The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday is democracy. Is it possible to have too much democracy? If so, is too much democracy a bad thing?
From its organization, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have taught that the U.S. Constitution was inspired by God. In a revelation published given to the Prophet Joseph Smith at Kirtland, Ohio, on December 16 and 17, 1833, and published as Doctrine and Covenants 101, Jesus Christ gave the following information concerning the Constitution of the United States.
The Lord explained in these verses that the U.S. Constitution was to protect the rights and freedoms of all people for the purpose of allowing them to use their moral agency to choose how they want to live. He also said that He “established the Constitution … by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose.”
Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ continue to teach that the Constitution was divinely inspired. In the April 2021 General Conference, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, spoke on the topic “Defending Our Divinely Inspired Constitution.” President Oaks that this claim of a divinely inspired Constitution “does not mean that divine revelation dictated every word and phrase.” This is one reason why the Constitution has been amended so many times.
However, President Oaks identified five principles that he believes were divinely inspired. Those principles are: (1) We the People are the source of government power. (2) The delegated power of government is divided be between the nation and its subsidiary states, meaning our federal system. (3) The separation of power between the three branches of government – executive, legislative, and judicial. (4) The implementation of the Bill of Rights, a “cluster of vital guarantees of individual rights and specific limits on government authority.”
(5) The vital purpose of the entire Constitution. “We are to be governed by law and not by individuals, and our loyalty is to the Constitution and its principles and processes, not to any office holder. In this way, all persons are to be equal before the law.”
Justin Collings, a professor at Brigham Young University Law School and a fellow at the Wheatley Institute, wrote the first in a five-part series with plans to write upon the five points outlined by President Oaks. The title of his essay is “Opinion: What do you do when democracy is too much of a good thing?” He stated that the answer to this question is found “in the U.S. Constitution’s inspired balance between popular rule and centralized power.” He quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying:
We have been fellow-laborers and fellow-sufferers, and heaven has rewarded us with a happy issue from our struggles. It rests now with ourselves alone to enjoy in peace and concord the blessings of self-government, so long denied to mankind: to show by example the sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs and that the will of the majority, the natural law of every society, is the only sure guardian of the rights of man.
To Jefferson, the purpose for the eight long years of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was to gain “the blessings of self-government.” It was self-government that the Constitution was designed to secure. Collings continued with his explanation:
In the summer of 1776, in the most famous paragraph he ever penned, Jefferson proclaimed “self-evident” truth that “governments … deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Four score and seven years later, Abraham Lincoln described the country’s deadliest crisis as a test of whether “government of the people, by the people, for the people” could “long endure.”
For both Jefferson and Lincoln, then, “America” was an experiment in self-government – in what political theorists called “popular sovereignty.”
The Founders of America, the Framers of the Constitution, and Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War all understood that the idea of popular sovereignty was an experiment. Could the people of any nation govern themselves? Ancient Greeks debated the concept of rule by the people. It was also a point considered during the French Revolution. Collings explained why the idea works sometimes and does not at other times.
Did this mean that the people shouldn’t govern at all? Not necessarily. The key was to distinguish between popular sovereignty and day-to-day governance. The people could govern themselves by delegating lawmaking powers to their chosen representatives. Self-government didn’t require actual governing. It proceeded via representation. It required only what Jefferson called “the consent of the governed.”
The rub was how to secure that consent – how to ensure that representatives pursue the people’s interest, rather than their own, and that legislation reflect the people’s considered wishes, not just momentary passions. This was the conundrum, above all others, that perplexed the framers of the U.S. Constitution.
Collings’ essay has much more information in it, and I encourage you to read it. It is important for all Americans to understand that the Constitution of the United States organized a democratic republic and not a democracy. Yes, the people vote for the candidate that they want to be the next President of the United States. However, the President is not elected on a popular vote.
This is where the Electoral College and the idea of representatives come into the picture. The people vote for who they want to be President, but their vote actually chooses which delegates vote in the Electoral College. If candidate A gets more votes than candidate B, the delegates for candidate A votes in the Electoral College.
This is also one reason why the members of the U.S. House of Representatives must stand for re-election every two years. They represent the people, and they can be removed from office much more quickly than Senators – who should be representing their states.
To answer the question about too much democracy, the answer is yes. In a pure democracy, the people can vote themselves into total destruction. In a democratic republic, there are checks and balances all along the way, and this is the reason why the United States of America has existed under the Constitution for more than 200 years.