I’m an Idaho resident and have lived at the same address the past six years. My address so happens to fall within the Legislative District 2 boundaries: Steve Vick is my senator; Vito Barbieri and John Green are my representatives. I consider myself an informed voter, and I do my best to pay attention to what’s happening in the Idaho Legislature and to attend our legislative town-hall meetings.
There’s something that’s been weighing on me since the town hall in January: A claim that’s been repeated again and again by Rep. Green. Every time I hear him speak, he makes a point to talk about how this country is not a democracy but a constitutional republic. That’s true. But does that mean we’re disqualified from also being a democracy?
The word “republic” is derived from the Latin phrase res publica, which literally translates to “the people’s concern.” The modern definition of republic is “a state in which supreme power is held by the people who elect representatives to vote on their behalf, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch.”
Democracy, on the other hand, is “a government by the whole population or all of the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.”
There are two types of democratic government, direct democracy or indirect democracy. A direct democracy is when the people vote directly on laws and other issues proposed, and the majority rules. The electoral college alone determines that the United States is not a direct democracy. We saw in the 2000 election and again in the 2016 election: The majority vote does not necessarily determine who wins the presidency. An indirect democracy is when we elect representatives who vote on laws on behalf of the people. It sounds a lot like a republic, doesn’t it?
In an indirect or representative democracy, the role of the people is to vote for representatives and hold them accountable; and the roles of our elected representatives are to legislate and govern. Our Founding Fathers established our government as a republic by design. They feared the tyrannical overthrow that could result from a direct democracy and therefore set up a system in which representatives would be elected by the people to run the government. They also split the power into three branches, the judicial, the executive and the legislative branch, in order to ensure a balance of power.
The Preamble to the Constitution makes it clear that our country was founded on the principles of government by the people. It states, “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
To be clear, it does not state, “We the elected officials of the United States …”
In his famous Gettysburg Address in 1863, Abraham Lincoln was hopeful that the lives lost in the Civil War shall not be lost in vain. He believed in a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people and for the people should not perish.
During the course of the 19th Century, egalitarian sentiment began to rise. Rapid industrialization, mass immigration, westward expansion and civil war made the idea that the people should rule even more appealing. In 1913, the reforms began: The passage of the 17th Amendment dictated that senators had to be elected directly by the people and not by state legislators. In 1920, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act, based on the 15th Amendment, gave black Americans the right to vote. The idea of the United States as a democracy suddenly seemed to be set in reality.
Some of the country’s processes, such as ballot referendums and initiatives, are more democratic than others. One thing is certain though, historians, political scientists and legal scholars agree that the United States is both a representative democracy and a constitutional republic. These terms are not mutually exclusive, as Green asserts. In a representative democracy or a representative republic, of which the United States is both, representatives are elected by the people in order to carry out of the will of the people as they legislate and govern the state.
Interestingly, Green has said more than once that he loathes the phrase “obey the will of the people.” He equates the will of the people with democracy or “mob rule.” He says that when the state can take money from our neighbors and give it to those who are determined to need it, it’s called socialism and that “socialism and democracy are antithetical to our constitutional republic.”
Mr. Green, but I think that’s called “paying taxes.”
Did you know that Green voted to severely restrict Idahoans’ right to bring ballot initiatives as guaranteed by the Idaho Constitution? It seems that Green will do anything possible to undermine democracy. In fact, when debating House Bill 277, which added restrictions to Medicaid expansion, Green said he would vote to add restrictions because the bill “pares some of the socialism from the alternative, and it tempers the stain of democracy from our republic.” It appears it doesn’t matter to Mr. Green that 61% of Idahoans voted for clean Medicaid expansion. In fact, Green attempted to repeal Medicaid expansion, but he failed.
It wasn’t until I started paying attention to local government that I learned that my representative opposes democracy, that my representative doesn’t believe he needs to obey the will of the people and that my representative will never represent me.
Laura Tenneson is a Hayden resident who serves as a precinct chair of the Kootenai County Democratic Central Committee.