According to the Wall Street protesters, American representative government has failed and therefore they are replacing it, “Since we can no longer trust our elected representatives to represent us rather than their large donors,” the Zuccotti Park occupiers explain, “we are creating a microcosm of what democracy really looks like.”
In order to prevent corruption “from people behind the scenes,” the protester’s democracy allows everyone to participate, speak, and vote in a general assembly, where no decisions are made unless there is a consensus. This decision making process becomes especially silly and tedious when the whole assembly participates in debates over trivial issues, such as, how much money to allocate to the purchase of trash cans: “deliberations dragged on as people offered amendments,” which a Zucotti protester explains, “made it effectively impossible to get the funding they needed”.
Essentially, Occupy Wall Street has rejected republican self government in favor of a pure democracy: no officers, leaders, or hierarchy, just mob.
But what is a republic and how is it different from a pure democracy?
When Americans pledge allegiance to the “flag of the United States of America,” they uphold “the republic for which it stands.” Unlike a democracy in which the citizens themselves pass laws, in a republic such as ours, citizens rule through the representatives they elect.
The Framers founded a republic because they recognized that mob rule could be just as great a threat to liberty as the rule of a king. Representation, Madison explains in Federalists 63, is “sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.” America’s constitutional framework thereby seeks to protect the people from the dangers of unchecked popular democracy. The people’s representatives, of course, remain ultimately accountable to the people who can vote them out of office as they see fit.
In everyday speech, people praise democracy as the most just form of government. What they mean by “democracy” is a regime in which free elections regularly take place and a government that protects the rights of all. Understood this way, America is a democracy, or to be more precise, a democratic republic.
This question was reprinted from Heritage’s new First Principles page at Heritage.org. For more answers to the frequently asked questions check visit http://www.heritage.org/Initiatives/First-Principles/basics.