What is a republic, and how do we keep it?
The ‘resistance’ has forgotten the fundamentals bequeathed by the founders
In one of the great, old, possibly apocryphal stories told about the drafting of the United States Constitution, one of the framers, the venerated Benjamin Franklin, as he exited the deliberations of the 1787 Convention, was asked about the new charter. Franklin’s interlocutor, worried about the possibility that we might have just broken with one monarchy only to have another imposed on us, asked him, “Dr. Franklin, what kind of a government have you given us?” Franklin was said to have replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” We have almost forgotten the importance of both the fact that we have a republic, and that it’s not assured that we can keep it.
Events of the last few months have underscored this difficulty. The framers understood two things about the American people that we rarely remember. One of them is that we have chosen not to have a pure democracy, both because of the extraordinary difficulty involved in getting millions of people to agree on anything, and also because of the historic tendency — of which the framers were well aware — of democracies to descend into anarchy, owing to the difficulty of getting human beings to accept the need for compromise and accommodation and to abandon their individual selfish interests. Thus it was that the United States was to be a republic, rather than a democracy. In a republic, as the framers understood, there are at least two profound differences from a democracy. The first, most obvious, is that government is not by the people themselves, but, instead, is conducted through elected representatives. Second, less obvious, but an essential feature of republican government from Rome on, is that the government must not act arbitrarily, but must conduct itself pursuant to the rule of law. It must, in other words, follow established procedures and act according to accepted norms, in our case pursuant to our Constitution and laws.
Ever since the election of Donald Trump — an election conducted pursuant to the established procedures in the Constitution, procedures which the framers put in place to make sure that all of the states of the country would have a voice in the selection of our commander in chief
— a chorus of those unhappy with the rejection of Hillary Clinton have, calling themselves the “resistance,” sought to undermine President Trump and, indeed, to force his removal from office either through impeachment or through pressure on him to resign. Unfortunately, this effort has been aided and abetted by a national media overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Democrats and to Mrs. Clinton, which has energetically pursued unsubstantiated rumors of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, and theories of the mental instability of the president himself that also are without substance.
It was also a belief of the framers that there were only two ways to destroy a republic. One was the accumulation of too much luxury, and the other was the licentiousness of the press. I think it does not go too far to suggest, in our time, that we are certainly seeing evidence of the latter, if not the former.
According to the established procedure, Mr. Trump and the Republican Party fairly won the right to seek to govern for the next four years. This opportunity was given to them by an electorate disappointed by the direction the country had been moving in over the course of the last eight years, and an electorate seeking the reduction of taxes, the improvement of health care, and the reigning in of an overweening central government and administrative state. This is the program Mr. Trump set out to implement, and the program that resulted in the triumph of the Republicans in both the House and the Senate.
Rather than pursuing the fantasy of foreign plots, for which there seems little if any reality, it ought to be the job of a responsible media and responsible legislators to help the American people and their duly elected president to determine whether, in fact, the program on which the Republicans ran can be effected. There is plenty to examine, plenty to discuss, and plenty to debate without wasting the resources and time of our fellow citizens and their government chasing after chimeras. Moreover, we can’t keep a republic unless we understand our obligation to live under the rule of law, and to realize that the system under which we have thrived requires us to submit to events like the result of elections with which we may disagree.
There is another interesting feature of our history which has been just about forgotten by the “resistance.” We Americans, though we may well be committed to representative government, do like to switch our leaders with some frequency, in order to maximize the possibility that we’ll achieve better governance. Thus, only once since World War II has one party ever won the presidency three consecutive times. It is this desire to change leadership (in an orderly manner) that also helps explain why Mrs. Clinton (who would have represented a third term for the Democrats) was unsuccessful. Her champions seem to think that the 2016 election was hers for the taking, and that only chicanery and intrigue could have kept her from the Oval Office. This is highly improbable. Her defeat, wholly apart from her shortcomings as a candidate (which were myriad) was very likely in a republic properly concerned about how to preserve itself. Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Law Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law and the author of “Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law” (West Academic Publishing, 2016).