In recent years, the left-right political spectrum has been more at the centre of national (in the case of many countries) and global politics than it had been for years. According to historians, the terms “left” and “right” seem to have first appeared during the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president's right and supporters of the revolution to his left, referring only to seating in the assembly (and later in the legislature when the National Assembly was replaced by a Legislative Assembly in 1791), not to political ideology.
It was only later that many started to define the political spectrum as having communists on the far-left and fascist dictators on the far-right. Yet, those who define the political spectrum as such seem to have forgotten that Hitler's Nazi Party was called the National Socialist German Workers' Party, which one would usually associate with the far-left (as Socialists often are). Which is why others argue that such a description of the political spectrum is both inaccurate and inadequate.
Because of this, they argue that the political spectrum should be defined from left to right as the government have full power to interfere in the lives of citizens (on the far-left) and absolutely no power to interfere (on the far-right), with political moderates or centrists in the middle. Proponents of this idea suggest that at the extreme right of such a model there is no government (Anarchism), while the extreme left features total government—Communism, Socialism, Fascism, Nazism, etc. And at the middle of such a spectrum lie the types of governments that are limited to playing their designated roles such as protecting the rights of the people, most notably, democratic and republican forms of government which we are going to look at.
The word democracy originates from two Greek words—Demos, meaning “people”, and Kratein, meaning “to rule”—which, when put together, become “the rule of the people”. The word republic, meanwhile, comes from two Latin words—Res, meaning “thing”, and Publica, meaning “public”—translating to “the public thing” when put together.
Both forms of government tend to use a representational system where citizens elect individuals through votes to represent their interests; yet, there is one key difference. That is, the limits placed on the government by law.
That is because in a (pure) democracy, it is “the majority” that rule, make laws and decide as it is “the rule of the people”; whereas in a republic, it is “the law” (or constitution)—the public thing—that rules and restricts laws and decisions that contradict the inalienable rights guaranteed to every individual that somehow fall under the purview of “the law,” as guaranteed in the law (constitution) itself.
Simply put, 51 percent of the population in a democracy can theoratically vote to have the other 49 percent put into prison and that will be legal. Whereas in a republic, 99 percent of the population cannot vote to have the other one percent, or even one person, put into prison without a fair trial where a jury of his peers (other citizens) must listen to both the prosecution and the defence and then decide unanimously to find him guilty—which means that if even one person on the jury panel deems him innocent, he walks free—in order to deny him of his inalienable right to life, liberty, etc. as guaranteed under the constitution. And the same legal restrictions apply to elected representatives in both a democracy and a republic.
This is why the founding fathers of the United States disliked the concept of democracy and the word itself appears not once in the US Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution. James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the US and its constitution, wrote in the Federalists Papers, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the right to property, and have in general been short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
Alexander Hamilton, another of the founding fathers, said, “We are a Republican Government. Real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of democracy.” Samuel Adams, a signatory of the US Declaration of Independence, stated, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.” And they had good reason for such strong words as they were well aware that the democracies of ancient Greece had always produced the most extreme excesses stirred by mob rule leading to anarchy and, eventually, to despotism of one form or another.
Even the founding father of Greek philosophy, Socrates, is portrayed by Plato as hugely pessimistic of the idea of democracy. In book six of The Republic, during a conversation with a character called Adeimantus, Socrates explains that democracy always leads to the worst form of government—demagoguery, where a demagogue or rabble-rouser gains popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the common people, whipping up the passions of the crowd and shutting down reasoned deliberation.
Yet, we hear the word democracy repeated ad nauseam today, worldwide (especially in the US, ironically) and even in Bangladesh among the educated and intellectual classes, and no mention of the fact that “Bangladesh is a unitary parliamentary republic”. Such has become our education and intellectualism, that we are clueless to what the ancient Greek philosophers, founding fathers of the US (in the 18th century) and even our own intellectual and political classes had understood nearly 50 years ago.
Which is why we often obsess with “labels” and “group identities” which is always the case when you have “mob rule”, as even the famous French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, had noticed back in the 18th century (The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, John SC Abbott) when defending people's rights—not of the “individual rights” guaranteed equally to all, as per the constitution. And which also implies that an attack on the rights of just one individual is an attack on the rights of all individuals, as that is the basis from which the inalienable rights that are guaranteed under “the law” of our republic come into being.
When Benjamin Franklin was exiting the US Constitutional Convention, a lady asked him, “Sir, what have you given us?” Franklin's response was, “A Republic Ma'am, if you can keep it.”
Today, when we eulogise the martyrs of our own Liberation War and those who had made great personal sacrifices to give us a free country, let us not downplay what they had given us through our own ignorance. Because what they had given us was more than just a free country; what they had given us is a republic, something when understood properly, is of much greater value than a democracy—if only we can keep it.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.