A letter from a millennial in the comments section of Quora


What makes the United States a representative democracy?

This question gets asked weekly on Quora. I’m getting very annoyed answering it. The United States is not a representative democracy. It is a representative republic. I guess the high schools don’t teach Civics anymore. - Thomas B Walsh, Author and Retired Executive

Hey Thomas,

Sorry that you were upset that people aren’t searching for answers more thoroughly before they post these questions. Given your vitriolic and sarcastic response, I decided to tell you my experience with what you wrote here.

I am an educated California resident in my mid-twenties. I have professional knowledge and experience in writing, software engineering and biochemistry. I’m not a genius, but I’m well educated; I’m certainly not an idiot. I get curious about things and try to learn as much as I can every day. I haven’t cared much at all for politics until pretty recently.

At the moment, I am curious specifically why the United States is a “representative democracy” over a “direct democracy”. That’s the question I’m starting with. There are a few truisms bouncing around my head, but I have a lot of specific questions about it: Was it a legacy choice? Past political footwork? A technical issue? Is it something that we could change in the future? Is it something we would want to change? Was it a choice made purposefully or was it a feasibility issue?

These paths of curiosity before me stem from a lack of information about the systems implemented to create our democratic republic. So I am looking for this information with excitement and deep curiosity. I can’t wait for the sensation of understanding. To me, it’s as satisfying as taking a bite from a perfectly ripe apple. But because of my ignorance on this topic, I’m going to search for the wrong things. I’m going to ask stupid sounding questions because I don’t know the right words yet. Ignorance on a topic doesn’t mean that I’m stupid and uneducated. Even if it’s something I should already know.

Today, when I stumbled upon the answer you wrote months ago, I didn’t feel that good, satiating feeling of learning something new about the world.

I felt stupid and uneducated.

I felt like I should remember the things that my uninterested, underdeveloped, hormonal teenage brain was taught ten years ago. And I don’t. I remember other things from high school, but not that.

Personally, once I’ve decide to learn something, I have a drive that is borderline neurotic. However, many of my friends and people that I’ve met younger than me are less weird. They don’t obsess on things, and I’ve seen first hand that they’ll stop looking into a topic when they run into something like this. A wall.

I’m almost positive that this long comment will come as a surprise. I’m guessing you wrote this on a busy day back in May and then forgot about it. I wanted you to know my experience, so you can get a sense of where this fits into a broader picture.

There are not a ton of views on this question, and I’m sure your response is defensible in context. It’s a nit-picky distinction to say we are de facto republic or de facto democracy when the consensus seems to be that we are both. We are a representative democratic republic. That’s not the point though.

The point is that your answer doesn’t seem to mean much to you and it means loads to me. I can tell from your internet presence that you’re frustrated with educational institutions. Me too. Perhaps you feel let down by institutions on a whole. Me too. The frustrated sentences you wrote changed the trajectory of my thoughts in a negative direction. It’s only one answer with low visibility, but to me it represents an elephant in the room.

While writing this comment, I was able to go look at other questions and read articles explaining the information I was searching for. By the end of writing this, I’m not as ignorant as I was when I started. Because I was and am curious.

Coincidentally, you wrote an article on the same day you posted a response to this question: A Generation of Dependents. In my mind, you even point to the elephant in the room in your conclusion.

I fear we are raising a generation of young people many of whom are never going to be financially independent.

You fear a generation of incompetent young people. I know that my generation is curious. We care a whole lot about a lot of things. I so strongly believe in the people that are young today. There are a ton of things competing for our attention and resources. Many of those things are pitfalls. (Since you wrote a book on it, I’d bet the farm that you agree student debt is one of them.)

Even though there are a lot of mistakes and perpetuated misinformation that we sift through, curiosity will lead us to the truth. If we stay curious, the pitfalls and mistakes waiting for us will teach us, not leave us incapacitated. Our ignorance will be replaced by important truths.

Your response is one neuron in an intricate network of synaptically connected information. It’s a dead end. It’s a curiosity killer.

Thomas, it may not feel like your answer is a piece in this huge fabric, because it is a small piece. When you tell someone you’re annoyed because they’ve asked the wrong question, that they should already know the answer, you let them down.

*Embarrassment at not knowing will perpetuate their ignorance. *

The spirit of the question I read was:

What makes the United States a representative democracy?

Emphasis on representative.

The United States is a representative democracy because we elect representatives that we are aligned with to make decisions on our behalf. To make and uphold laws that are aligned with our morals and our sense of justice.

This is really, really important. In that context, does it matter so much the technical differences between the republic aspects of the United States and the democratic? We the people elect representatives.

I’ve been to other countries, and I love the place I live. I’m so happy that we are fighting for important things, and right now it feels we are on a precipice. Things aren’t great, but people my age are working hard to make them better. People are often wrong and misguided, but I will take that over annoyed apathy any day.

It’s not us and them, it’s just Us. And curiosity leads Us to the truth, but as soon as we feel bad about a lack of knowledge, we stop looking. Please don’t let your generation give up on mine. I won’t let mine give up on the world.




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