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On the Republic

Updated: Apr 23, 2022

By Mark Shubert

What is a republic? First we need to look at the word itself which comes from the latin phrase res publica which translates to the thing of the public or public thing. So what does it mean for a state to be a thing of the public? Most importantly the government has to be open to the people and this occurs in two ways. The first is that public offices have to be open to the public. A good way to determine whether or not you live in a republic is if the people can participate in government freely. If the government is closed off to a single family you are probably in a monarchy, to a single person you are probably in a dictatorship, to a class of priests you are probably in a theocracy. These types of governments might have public officers but if their authority is only delegated from a sovereign that is closed off to the people then it is still not a Republic; the sovereign authority cannot be closed off to the people in a proper republic. The second is that the people need to be able to vote. Voting is an essential part of a republic since it sets up who runs the government and most importantly it is the civil way in which the people can give their consent to the government. The more people who have suffrage the more consent the government has to govern. The fewer people who can vote means that there is less investment or interest or consent in the state by the people which can and has been a dangerous environment to most states. The less consent and interest the more the people are detached from their society and are encouraged to secede or revolt to form their own society that they feel apart of.

So if democracy is an essential part of a republic, why do people, mainly conservatives, speak out against democracy all the time. The uncharitable, and right, answer is that they are only against democracy because of party factionalism and they know that their views are not popular with the people. The more academic answer is that our understanding and definition of a proper republic is different from that of historic thinkers. Our constitutional framers for example did not include women or non-whites or poor people, the vast majority of the total population, when they originally constituted the right to vote, and yet they called America a republic. They even called America a democracy and some of the constitutional framers like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson created a political party called the Democratic-Republican party. They developed a republic that was not open to the public. Even to the small percentage of people who could vote only around 11% of that turned out to vote in our nation’s first Presidential election. Needless to say the American republic was nowhere near a proper republic until women were protected their right to vote and participate in government. However, this was still not proper since many adults were not able to vote, mainly adults between the age of 18 and 21 plus any convicts, plus poor people who could not pay a poll tax. Amendments have been ratified to fix two of those issues with there being talk of extending the protections of suffrage to convicts, at least those who finished serving their sentence.

Another reason for a worry of democracy is that the constitutional framers did not like direct rule of the people. Conveniently the French Revolution occurred around that time which only confirmed their bias against democracy even though the French Revolution was led by rather wealthy “enlightened” bureaucrats and generals who wanted to replace the Bourbon dynasty and establish themselves in higher positions like Robespierre, Napoleon, and Talleyrand. The French people were taken advantage of and many were not enfranchised so blaming the people and democracy is not accurate when looking at the failures of the French Revolution.

Another reason to dislike democracy was that most of the people didn’t have a stake in society. Instead they believed that only those who owned land had stock in the nation due to them having ownership of property. This idea is straight up wrong since people without land still have stake in the nation in the form of their own lives. We have seen throughout history that the wealthy landowners of society are the ones who use their wealth and influence over the government to violate the rights of others and to take other people’s land and wealth. History shows that the wealthy don’t actually care about the society that they own property in and so giving them all enfranchisement over the people is not the answer. Look at monarchs, dictators, emperors, chieftains, who all use their influence and wealth to accumulate more for themselves from others both rich and poor. As I mentioned at the beginning the more people who have suffrage the more consent and investment or trust the state has which means the state has more legitimacy and interest. This secures society more than just securing the consent of the wealthy people, since they don't even care about society, only their bottom line. Institutions that make up society are grounded by those who believe and maintain them. The people broadly have been a more secure foundation of stability for political institutions than the top down approach by wealthy individuals. Given this, democracy is essential for a republic to be stable and legitimate.

The consent of the people is necessary but not sufficient; the people themselves and the government ought to be well regulated. This regulation occurs by both sides. The people need to regulate themselves and the government, while the government also has to regulate itself and the people.

If the people did not violate the rights of others and could be counted on to defend the polity from nature then no government would be necessary, however, many do violate the rights of others and cannot be counted on to defend the polity and so a government is requisite.

The government, being the embodiment of the sovereign authority granted to it by the people, must secure the civil rights of its constituents in order to maintain its mandate of civility. A government must be well regulated internally as much as it regulates the people. This internal regulation consists of separating power to specialize and creating a system of checks and balances to make sure that one arm of the state does not extend its power past its enumerated authority. This, I am sure, everyone knows about from elementary school social studies, but another aspect not considered by most is the abolition of powers. Certain natural rights have been abolished before, the right to be a monarch, and the right of the government to kill is being restricted as more laws are made to remove execution as an option. The abolition of power (natural rights) to things that violate civil rights requires more research into and more discussion of. For example, a power that I think the government should abolish is the power of the pardon. The practice of subverting the judicial system by the executive is not something people should support; if someone is innocent then they can go through the court of appeals and should not appeal to the executive.

At this point you might be confused about the distinction between natural rights and civil rights. Natural rights are the rights an individual has in the state of nature; this is literally everything. If you are the sovereign you have the right to claim the world, to make your own laws, judge others based on those laws, and execute others based on those judgments. You have all rights and a right to all things in nature.

In order to enter into a civil society an individual has to give up their natural rights, especially the rights to claim everything, to legislate, judge, and execute to the government which is where governments get their sovereign authority. However, one does not have to nor want to give up all of their natural rights and so they negotiate with the state in order to preserve the natural rights that do not violate the rights of others. These preserved rights are the civil rights. Rights that the people maintain for themselves in society. This negotiation is not always rational or agreed upon especially when people want to maintain rights that are beneficial for them that also violates the rights of others such as the natural right of slavery. In nature, an individual has a right to enslave anyone, if they can. In a civil society, they would not have that right, however, not all societies are civil and might allow that right to persist. The reason why this right is uncivil is because it violates the right of another, since a civil compact requires free consent of all its constituents. If there are those whose consent is not respected, then that is a state of nature, war, or at least the threat of war since the disenfranchised has the incentive to secede or overturn their oppressors. A revolution or churning of society can occur through war as it has historically, or it can occur through civil means, specifically an amendment process of society. A stable civil society would enumerate an amending process that is efficient enough to make the necessary changes that the people, especially the disenfranchised people, desire.

To reiterate, a republic is a public government. A public government is one that has its offices open to the public and suffrage for the people to give their consent and choose their representative. This relationship between the people and their government has to be well regulated. The people need to regulate themselves and the government. The government needs to regulate itself and the people. A well regulated people is one that respects the rights and individualism of others and one that understands political science to know when the state violates the mandate of civility in order to demand the necessary amendments to form a more perfect Union. A well regulated government is one that respects the rights and individualism of its constituents and one that separates its powers in a system of checks and balances that ensures the integrity of the state along with properly representing the people. If the government violates civility then the people need to amend or revolt. If the people violate civility then the government needs to educate or restrict. The civil action is to amend or to educate while the natural action is to revolt or to restrict and a civil society would prefer the civil actions which requires an efficient amending process and a proper educational system. When the amending process fails and when education fails then nature is the more probable course of action. When an appeal to reason and reform fail there is the appeal to heaven.

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