Occasionally I find myself being lectured by people who quite possibly shouldn’t be lecturing me about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. When it comes to American history and government, I remember everything I’ve learned in much the same way that Bullwinkle remembers everything he ever ate (if you're a Rocky and Bullwinkle fan, you'll know what I mean). The information fits neatly for some reason into a corner of my brain, ready for deployment if the need arises.
I remember college and high school government courses well, and I recall that only about 10 percent of any class ever seemed to pay much attention. The other 90 percent still votes, however, and that creates some confusion.
Their disinterest came to mind as the proposed Arizona law allowing for the "freedom" to discriminate against gay people was being defended by that often heard, yet spindly, playground cry: “Majority rules!”
When I hear that refrain, I recall that disconnect with history which has led many people to a misunderstanding of the difference between a direct democracy and what we have in the United States. To be clear, we have a representative democracy (a republic) where citizens form a government under the jurisdiction of a charter (our Constitution) that directs them to elect representatives who will govern.
Representational government to protect the interests of the quietest voices among us as vigorously as the loudest is what defines what we all hold high as America's ultimate prize: freedom.
A direct (or pure) democracy, on the other hand, is government by the majority, and this is where a lot of people get confused. A direct democracy is also made up of a group of governing citizens, but this majority group runs the state according to their will and not a charter. There is another name that could apply here: mob rule.
Clearly, we are a nation that was founded with democracy, and we use democratic principles to decide free elections and within our republican structure of government. But our Founding Fathers were concerned from the beginning that we would become too democratic, as a majority could vote itself anything it wanted. The slide into direct democracy was foreseen by John Adams who warned, “Our experiment with being a Constitutional Republic is rapidly coming to an end. … Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.”
James Madison wrote of the same concern in The Federalist Papers. In the areas of civil and religious rights, Madison predicted, "If [one] sect form a majority and have the power, other sects will be sure to be depressed."
Historian Alexander Marriott points out that one of the most insidious effects of this misunderstanding is that we have incorporated tenets of direct democracy into our representative democracy, like propositions, referendums and ballot initiatives. The relevance of representation is compromised when law is determined solely by the rule of public opinion. Even if a majority of voters support a proposition to discriminate against gay people, for example, does that make it fair and just?
The rights and justice promised and protected by the government of a republic cannot be determined by popularity.
The system outlined by our charters rescued Arizona when Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill, but I fully expect to get kick back from my "lecturers" regarding a pretty clear analysis of the mistake many Americans make. The distinction between representation and majority rules is the name of the game, and until more people get it right, the more vulnerable we become to failure.
Marriot summed up the consequence in an essay concerning this critical difference: "When ignorance of this distinction contends that this country was founded as a democracy, it does a disservice to all of the people who created and have fought for our republic."