Liberally Speaking (10/29/09)

Thankfully, we're not a democracy

Oct. 29, 2009

By Steve Mount

“We live in a democracy!” is an often-heard cry from those who feel unheard in government. The statement, however, has a basic inaccuracy, an inaccuracy that could be described as simple semantics, but certainly is not.

The United States is not a democracy, and we should be thankful for that. What we are, instead, is a representative democracy. That one word makes all the difference in the world.

A democracy, in its purest form, is rule by the people. Every issue of importance is put to the people for a vote, and the majority rules. The system sounds good — everyone has an equal vote, an equal voice and the will of the people is the will of the majority.

There are, however, many difficulties with such a system, a couple of which I will detail.

The first is one of practicality. It is impractical to put every issue to the people in any but the smallest of societies. It’s often been said that the closest we, as modern Americans, come to pure democracy is that staple of March in Vermont, the town meeting.

While I agree that the town meeting is an important institution, it is notable that even small towns have learned that the town meeting is only effective as a method of governance to a specific point. Most obviously, town meetings are only held once per year. The rest of the year, the town is invariably run by representatives. More to the point, most people simply don’t want to be involved in the everyday decision-making of the town.

Western society has a rich history, dating a thousand years, of delegating authority. The authority must be kept in check, however, and in the United States we have devised institutions to do that. Elections are the most basic check, but we also have term limits, checks and balances and separation of powers.

So basic is the shift from democracy to representative democracy that we see it at every level of government. Not only in the U.S. Congress, but also in the Vermont Legislature, in the Selectboard, even to the FAP Advisory Council in our schools. Representative democracy is all around us and, unlike pure democracy, it works.

Another major problem with a pure democracy is “majority rule.” Most of the time, majority rule works just fine. When we are selecting a representative, the candidate with the most votes should be the winner. If the question of a roundabout on U.S. 2 is put to a vote, then the majority should carry the question.

But some things should not be subject to majority rule — basic human rights, for example. The ability of a person to speak his mind or to worship as she wishes should not be subject to a vote. If a people voted to institute slavery, the fact that a majority voted for it would make it no less a violation of human rights.

The Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution and the similar Declaration of Rights in the Vermont Constitution lay out for all to see those principles that we hold dear and which are not subject to a vote.

“The people have a right to freedom of speech,” the Vermont Constitution says. There is no exception that reads, “Unless the people of the state vote to remove that freedom from any person or group.”

This entire discussion came to mind because of a conversation I’ve been having with someone who is unsatisfied with our current national government. He advocates the abolition of the Congress and its replacement with the votes of the people. The idea sounds great in sound-bite format: “Your voice will be heard! Your vote will really count! Take the influence of lobbyists out of the government!”

These slogans are rooted in democratic principles, and might be true in a pure democracy. As noted above, though, it is impractical. We do not all want to be part-time politicians. We want to elect people to do that for us.

Democracy is a great idea in principle but a lousy one in practice. What we have done is taken that principle and tweaked the system to make it work for each of our levels of government. It can be improved, no doubt about that, but our attempts to improve the system should not include throwing it out and replacing it with something we know will not work.


Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at or read his blog at