Oped | American Unexceptionalism & The Republic


The real story of the origins of the U.S. political system. Composite oped from two new essays (here and here) in The Globalist.

You’ve read the story before. A number of loosely aligned, merchant-dominated offshore territories of a European empire begin chafing at their distant monarch and the high taxes he imposed without giving them a reasonable say in their own governance.

Predictably enough, their mounting dissatisfaction is met with an increasingly overbearing response — including military deployments. That strategy is pursued until the provinces reach a breaking point.

They declare themselves free of the faraway king and initiate a rebellion. Not all the territories are persuaded to join. Some prefer to remain loyal to the crown.

The rebellion binds together a small collection of sovereign entities into a union, equipped with a weak, loosely formalized provisional government. Its purpose is to direct the union’s foreign policy and manage the rebellion.

Government after monarchy

Having declared themselves without a king, the newly independent elite must devise a replacement system of government for the continued union.

For a time, they consider the possibility of bringing in another member of the European nobility to serve as king. Such an invitation or election of an outsider as king was common in Europe for centuries, from Poland to Sweden to the Holy Roman Empire. Even the papacy is an elective monarchy.

But eventually the merchant elites and past commanders of the rebellion decide they have been doing fine without a royal. They are now content to continue to strengthen the temporary system as it is.

The exceptional story takes shape

These elite gentlemen look around at other precedents for other self-governing states without kings. Smaller free states — such as Florence and Venice — had previously installed non-hereditary systems of rule by the commercial elites and major families. They had called them “republics,” after the elite-run classical “Roman Republic.”

Elections in such systems are highly indirect and susceptible to manipulation. They are also restricted to a very small number of participants. Essentially, the only voters are members of the propertied, male elite — usually white.

After all, they make no secret of the fact that this exclusionary voting franchise suits the new country’s leaders’ aims anyway. They are not interested in creating a democracy. Rather they are keen to establish a republic insulated from the passions of the mobs.

It is then agreed that under the new union of rebel provinces, each member republic would send delegations to the union’s government, but they will be answerable to their home governments. This further would keep the regular people away from any major levers of power.

Finally, they devise an elaborate system of checks and balances. The ostensible purpose is to preserve the sovereignty of the member republics within the union. The bigger purpose is to prevent the “tyranny” of a central government and an executive. The union will have weak powers of taxation — only enough to mount a common defense of the member republics.

This is, of course, the story of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces in Netherlands and their departure from Spain — about two centuries before the United States constitution was ratified by thirteen former British colonies.

So much for America’s origin story being exceptional, as claimed for so long.

The Dutch precedent was a model, both to be emulated and avoided, for the framers of the U.S. Constitution and those advocating for its adoption. Far from being an “exceptional” idea, the original version of the United States was just the latest iteration of an existing system. It is what came after that that made it exceptional.

Almost before the ink had dried on the U.S. Constitution, the United States and its citizenry — indeed, even its government officials — began adapting the document in other directions the framers had never intended or anticipated.

That is probably for the best, from the world’s perspective, and from the country’s, since rule by a narrow slave-owning elite is not exactly a paragon of excellent governance for the world to follow.

From Representative Democracy Back to Republic?

The framers of the U.S. constitution, inspired by the Dutch Republics and the city-state republics of what is now northern Italy, originally set out to create a government with very restricted participation.

They wanted to prevent mob rule and other failings of Athenian direct democracy. While in abstract this may have been a good goal, their initial system was so elitist and exclusive that it provided a very poor beacon for the rest of the world. Fortunately, no sooner had the Constitution been ratified than it began to turn (slowly) into a more inclusive system.

Over time, indirect elections would become more direct. Voting rights expanded to include more and more people. The supremacy of the union government was asserted over that of the united, sovereign states.

What was intended as an elite “republic, if you can keep it” (as Benjamin Franklin put it) soon evolved into a representative democracy. This, in turn, became an inspiring model for many other countries, with or without monarchies, in a way that an oligarchic network of local “republics” never could have.

From a global perspective, and for the United States, that is a positive evolution. But it is not the system the founding fathers of the union or the framers of the U.S. republic foresaw.

Most Americans have written off the original elitism (which manifested itself from the electoral college to property requirements) and ugly sides of the founders (slave-owning, etc.) as an imperfect step on that road toward “a more perfect union,” as the preamble to the U.S. Constitution proclaims.

Original intent, restored

As if to counteract the gradual slide from a republic to a representative democracy, an increasingly radical strain of conservatism has recently been doubling down on “original intent” theory — to an unprecedented degree.

Their ideology — primarily the deification of the founders — is so literal that they are proclaiming a need to restore a real republic of assembled, “united” “states” (two meaningful, separate words vs. an empty, compound name). They reject this centralized representative democracy masquerading as one.

The possibility that the country’s fathers might not have been all-knowing oracles with the perfect vision for the nation’s ideal system of government permanently is not entertained by these — still mostly white — gentlemen. To them, the original Constitution cannot fail, it can only be failed.

And fail “we the people” have, in their eyes. The very existence of government by hoi polloi (“the many”) in this country, they feel, is a travesty and a betrayal of the founders.

This resistance to democracy has taken many paths toward the same end conclusion. In one route, they have defended the goal of complex voter identification laws — to restrict voting rights to exclusively those who truly deserve it.

The young, the racial minorities, the women, the property-less? To a lower-case “republican,” all of those citizens surely do not deserve any say in the election of the nation’s “philosopher-kings” who will collectively and wisely govern a true republic. If the 18th century founding fathers did not need to hear those voices to legislate on their behalves, neither do we in the 21st century! Including them clearly violates original intent.

Living in the 18th or 21st century?

In another route of resistance to the slide away from the founding vision, a Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy — his regressive racial views aside — has declared his refusal to recognize the federal government (to which he owes nearly a million dollars in back fees for use of public resources).

His reasoning (shared by many radicals)? Every state within the United States is a sovereign, co-equal republic within a voluntary union. This applies even to the state of Nevada, added to the union 75 years after the U.S. Constitution’s Article VI made clear the supremacy of the federal government over the previously loose collection of states that left Britain together.

Or so he asserts when the taxman arrives.

17th Amendment Repeal

Finally, there is the growing movement to repeal the 17th Amendment of 1913 that established the direct elections of U.S. Senators. Ever since 1913, the “riff-raff” — i.e., regular Americans — has been able to vote on who represents their state in the upper house of the U.S. Congress.

Direct election of Senators? Imagine that! The Roman republic would have been appalled — and so should we be, apparently.

Moreover, the anti-democracy forces believe the 17th amendment is fatally flawed. How so? Because it takes away the power of the governments of the sovereign “states” to choose their own “ambassadors” to the federation.

Although these positions are predominantly embraced on the conservative fringe — a fringe which amazingly now extends into both chambers of the U.S. Congress — this radical “republicanism” fuses perfectly with the mainstream conservative drive over the past decade-plus to export “freedom” to Kabul and Baghdad.

At great cost of American blood and treasure, the United States can proudly say that it successfully exported non-representative republics governed by elite factions, to the Middle East, North Africa and Southwest Asia. Let freedom ring!

A spectacular act of escapism

It certainly takes to a new level political nostalgia for a time that never was, to pine for a 1787 U.S. that existed on paper briefly before being (thankfully) swept aside by its own momentum.

Today, one can hardly walk around without tripping over a self-righteous tea partier who is more than happy to remind one, knowingly, that, “the United States is a republic, not a democracy,” as if the rest of the country — or the world — is missing a key distinction.

Of course, the rest of us Americans are not trying to live in the American version of the 16th century Republic of the United Netherlands. We are happy to keep working on tinkering with and improving the system to make it serve the people — all of them — better.

That, after all, was and is the core promise of the U.S. Republic, rightly understood — if not “right-wingly” understood.

Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and a local elected official.
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