Frequently, politicians, and many ordinary Americans, refer to the United States as a democracy. Others find this aggravating because, unlike in a democracy where citizens vote directly on laws, in the United States, elected representatives do – and, therefore, the U.S. is a republic.
Happily, both are right! Here’s why:
It’s a Republic
“Republic” proponents define “democracy” as it was originally used. Called alternately “direct democracy” or “pure democracy,” in this form of government, rather than having representatives vote on laws and other actions, each citizen gets to vote – and the majority decides it.
Although on the state and local level, referenda (e.g., legalizing marijuana) and ballot initiatives (e.g., bond issues), where citizens vote directly on legislation, are used occasionally, on the whole, few things are decided this way in America – even the President is not chosen by the majority of the vote of the citizens, but rather by the votes of our electoral representatives.
This disdain for pure democracy in America traces back to the founding fathers. Alexander Hamilton didn’t like it: “Real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of Democracy.” Nor did Samuel Adams: “Remember, Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself!”
So what were they worked up about? Besides historical examples, they had seen pure democracy in action across the young nation in the state governments established after the Declaration of Independence but prior to the U.S. Constitution:
The legislatures acted as if they were virtually omnipotent. There were no effective State Constitutions to limit the legislatures because most State governments were operating under mere Acts of their respective legislatures which were mislabeled “Constitutions.” Neither the governors nor the courts of the offending States were able to exercise any substantial and effective restraining influence upon the legislatures in defense of The Individual’s unalienable rights, when violated by legislative infringements.
Thomas Jefferson experienced these infringements first hand in Virginia:
All the powers of government, legislative, executive, judiciary, result to the legislative body. The concentrating these in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. 173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one.
Massachusetts’ Elbridge Gerry agreed: “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy,” as did the former governor of Virginia Edmund Randolph who described his desire for a republic at the Constitutional Convention in 1787:
To provide a cure for the evils under which the United States labored; that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and trials of democracy.
Many saw pure democracy as a form of government that inevitably “degenerate[s] into either anarchy or the tyranny of “mob rule.” This was certainly the observation of James Madison, who wrote to Jefferson: “In Virginia I have seen the bill of rights violated in every instance where it has been opposed to a popular current.”
In fear of this tyranny of the majority, the founders clearly and explicitly established a constitutional republic, where laws are made and administered via representatives and powers limited by the written constitution. The founders and other Enlightenment thinkers believed it would:
Help protect against majority tyranny by filtering the people’s desires through the rational discretion of other representatives. . . . [and] help prevent government actions from depriving individuals of their rights, even when those actions are supported by a majority – sometimes an overwhelming majority – of the people . . .
So, clearly, the United States is a republic.
It’s a Democracy
“Democracy” derives from the Greek terms demos meaning “common people” and kratos meaning “rule, strength,” which together morphed into demokratia meaning “popular government.”
Few would argue that the government of the United States does not derive its power from its people. In fact, one of the greatest American presidents, Abraham Lincoln, described our nation as having a “government of the people, by the people [and] for the people.”
Proponents of America as democracy identify a few fundamental principles common to democracies, including “democratic representation, the rule of law, and constitutional protections,” and this is consistent with Aristotle’s primary criterion for a democracy, which is that each person shared in “numerical equality.”
The U.S. government in the modern era has, likewise, discarded the limited definitions of pure democracy and direct democracy in favor of an expanded version:
Democracy is the institutionalization of freedom . . . .[P]ower and civic responsibility are exercised by all adult citizens, directly, or through their freely elected representatives . . . . [where] all levels of government must be as accessible and responsive to the people as possible . . . . [and] protect such basic human rights as freedom of speech and religion . . . equal protection under law . . .[and] the opportunity to organize and participate fully in the political, economic, and cultural life of society.
Ultimately, in a democracy, “regular free and fair elections open to citizens of voting age” are the norm.
This is certainly the case in America and each of its fifty states. So, clearly, the United States is, under the modern definition of the term, a democracy.
From the beginning, the founders intended to form a:
“Mixed” government that combined the best attributes of the three pure forms [monarchy, aristocracy and democracy] and which provided ‘checks’ against their corruption into absolutism.
And it appears they succeeded. Commentator Gary Gutting has characterized our hybrid republic as: “a multarchy . . . a complex interweaving of many forms of government – indeed, of all Plato’s five types [aristocracy, timarchy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny].”
Progressive writer and talk show host Thom Hartman calls it:
A constitutionally limited representative democratic republic [where] . . . the constitution, limits the power of government. We elect representatives, so it’s not a pure democracy. But we do elect them by majority rule so it is democratic. And the form of, the infrastructure, the total form of government, is republican, it is a republic.
Professor Peter Levine agrees, concluding: “Ultimately, the United States can be called republican and democratic.”
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:
- The Origin of the Republican Party
- The Origin of the American Democratic Party
- Written in Human Blood: Draconian Laws and the Dawn of Democracy
- 5 Common Misconceptions About George Washington
- 10 Interesting Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Ben Franklin
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