The past two weeks have showcased political conventions convened to nominate candidates for the Presidency of the United States of America. The conventions are signature moments in American democracy (and a chance to party). But wait a minute: are American citizens governed by a democracy? No. The American system of government is a constitutional republic. Remember the Pledge of Allegiance we all took in grade school? – "And to the Republic for which it stands, one nation..."
The difference between a democracy and a constitutional republic is that a democracy sets law, based on the vote of the majority of citizens. A constitutional republic sets law by a constitution and representatives of the citizenry and power is separated from the people.
The Constitution of the United States' foundation was set upon the Bible, Magna Carta, and the Declaration of Independence. Loosely based on Christian principles found in the Bible, the founders of the United States believed the people to be weak, sinful, and corruptible, and therefore, unable to govern themselves. In 1789, when George Washington was elected the nation's first president, he won with no opposition, based on his hero status from the Revolutionary War. George Washington did not belong to a political party. In fact, initially there were no political parties during Washington's presidency.
As his administration began to shape American politics, two political parties developed - the Federalist Party and the Anti-Federalist Party for White males only. The Federalist Party (similar to today's Republican Party) believed in a strong national government and supported policies that favored bankers and the wealthy. The Anti-Federalist Party (similar to today's Democratic Party) believed that the Constitution should not give the national government unlimited power and supported policies that favored small business owners and farmers. The American two-party political structure was born.
In 1800, the property-owning requirements were lifted and the development of political parties changed direction. For the first time in the young history of America, the number of White males who could vote expanded significantly. The result was that political parties became more institutionalized to mobilize voters of each political bent.
By the 1830's, the two-party political system in America was firmly in place. Two-party or not two-party is the question. And is a two-party system democratic? History instructs us that the two-party model never lasts long. The Roman Republic was divided into two political parties, the Popularities and the Optimates. The Popularities (likened to today's Democrats) and the Optimates (likened to today's Republicans) pitted the population against one another. When Gaius Julius Caesar, popular among the people, defeated his rival Pompey, the Republic devolved into a dictatorship. Likewise, the American Civil War pitted brother and sister against brother and sister, led by the northern Republicans (now Democrats) and southern Democrats (now Republicans), nearly collapsing the nation. I had the honor of assisting in the formation of the Republic of South Africa in 1994, which permitted for the first time all races and ethnicities to freely participate in the democratic process, represented by multiple political parties. The system worked by opening the process to all parties that could garner at least 5 percent of the national vote in the political primaries. Such parties were placed on the ballot. The result was that more varied views of the people were represented by 14 political parties. The government of proportional representation made manifest the American words inscribed in the United States Constitution, "of the people and by the people."
Strong government and power to the people can co-exist. However, American politicians must truly believe that the American people can make intelligent decisions about their government, if properly educated. Neither the federal government nor the states should dominate the American political process. Therefore, political parties should do more at political conventions than party. Change is good.
Gary L. Flowers is executive director and CEO of the Black Leadership Forum. He is also a former fellow in the Institute of Politics at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government.