Benjamin Franklin, according to the oft repeated story, purportedly was asked by a woman on the last day of the Constitutional Convention September 17, 1787 whether the delegates had given the nation a republic or a monarchy. He purportedly replied, “A republic—if you can keep it.”
On the eve of the American Civil War, observers had good reason to wonder whether our republic could survive the socio-politico-economic unrest ripping at the fabric of national unity.
Abraham Lincoln guided the nation through a Civil War that cost the lives of 624,000 of the 2.4 million Union and Confederate Soldiers but kept the country intact. Post-Civil War Reconstruction was, according to some accounts, nearly as divisive as the period before the War Between the States.
Today we are experiencing a similar identity crisis causing some to ask whether our divisions may be too severe to repair and whether we face another period of possible secession.
Pew Research reports that Americans are discontented and question whether our democracy—under the alternating rule of the Democratic and Republican Parties—is responding the demands of its citizenry and capable of solving a multitude of issues.
This pervasive malaise is shared by inhabitants of other democracies, according to several studies.
If so many people are questioning whether democracy is up to the task, what other forms of government might do better?
Winston Churchill stated in 1947, “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for those other forms that have been tried from time to time;…”
Churchill went on to declare that in Britain there was a broad feeling that the people should rule and that their opinions should “shape, guide and control the actions of Ministers.” His assertion was the embrace of democracy not the rejection of it.
If, however, Americans and residents in other democratic nations are dissatisfied with Democracy, what is the alternative?
The most frequently mentioned forms of government are dictatorships, communism, monarchy, republic and democracy.
The founders of America believed in a democratic republic—a government without a monarchy. A republic without nobility, one where the people ruled through their elected representatives.
We know that totalitarian governments of all stripes may be efficient mechanisms for decisive action. But they effect policies at the expense of individual liberty and the consent of the governed.
Any talk of expanding the number of political parties immediately evokes images of multi-party parliamentary systems we see scattered throughout Europe. They are headed by a prime minister who must cobble together a government comprising parties espousing often conflicting agendas and contradictory responses to national problems.
This year Europe was scheduled to hold 13 elections—presidential and parliamentary.
Are they more effective than our federal system with a popularly-elected president and congress? Britain has just voted for a new prime minister; the winner to be announced Monday, September 5.
France and Germany also have generally successful parliamentary governments; Italy continues to struggle as its latest coalition has disintegrated.
All democracies are troubled today—confronted with the remnants of the Covid-19 pandemic including the economic turmoil of inflation, supply-chain delays, as well as global energy and food supply interruptions due to the Russian-Ukraine War now six months long and no end in sight.
The success or failure of governments lies primarily in the quality of national leadership. Popular discontent with the leaders of democratic nations is not new. But the level of frustration today is especially high given the multitude of problems countries face and the seemingly intractability of elected officials to solve them.
The conclusion is obvious. Better democratic government—regardless of its form—requires bold, intelligent, effective leaders who have the vision to see solutions and the ability to coax others to follow their lead. Sadly, as we look around the world, there is a paucity of talent—including in America.