Democracy vs Republic
And why we’re on the verge of being neither
I keep seeing rebuttals to political pieces that make the assertion via subtext that the piece doesn’t apply because the word democracy was used, whereas the responder says we are a republic. This piqued my curiosity as to what the difference is between the two, and why that would invalidate a political argument.
What I found was the two definitions, according to Merriam-Webster, are essentially identical but for one phrase. Both speak of popularly elected representatives, but republic states that “the supreme power resides in a group of citizens entitled to vote…”
For the moment, we the people still have that power, and indeed, our Constitution was specifically engineered to preserve it. However, the push by those in power has been going on for years to strip the ability to exercise it, and we are seeing it peak in the current presidency.
I have been reading about the town hall hosted by Jason Chaffetz, especially the accounts of actual attendees, and his actions are terrifyingly despotic. He was asked by his constituents to do his job (their words, not mine) and investigate the president on a range of ethics concerns, and instead he has chosen to take a pot-shot at governmental transparency and investigate the leaks allowing that transparency. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen anything that seems to be particularly confidential coming out of those leaks. It’s shouldn’t be confidential who’s on the NSC. It shouldn’t be confidential how the general tone is during conversations with world leaders. It shouldn’t be confidential what political moves will line the president and his family’s pockets. And it shouldn’t be confidential when any member of our government breaks the law or violates the Constitution.
Representatives like Jason Chaffetz are exactly why we the people have less power than ever, and why we should worry about the state of our democracy/republic. I’m not calling him out on his political beliefs, either. I disagree with a great many of the beliefs of people like Senator John McCain and Senator Marco Rubio, but both of them have earned my respect for their willingness to stand up for democratic ideals over party solidarity. (Please note that I included Rubio because of a speech he delivered about working together across the aisle to get things done, and after subsequent research almost decided to remove him because he is one who has chosen to cancel Town Hall meetings with constituents. Ultimately I decided to applaud the good while acknowledging the bad.) These are the kinds of people we need to elect if we are to prevent the demise of democracy in our country. We need many voices from many backgrounds if our country is to be truly represented by our government, but we have to have a government willing to take itself to task if we are to preserve government for the people.
I suggest the following qualities to look for as the next election cycle begins, and this is for all levels of government. These qualities are essential to ethical governance, and they transcend party lines. I’m willing to vote for people who display these characteristics regardless of whether I agree with their beliefs, because we have a crisis of ethics and leadership in Washington that truly, truly threatens our way of life.
These are broad and often subtle characteristics, so I have broken each down with examples of how to spot them/discern these from more negative attributes.
The Merriam-Webster definition of integrity is: firm adherence to a code of especially moral values; incorruptibility.
This is a term that is familiar to pretty much all Americans, but I think we as a society have lost sight of what this looks like in action. For example, while it definitely includes honesty, integrity is much more than that. Integrity is adherence to a code of honesty even when lying would benefit a person more.
Here is a list of behaviors that indicate integrity:
- Realistic Campaign Promises
This is a big one. We all know the stereotype of the politician who promises the moon and stars to get elected, then fails to deliver. Sometimes that failure to deliver is a matter of ignoring the fact that our government is run by a group intended to protect the interests of all rather than a single person. However, sometimes it’s a matter of someone who is desperate for power and will do anything to get it. Either way, unrealistic campaign promises are a very bad sign in a candidate, and they shouldn’t be rewarded for it with your vote. Some will follow this advice and get called wishy-washy or weak leaders for it. Don’t let the mud-slinging sway you. The person who tells inconvenient truth is a much better leader than the ones who ignore it.
Speaking of mud-slinging:
- A Refusal To Villify Opponents
I was in college during Obama’s first term, and one of the lasting memories from it was a clip played by a public speaking professor of John McCain correcting a constituent at a rally who stated that Obama was a Muslim. This action is the very definition of integrity. McCain took the risk of alienating this voter by standing up for the truth and refusing to further a lie intended to sow fear and distract from the issues. This is why I often reference John McCain as an example. This one action is what made me take notice of him as an example of quality leadership, among other recent actions.
Segue to fear-mongering:
- A Refusal To Sow Fear
I have a lot of experience with fear. What I’ve learned from it is: it tends to override reason and logic in negative, even destructive ways. I regret almost every decision that I have ever made based on fear, and arguably it is never acceptable in a decision as important as who will govern us, be it PTA, city council, or the state and federal level. Fear generates knee-jerk reactions that almost never consider long-term ramifications. Bottom line: fear is bad, mkay?
All that said, it can be difficult to spot fear-mongering. Generally it comes in the form of applying completely negative stereotypes to large groups of people.
- All immigrants are murderers, rapists, drug dealers, etc, who want to take your job.
- All refugees are potential terrorists.
- All gays are pedophiles.
- All liberals are stupid and want to take your money.
- All conservatives are racist.
- All mainstream media is liberal and dishonest.
- All women secretly want to be housewives, enjoy catcalls, etc.
You see how pervasive this is? It happens on both sides. Our new responsibility as citizens is to avoid this divisive rhetoric like the plague it is, because it is poison to democracy and logic.
Next sign of integrity:
- Taking Responsibility For Mistakes
For this, I will use the example of Claire McCaskill. She had a tax problem, at one time, which she described in her book as an error on the part of her accountant. She states that as soon as she found out, and I don’t know how she found out, that she completed a revised return and paid the amount she owed. What strikes me in this situation is the following quote: “I’m being held accountable, like I should be. I made this mistake.”
How often do we hear our politicians praising a system that holds them accountable? Not only did she act on the mistake by ordering a full audit and paying what she owed in a public way, she actually agreed with the idea that she should be accountable. She didn’t play the victim, even though the incident was very much overblown by opponents. Contrast that with the current president who refuses to release his tax returns and business information, and gets angry and plays the petulant victim when the system built to prevent abuse of power works exactly like it should.
No human being is perfect, and anyone who claims to be is a liar or a narcissist and therefore imperfect. So I submit that what matters far more than mistakes is how they are handled. We can’t expect perfection from our fellow humans, but it is perfectly reasonable to expect integrity in the form of trying to make it right when they stumble.
Lazy segue into next category:
Respect For Constituents
This one is hard. Using Chaffetz as an example again, not only did he go back to Washington and do the opposite of what he was asked by his constituents, he mocked them at the Town Hall when they expressed concern about Betsy DeVos. That was a very bold move. This indicates to me that either he truly believes the lies he is spouting about the event being full of paid protesters, or he sincerely believes he doesn’t need the support of voters. Either way, it’s a very dangerous situation in terms of preserving a representational government. However, rather than continue to lambaste, here are some things to watch for that indicate your voice in government understands the term civil servant.
- Genuine Concern
One of the things I remember hearing about the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton was his tendency to stop, get closer, and listen intently when a voter had something to say. The overall impression I would get from such an experience is that this person has genuine concern for what I had to say. This is exactly what we need in our government, but we must be careful to make sure they follow through with action once elected.
Speaking of listening:
- A Willingness To Answer Hard Questions
If you ask your politician a question, and they give you the runaround, it’s an insult. It’s an insult to the intelligence of the voters, an insult to people who had other responsibilities they could have been attending instead of being there, and an insult to a government that’s supposed to represent us. Town hall meetings are an extremely important opportunity to make issues known and get an understanding of your representative and their character. For all that they have more lucrative options open to them after a political career, the best way to break into those fields is a job that’s financed by taxpayers. Financed by taxpayers. Financed by taxpayers! It should be a no-brainer to treat them with respect.
- Listening To Disagreeing Opinions
You can’t please 100% of the people 100% of the time. Likely you’ll fall well below that if you’re trying, and that can be frustrating (consider having 300,000 bosses who all expect a piece of your time.) That frustration is not an excuse to refuse to even hear someone who helps pay their salary and disagrees with them. Yes, they were hopefully honest about their politics during the campaign, but campaigns often don’t offer the opportunity to talk about cabinet nominations that haven’t happened yet. If a large number of constituents are concerned about a particular subject, part of the job is to listen and understand why, and adjust accordingly. If, when elected, the majority of constituents disagreed with gay marriage, it is understandable that the elected officials would also oppose it. But what happens if, in the course of a six-year Senate term, public opinion swings to approving gay marriage? Personally, I would want a Senator that took the time to understand the issue, listen to voters, and consider the matter thoroughly. It is not hypocritical to change an opinion after a process of absorbing new information and considering it logically. Hypocrisy is saying one thing while doing something that runs contrary to what was said. The way to tell the difference is in the answer to why they changed their mind. If they give you the runaround, it’s most likely hypocrisy. If they can make logical and rational arguments for the change of heart, it’s more likely to be a positive sign of personal growth. The takeaway here is that eloquence isn’t a skill. Eloquence is the product of taking the time to educate oneself on and fully consider a subject. If a change of heart can be eloquently expressed, it’s a key indicator that hypocrisy is not likely the source.
And finally, a few characteristics that don’t need much in the way of explanation, and don’t quite fit under the preceding categories.
Do they hop from crisis to crisis, or do they look ahead and try to prevent them?
How much time do they spend listening vs talking?
While I tried to be as comprehensive as possible, this list is by no means complete. To that end, I’d really like to hear what you guys think. This is a place for me to express my opinion, but mine alone means very little. It will take all of us to solve this problem, so I want to hear what you think.
If you like this, please at least click the cute little heart in the corner. This feedback helps me decide what subjects to pursue in the future. Thanks for reading, and I hope to hear from you!