Courtney: A republic, if we can keep it

A look at our democracy and what we need to do to strengthen it.


by Zach Courtney

As we approach our nation’s birthday, we also approach another historic anniversary: this Tuesday, July 6, will mark six months since the insurrection at the Capitol. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to discuss what this week is about: our nation’s great experiment with democracy. I’ll start with a story.

The year was 1787. The United States, having had problems with the Articles of Confederation, were concluding the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where they wrote the Constitution that still stands today. Elizabeth Willing Powel, wife of the Philadelphia mayor and known herself as the “Founding Mother,” asked Ben Franklin an important question: what type of government was being created?

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

If you can keep it.

I’m a man of many quotes; I’ve probably said that before in a previous column. But I’m not sure there is a quote that has been more influential in my life than this one.

This highly influential quote has two parts, the second more important than the first. But let’s talk about the first part, well, first: a republic.

A republic

(Note: I’ll try my best to avoid making this column read like a U.S. government textbook.) A republic is, simply put, the form of government that the United States operates under today. Instead of having a monarchy, which we were trying to escape in England, we wanted the people to have power in government. Some refer to our government as a democracy. They aren’t wrong. The founding fathers preferred the term republic, however, because democracy was the term used to describe what we now would call a direct democracy. A simpler term for our government would probably be a representative democracy, but to each their own.

If you can keep it

This part of Franklin’s famous quote is far more interesting and important: “if you can keep it.”

Creating a better democracy starts with each of us as individuals. To put it bluntly, we need to do better. According to a 2017 poll from the Annenberg Policy Center, only 26% of Americans can name all three branches of government.

Some will read that statistic and think it’s pretty cool that they are in the 26% of Americans that can name the three branches of government. I think it shows that our journalism and educational systems are in a bad place. I could go on about the changes that need to be made to fix this, but I already wrote a column on that.

I’m a small “d” democrat, meaning that I believe in democracy, not that I am a member of the Democratic Party. I hope everyone is a small “d” democrat. We need to do more to show it, though. Being a small “d” democrat doesn’t mean that one day every four years, you go in and vote. It means you cast a well-informed vote in every election, whether it be for the city council, school board, U.S. Senate, or presidency. It means reading the newspaper, watching the news and forming political opinions. It means not shying away from healthy, civil discussion on politics with your friends, family and neighbors.

We often talk about our jobs, meaning our 9-to-5 jobs: banker, teacher, lawyer, cashier, et cetera. We don’t talk about our most important job enough, one that we all have: our job to be good, well-informed citizens of our republic.

In times of economic crisis, some are always quick to blame the “free riders” — those who don’t work hard enough are relying on the social safety net created by the rest of society. I don’t really agree with this logic economically. But we are in a time of democratic crisis, and this same logic applies well here. We have free riders on democracy, and it leads to events like those of Jan. 6.

If we want to solve the problems of our era — climate change, health care, poverty, you name it — it all starts with fixing our democracy. So, how do we do that?

There are a number of ways we can go about fixing our democracy through good policy. It starts with curbing corruption. First would be overturning Citizens United, but that seems unlikely. We could pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act. We could offer full vouchers that Americans spend on local newspaper subscriptions, ensuring that local news remains strong.

Though CNN and MSNBC would like to argue that Jan. 6 was just a result of some ignorant conservatives listening to Trump, it was and is a much deeper, more systemic issue than that. I’m a fan of sports analogies: if your baseball team loses 10-0, you could blame it on everyone else (those damn Trumpers!) or take a good, hard look at what needs to be done to ensure it doesn’t happen again. If we don’t come together as Americans and fix our republic for the better, the next Trump, Jan. 6, and election will be even worse than the last ones.

We, the people, hold the power in our government. If we use it, that is. Ben Franklin and the founders created a great republic for us, but the events six months ago should be proof that we need to do more to keep it.