Anti-aboortion signs are seen outside the All Women's Health Center...

Anti-aboortion signs are seen outside the All Women's Health Center of Clearwater on May 3. Credit: AP/Chris Urso

On the last day of the Constitutional Convention, Sept. 18, 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

But 235 years later, many Americans don't want to keep it, wishing instead for a democracy. A Pew Research poll last year found 55% of Americans wanted to abolish the Electoral College, one of our main republican institutions, while just 43% support it. These numbers have held steady for 20 years.

But in our republic, the minority has enough power to stifle the majority that desires a more direct democracy. 

And that’s thanks to another republic-style body, the United States Senate.

If the 50 senators from the most populous states all voted one way on an issue, and the 50 senators from the least populous states voted the other way, the tally would be 50-50. The number of voters represented by those senators, according to the 2020 Census, would be 277,276,326 to 54,172,855.

How did the most populous states get roped into this in 1787? The answer is complicated, but one key reason is that the Senate didn’t matter as much under the original reading of the Constitution as it has of late, because that reading left most legislating to the states.

The draft of a Supreme Court decision leaked last week that indicates the federally guaranteed right to an abortion granted under Roe v. Wade may disappear marks a return to that traditional reading of the Constitution, by conservative justices who weigh power toward the states in most domestic matters, or to constitutional amendments.

And it reminds us that governing the United States as a republic can only work if the states are willing to let each other do as they wish.    

If we had a national democracy, we would vote for our presidents rather than voting for electors who then vote for presidents, and who in every state but Alaska and Maine are distributed winner-take-all.

If we had a national democracy, the consistent majority hovering around 70% that supports abortion rights, often with some restrictions, would have its way, nationally.

If we had a national democracy, the majority of voters who support universal background checks for gun purchases would have their way, nationally.

If we had a national democracy, the majority of voters who support legalized marijuana would have their way, nationally. 

But the American system was supposed to be, essentially, that the states could do as they wish on issues that don’t involve fundamental rights, interstate commerce, or international affairs. Problems arise when there is no agreement on what rights are fundamental enough to require a nationwide policy.

And on many issues, like abortion, same-sex marriage, handguns, drugs and gambling, we are so divided that some Americans think they should be banned in every state and others think the Constitution guarantees the right to them nationally.

Our system, born of one successful revolution and reshaped by an unsuccessful one, is increasingly ill-suited to the rights of the massive majority that is underrepresented in the Senate and the Electoral College. 

But let this be an incentive to make it work: It’s nearly impossible to imagine a significant change in our republican system, toward democracy, that does not spring from a third armed revolution.

Columnist Lane Filler's opinions are his own.


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