This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
If you are clever or lucky enough to discover a star, a river, a species of sea slug or a disease, you win the right to give your newfound thing a name.
The members of the Utah Legislature have discovered, only 224 years on, what kind of government the United States of America has. So they get to decide what to call it. It is a "compound constitutional republic."
This is where many of you, especially those reading this article online, will reach for your favorite search engine. Let me save you the bother. Googling the exact phrase "compound constitutional republic" Friday yielded 235 hits a pittance by Google standards and all but two or three are references to House Bill 220, in which our state's public schools are commanded to teach that the United States is not a democracy, but the aforesaid "compound constitutional republic."
But our lawgivers have not bothered to tell us what the term means, and they are not going to.
Defining the terms in a debate helps you to win it. But being too detailed can also sap some of the almost mystical power gained by giving something its name.
As long as our lawmakers keep the details fuzzy, they will retain the sole authority to say what acts, what procedures, what levels of public participation are or are not in keeping with our particular republic.
Thus the Legislature holds to itself the ability to say what rights are untouchable (guns), what rights are to be limited (abortion) or denied (gay marriage), what official records are accessible (we'll get back to you on that). They get to say that one county can defy higher authorities by, say, tearing down "no ATV" signs on federal land, while other counties have no business setting their own fee structures, their own zoning codes or their own anti-discrimination laws. Why? Because they said so.
Of course, Americans have always been known to go government shopping whenever their private interests or their public ideals demand it. It is the "compounding" of our republic, all the branches and layers and spheres of authority, that makes that possible.
Rare indeed is the conservative, liberal, business or public interest group so principled as to rise above the temptation to appeal to the city, the state or the federal government, to the executive, legislature or judiciary, based solely on which is most likely to rule in their favor.
Folks like me, for example, liked federal supremacy just fine when it was the only effective tool against racial segregation, but are known to resist it when the states are more likely to recognize gay marriage or allow medical marijuana.
Google did turn up one other reference. It is a 2006 book by a philosopher named Ellis Sandoz, Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America. In it, Sandoz argues that the U.S. Constitution flows from a religious base, not the Enlightenment roots that modern liberals prefer to credit.
And he apparently coins the label "compound constitutional republic" to describe a government that rightly fears democracy, because democracy always leads to mob rule and/or socialism. A republic, meanwhile, is more likely to stick to religious principles, without which we face "the disintegration of our civilization."
Maybe the authors of HB220 have read Sandoz. Maybe, like Darwin and Wallace, they found the same thing in different places. But they certainly share a contempt for democracy.
Before the Legislature got hold of it, the American concept of a republic had democratic roots.
The people do not rule, not because they are too stupid or selfish, but because they cannot be expected to take the time to do what rulers in a republic are chosen to do. Deliberate.
Consider. Hear all comers, balance interests and ideas, and come to a conclusion that provides the greatest good for the greatest number without trampling on the rights of the individual.
Our state government, as it now exists, shows no inclination to wisely deliberate.
It seems able only to rule, as a few people, selected in a process that empowers the true-believing activists over the broad wisdom of mainstream Utah, in a way that holds the people, from whom their power is supposedly derived, in abject contempt.
And anyone who doesn't like the way Utah government works, as a compound constitutional republic, can be told they don't understand and, therefore, don't count.
Because when our rulers use a word they, like Humpty Dumpty, get to decide what the word means.
George Pyle is a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, e-mail: email@example.com. He would love it if you would "like" his State of the Debate column/blog on Facebook.