy” because he sees them as fundamentally different types of government, with different strengths and weaknesses. Madison argues that a “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 republic, in contrast, “by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises a cure for which we are seeking.” Madison then goes on to make a point-by-point comparison between a republic and a “pure democracy” emphasizing in particular the strong points of a republic: the delegation of governing control to a small number of citizens elected by the rest, and the corresponding ability to expand the polity to include many more interests, thus weakening the ability of any one faction to dominate the political system. Anyone who has sat through a debate on school funding in a Vermont town meeting can certainly appreciate Madison’s distinction!
Jon is clearly aware of Madison’s famous argument, of course, but he believes Madison’s “republic” “can and should be supported as a strong version of democracy.” However, it seems to me that this “strong version” represents a fundamental difference in kind, rather than simply a version of democracy that falls along one end of the democracy continuum. Of course, although Madison seems to think there is a fundamental difference between a pure democracy and a republic, he also acknowledges variations among republican forms of government: “Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic…” Nonetheless, I’ll let Madison have the final word: “In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.” In the end, while Jon prefers to channel political scientist Bob Dahl, I’m sticking with Madison.
Use a teleprompter? Give 'Em Hell, Harry!
It’s no secret that President Obama, like almost every president before him dating back to Dwight Eisenhower, uses a teleprompter when giving most public speeches. Still, the fact that previous presidents have relied on the teleprompter to various degrees has not stopped partisan critics from suggesting Mr. Obama’s frequent use of this device indicates that he is somehow not up to the job or lacks command of the issues. (It also prompted this wonderful Onion parody of what happened when Obama’s “home teleprompter” failed during a family dinner.)
Given the criticism, why bother with the teleprompter? One reason is that everything a president says has policy implications – hence, why take a chance that the president might misspeak? In fact, this was the very point Truman White House aide Charles Murphy made in an internal memo, dated Sept. 13, 1950, that he sent to Truman in response to criticisms of the president’s speeches. In discussing how to address the criticisms, Murphy notes, “A Presidential speech is a different animal from a news broadcast. Its primary requirement is accuracy, not style.” Murphy then went on to make the following suggestion: “I believe we should continue to seek improvements in the mechanical arrangements – such as lighting, etc. Particularly, we should explore thoroughly the possibilities of readings from a screen for television purposes and also the possibility of using larger type for the readings copy.” Truman, however, was having none of it.
Indeed, as Rob Schlesinger recounts, Truman never did adopt the teleprompter. Instead, it came into regular use under his Republican successor, Eisenhower – a president who is rarely charged with lacking command of the issues. But I doubt that will mollify Obama’s critics.
Have a great Sunday!
Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.