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America's form of government and its ideologies

Controversial issues of the day, at least as reflected in the local Gannett affiliate, sometimes come at you from unusual quarters in the little corner of the world known as the Shreveport metropolitan area. For the past couple of weeks, a debate has raged in that forum about just what we should call the form of government under which the United States operates, and then got extended to the meanings of ideological labels currently in use today.

As a public service to the (apparently larger than anybody anticipated) audience out there wanting clarification on this issue, and since explaining these things is what I do for a living, let me try to provide that clarity. All readers out there who were my American Government students at one time have heard this before; for the remainder, you won’t even have to pay tuition (or have the TOPS program pay it) to gain the same benefit.

The United States is a “representative democracy.” The following is not the only, but perhaps is the most widely accepted, definition within academia of the term, from Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy: “an institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire power to decide by the means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” It doesn’t matter what these arrangements are (for example, a unicameral parliament vs. a bicameral legislature that competes with independent executive or judicial branches) or how power-holders are selected (for example, parliamentary seats awarded by proportion of vote received by parties in a direct popular election vs. winner-take-all single-member-district contests in a direct popular election for legislative seats), as long as they fit this definition.

To refine it further, two preconditions must exist for elections themselves, they must allow equal access for participation in the electoral process and the potential for genuine competition must exist. That is, government cannot prevent otherwise qualified individuals from participating in the process, nor can it introduce systematic bias into the results of the contests for power.

Thus, bringing up considerations of institutional arrangements or selections methods are moot: as long as the above definition and preconditions exist, it is a representative democracy. And, at the same time, it also is a “republic” (the term the Framers of the Constitution actually used was “republican form of government”). A republic is defined exactly as representative democracy is. So to use a term such as “representative republic,” for example, is redundant: “republic” itself is a synonym for “representative democracy” and republics themselves by definition must have elections meeting the above preconditions.

Perhaps more interestingly, one guest columnist extended the debate into the area of the predominant ideological labels in use in America today, liberal and conservative, arguing some kind of middle ground between the two kept the democratic system operating. However, he incorrectly assigned meanings to the labels, saying the balance was struck between the “freedom” stressed in liberalism and the “order” emphasized by conservatism.

As somebody who wrote an entire doctoral dissertation on how the American public infuses meanings into the two labels, let me offer a gentle correction. First, it is essential to understand that the defining difference between the labels in America (it differs elsewhere) is a dispute over the origins of inequality in society.

Conservatives believe that, when a society features minimal interference from government, differences that appear in the resources accrued by individuals are a result of natural, desirable processes. The easiest way to conceptualize this is in economic policy since it is easily quantifiable. The marketplace (refer to the Austrian school of economics here) distributes resources in proportion to the contributions that people make to society. In other words, wealthy people become so because the enterprises they engage in or oversee provide an enormous benefit to society as a whole, and thus they are appropriately rewarded, while the efforts of poor people contribute little to society’s overall well-being and consequentially they do not receive much for their efforts. Any interference in this process, i.e. predetermining outcomes by some institution such as government, while it may make some better off, in the aggregate makes more people worse off.

Liberals, by contrast, (again, using economic policy as an example) think that very disparate levels of wealth are not a natural process related to a person’s contribution to society, but rather represent the workings of some kind of error that has crept into the fabric of society. They perceive outcomes uncorrected more as a result of a lottery rigged by a “power elite” and thus need the corrective force of government to intervene, through policies such as progressive taxation and redistribution of wealth.

Thus, it is conservatives who place great emphasis on the concept of “freedom,” defined as non-interference by government in the competition of the distribution of resources in society. By contrast, liberalism stresses “equality,” defined as having outcomes of this competition conform ultimately to some set of standards determined by government (which theoretically is answerable to a majority of the people).

Modern liberals do not desire perfect equality, as in the communist state. But they do desire to limit people’s freedoms because it interferes in the state’s ability to impose equality – thus, a kind of imposition of “order,” meaning the columnist had the definitions, in a sense, exactly reversed.

He was right about one thing, however, that a representative democracy is a balance of the two, needing a minimum of both qualities. At a certain basic level, all people have equal rights; past that, government should not interfere to aid certain parties to the exclusion of others. It’s just that, due to their differing conceptions of the origins of inequality, the two ideologies would assign very different legitimacies to different amounts of government intervention necessary in the pursuit of fulfilling equal rights, or where the balance is. Liberals try to draw it more to the side of equality, while conservatives seek to have it marked closer to freedom.

That’s the civics lesson for today; until next time, when the usual insightful analysis of state and local politics resumes.

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