In a democracy, the people must agree to moderate their individual self-interests and work together through government for the common good. As the Founders wrote, the “just power to govern” is derived from “the consent of the governed.” The people must consent to a set of common values by which they agree to be governed. In a monarchy, the power to govern resides in the monarch or supreme ruler. The values by which the people are governed are the personal values of the ruler. The people are freed of the ethical and social responsibilities of self-government. Throughout human history, people have been reluctant to accept the responsibilities of democracy. That’s why democracies are inherently fragile and typically short-lived. That’s why democracy in the United States of America is at risk.
According to the Bible, the Children of Israel were ruled for hundreds of years by laws they believed had come directly to them from God. They chose “judges,” who were spiritual leaders of different tribes or family clans, to resolve disputes concerning spiritual matters. Under their law, the people were responsible directly to God—not to the judges. Samuel arose as a leader among the judges of the Israelites during a time of oppression by the Philistines. As Samuel grew old, he had hoped his sons would take his place as leaders among the judges. However, in the initial responsibilities of leadership they were given, his sons proved to be irresponsible and corrupt.
In I Samuel 8: 4-20, the transformation from self-government to a monarchy unfolds: “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.’ But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ So Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them… However, you shall solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them.’”
In 1776, Thomas Paine commented on this story in his classic revolutionary pamphlet, Common Sense. He wrote, “Monarchy is ranked in scripture as one of the sins of the Jews, for which a curse in reserve is denounced against them.” Paine argued convincingly that the evils were not linked to the specific monarch, but to the monarchical form of government. He wrote of the suffering of the Israelites under the rule of King Saul, who was chosen by Samuel. The Israelites fared better under King David, but as Paine notes, the Bible refers to David as “a man after God’s own heart”—which is exceedingly rare among men and monarchs. Paine argued persuasively that no people have a right to grant to a monarchy the God-given human rights of their children or future generations.
The Founding Fathers, being scholars of western history and philosophy, were well aware of the fundamental nature of different forms of government. They would have known that democracies required deference of short-run self-interest to the long run common good. They knew that aristocracies were intended to allow those to govern who were sufficiently secure individually to defer to the common good, although they had often failed to do so. They knew that monarchies were efficient means of administering laws, but not of making laws that serve the common good. In an attempt to accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of government, they created a democratic republic that over time could transition to a democracy.
In a pure democracy, everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in the processes of governance. This aspiration was expressed in the Declaration of Independence but was not reflected in the initial democratic republic. The only people allowed to vote were male landowners, and even they were not granted equal representation. The House of Representatives, the Senate, and the office of President each reflect different forms of representation.
Members of the House of Representatives are elected by majority votes of people in their districts, which include approximately equal numbers of people. The Senate is made up of two members per state, regardless of population, which provides equal representation for the states, but not for the people. Members of the Senate were initially elected by state legislatures, not the people. Presidents are elected by the “Electoral College,” whose members are allocated to each state according to their total numbers of Senators and Representatives. States are free to allocate their Electoral College votes by any means they choose. Consequently, several presidents have been elected without receiving majority direct or “popular votes” the people in presidential elections.
The House of Representatives has become more democratic with each class of eligible voters added to rolls—adding non-landowners, previous male slaves, Native Americans, women, and 18-year-olds. The House is still a representative, rather than direct, form of democracy. The Senate was patterned after an aristocracy, with members initially chosen from those who were more economically secure and engaged in political issues in their respective states. Senators also serve six-year terms compared to two year terms for House members. The Senate has become more democratic with Senators now elected directly by the people of their states.
The Presidency was patterned after a monarchy for the sake of administrative expediency and efficiency. The Constitutional powers of the President are generally limited to matters that must be handled expeditiously, such as serving as Commander in Chief of military forces and negotiating foreign treaties. The primary function of the presidency is to carry out the legislative intent of Congress. The president has the power to veto specific legislation and appoint cabinet members and federal judges, but Congress must consent to the president’s choices. A President’s ability to influence decisions of Congress is derived primarily from his or her popularity with the people, as reflected in political polls and presidential elections.
The Supreme Court and federal court system were established to facilitate the enforcement of federal laws. The court system is reminiscent of the biblical system of judges. By default, the Supreme Court became the final authority in judging whether state and federal laws enacted by Congress and signed by the President are consistent with the intent of the U.S. Constitution. In the case of democracy, the Constitution reflects a current consensus of the ethical and social values of the people and serves as the supreme authority.
The U.S. Constitution clearly reflects the democratic republican form of government in that it respects the majority rule of direct democracy but also protects the rights of minorities and establishes a division and balance of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. The U.S. Constitution can be amended as ethical and social values change, but only through a process designed to secure “the consent of the people.” The consent of the governed, the people, is ultimately a reflection of their collective ethical and social values—their ability and willingness to accept the responsibilities of self-government.
The reelection of a President of the United States who openly seeks the supreme power to govern would be an abandonment of the democratic republican form of government that was carefully crafted by the Founders of the nation. Thus far, neither Congress nor the Supreme Court has proven effective in limiting his powers to those defined for the presidency in the U.S. Constitution. His reelection would be a validation by the American people of his claim to supreme authority. The people of the U.S. will have “made themselves a King.” The people will no longer feel a responsibility to answer directly to God or any other higher power or moral authority in matters related to governance. They will have transferred the responsibilities of democratic self-government to their King. For those who are Christian or Jewish in particular, it might be worthwhile to reread I Samuel 8 10-20.
“So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who asked him for a king. He said, ‘This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights:’” Now paraphrasing: He will take your sons to fight his battles. He will select a few to oversee the work of the many who will produce his food and materials for war. He will take your daughters to be his servants. And he will take the best of all you own and a tenth of all you produce for himself, his family, and those whom he favors. “You will be his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” The people or Israel refused to obey the warnings of Samuel; and they said, “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
I understand those who want a president who will fight their battles and bring an end to violent and destructive street demonstrations. However, people in nations with repressive, authoritarian leaders invariably experience continuing violent civil unrest and loss of civilian liberty and life. I understand concerns about restoring employment and economic growth. But the sacrifice of political liberty and social justice is too high a price to pay for the prosperity of a few at the expense of many. I understand those who want to “make or keep American great.” But the greatness of America in the eyes of the world has always been about the moral courage, compassion, and generosity of its people—not its economic power or military might.
I agree with critics who feel the U.S. government has been dysfunctional—regardless of which political party has been in power. However, this is not the first time the American people have confronted failures in governance. In times past, its unique form of democracy has allowed the nation to restore the consent of the governed and continue toward a more perfect union. Even if we reject monarchy in November, there will still be much work to be done to restore the consent of the governed. My fear is that this time the nation has lost it’s moral compass that has guided it through difficult times in the past. The people may no longer be able or willing to give liberty and justice priority over their individual fear and greed. My concern is that Americans will unwittingly “make themselves a king” and the nation of the people, by the people, and for the people will be lost.