The recent presidential election reminds us that the United States government, by design, does not function as democracy. Rather, the federal government operates as a republic. This concept is enshrined in the words of the Pledge of Allegiance — “And to the republic for which it stands.”
What’s the difference? A democracy is based on majority rule; the candidate with the most votes wins. In a republic, the structures of government work to prevent temporary passions of the people from endangering stability. This is achieved through “a scheme of representation,” as James Madison enigmatically defines the republican form of government in The Federalist No. 10.
The recent election clearly illustrates the point. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but Donald Trump will become president. Many voters wrongly assumed that they were casting a ballot for a presidential candidate and that the person with the most votes would win. Not so. Americans, in fact, vote for a slate of electors from their state. To win the presidency, a candidate must receive the most votes in the Electoral College. Clinton did not have enough votes in enough states to claim victory.
The U.S. Senate and Supreme Court provide two additional examples of republican rather than democratic structures. In the U.S. Senate, each state has two senators, no matter its population. Wyoming, with fewer than 600,000 people, enjoys the same representation as California, with a population of more than 38 million. In the Senate’s original configuration, senators were elected not by the people, but by the legislature of each state. The 17th Amendment to the Constitution provided for the direct election of senators and was ratified in 1913.
To take matters a step further, Democratic candidates for the Senate this year received more votes nationwide than Republican candidates. Yet Republicans will hold the majority of seats in the Senate when the new Congress convenes in January.
In keeping with the republican form of government, the indirectly elected president nominates justices of the Supreme Court. The Senate, which is not apportioned according to population, then considers the nomination for confirmation.
Unlike the rest of the government, the U.S. House of Representatives was designed to exemplify a “national” spirit and constitutes the only part of the federal government to be elected directly by the people based on equal representation. Yet the U.S. House, in fact, has not functioned in that way in recent years. In 2012, for example, Democratic candidates garnered 50.59 percent of votes nationally and received just 46.21 percent of the seats. In 2014, Republicans won 52 percent of the votes, yet claimed 57 percent of the seats. This year, Republicans won 51.4 percent of the votes and will hold 55 percent of the seats come January.
The reason is quite simply that Republicans exercise substantial control over the drawing of House districts and can thus win more seats than their strength with the voters would otherwise allow.
So, you might ask, does democracy exist in the United States? Yes, it exists at the state level, where governors and state legislatures are elected by the people. Legislative districts — thanks to rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court — must be proportioned equally based on population. It also exists in local government.
So the next time you hear a politician wax eloquent about American democracy, remember that the Constitution created a republic, not a system where the majority necessarily rules. Whether that is good or bad is subjective. But let’s at least start any discussion of American politics with a clear understanding of how the system works.
David Hanzlick of Overland Park holds a Ph.D. in political science and history and teaches as an adjunct instructor at two local universities.