United States: Republic or Democracy?

Mike asks: Why does everyone say the U.S. is a Democracy when it’s really a Republic?

we-the-peopleFrequently, 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.

It’s Both

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 subscribing to our new Daily Knowledge YouTube channel, as well as:

Expand for Further References
Share the Knowledge! Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmail
Print Friendly
Enjoy this article? Join over 50,000 Subscribers getting our FREE Daily Knowledge and Weekly Wrap newsletters:

Subscribe Me To:  | 
  • Mike

    Typical american thinking. UK is monarchy but is also a democracy. Democracy is a political structure not form of government. You can have a republic and oligarchy like Venetian Republic and it won’t be a democracy.

    • mickey

      I, too, am flabbergasted that an article about American government reflects “typical American thinking”. I mean, what the hell

    • SirDaquan

      @Mike, the british exceptionalist. sorry you lost and are stuck in the old world system.

  • random

    Respectfully,
    They’re both equally wrong. The US is neither a republic nor a democracy.

    Plutocracy: defines a society or a system ruled and dominated by the small minority of the wealthiest citizens.

    We are unfortunately a Plutocracy at this point. The United States of Corporations.
    Corporations that act as psychopathic individuals.

    Dubbed the top 1%.
    Maintained by bailouts.
    All against the expressed wishes of the US citizens… that are paying attention.

    • James Clay

      If you truly think that we are a plutocracy, controlled by a hand full of wealthy citizens, then please answer the following question. Why is it that the legislative branch of government, currently controlled by democrats, which has the power to either allow or disallow legislation legitimacy, inconsistent with your claim that control lies in the hands of a small percentage of wealthy citizens?

      • Ron

        The house and senate are run by the republican party currently. Not the democrats.

        • mary young

          Well, CA is ran by Dems along with most states.

          I worked my butt off, all my working years I worked two jobs. I saved, went without, took chances by investing.
          NOW, I am wealthy. Too bad if some don’t like it. I earned every penny. NO ONE GAVE ME ANYTHING. STOP CRYING & STOP CARING HOW MUCH OTHERS MAKE & WORRY ABOUT YOURSELF.

          • Alan

            Yes, I’m sure you earned every single penny without an ounce of help from anyone else.

            I make 100k+, and worked very hard to get to where I am (from dirt poor), but I got here by taking advantage of student loans, government healthcare, roads, libraries, public university, great parents, and a whole host of other advantages that weren’t necessarily within my control. Don’t tell me that no one gave you anything, because someone gave you SOMETHING to get to where you are. Perhaps I’m wrong. For all I know, you walk everywhere on grass, read by candles you’ve self-crafted, fed yourself as a child, and taught yourself everything you’ve ever known. I guess you only invested in businesses that have nothing to do with the federal government whatsoever, which would exclude banks and any major corporations operating in the US.

          • Jason Conover

            Hey look money made him special. Can I get a picture with you Mr. Wealthy guy?

      • Jim

        1) the entire congress is currently majority gop – both houses… like that matters since neither side if the aisle seems to want to do the peoples business, and paul ryan as the new speaker seems intent on rolling over and playing dead for obama and bills he wants presented for his signature – so much for being the selected leader of the gop in the house. 2) baraq believes he is an oligarch or dictator who doesn’t require the legislative branch for anything – he says he can write and sign executive orders and the people prefer that he does this over waiting for their representatives to do something – i’ve never heard such unadulterated bullshyte in so huge of a quantity from one individual than we have from baraq over the last 7 years… fdr was the only president to serve more than 2 terms and even he didn’t have this much crap inside waiting to burst forth! 3) corporations and the nation’s most wealthy individuals do control not only who gets elected, but who has sufficient funds to run for office – during every election cycle they prove that our form of government is the best money can buy!!!

  • random

    Why did you not approve of my comment?

    • random

      disregard that…

  • Alan

    One thing that annoys the hell out of me are people who correct others with “The US is a republic. . . not a democracy”. The US is a republic with democratically elected officials. . . making it both a republic and a form of democracy. It is not a “pure” democracy, but it still falls under the umbrella of democracy. There are also instances in which we act as a pure democracy at state and local levels (e.g. voting on a tax hike directly or creating special districts).

    • Waldo

      The United States is a Constitutional Federal Republic (a federation of states with a Representative Democracy)
      You elect your officials on the State level, where Democracy exists.

  • Stephen

    The U.S. is a relatively democratic republic.

  • Cage

    All are partially correct but where democracy started was before colonial society created their reckless government. True Democracy has allowed the women to hold power over men in decisions regarding everything from warfare, peace, and everything involved in a community. The Iroquois Confederacy was highly regarded by colonial leaders as true democratic nation, and this idea of governance was taken back to the old world and shared new visions of common bond between Kings and his chattel! Today, It is just a distorted farce and has the Old World idea of slavery, entrenched across the globe where currently 74 wars are being started and fought, thanks to the new Warfare Economy that USA struggles to keep alive!…If only they had listened to greater teachings of the original Democracy, What better lives the world might be living in than the current hell we share with it!

    • Pure feminist bullshit. Demonocracy was a disaster when the GREEKS mutilated the original idea and fell like all other bastardized nations into an abysmal welfare mess.

  • The United States is a partocracy. In a Republic citizens know the identities of their representatives. In the primary elections few people know the names of the delegates at the party conventions. Superdelegates in the Democratic Party and Unbound Delegates in the Republican Party demonstrate the U.S. is neither a republic nor a democracy. By the time the general election occurs in November the Party elites through their delegates only offer the American people two viable choices. However, the electoral college system can block even this selection-Bush vs. Gore 2000. Gore won the popular vote but lost the election. This has occurred three times before. The United States is a partocracy, not a democracy or a true republic.

    • The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are PRIVATE organizations formed to choose and promote members for political office.
      Know what hell you are talking about before belabouring us with your boring conspiracy theories.
      the electoral college system cannot block anything, Each state is responsible for voting regulations in their area.
      Some demand the electorates vote in line with the majority of their district, others do not.
      The presidency is won by winning the will of the states NOT a regional majority.

  • We are just coming out of an eight-year, run of a progressive liberal Administration, held by the Democrats, of course. Throughout that period, there was nothing too objectionable, or anti-American, for that forty-fourth President of the United States to act out, or attempt to act out, which divided this nation more than it had been in the 1960’s. Allowing that this nation is a Democracy, by any stretch of the imagination, above and beyond democratic elections, held from time to time, is reflecting precisely what the Founders feared most, and that is that without strict adherence to the Constitution, mankind would destroy this exceptional and singular nation they worked so hard to leave us. Our Founders did not risk their lives, wealth, and property just so academics, centuries later, could second-guess those original design and schematics. The reshape of America into a structure-free, goo of a mess for the self-righteous, personal enrichment, and generational aristocratic ruling elite, makes the Founders role in their graves. A monarchy of politicians, and their special-interest, supporters, want to usurp our government and shred the United States Constitution, all for the sake of personal ego, wealth, and power. America neither needs, or wants, a New World Order!