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.”

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  • 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.

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

      • The problem is that this is typical American right wing opinion. You can tell that any time you google the subject. Try it.

        • So…Frame the question – Define the terms – Cite historical examples and finally, make a declarative statement based on those preceding actions. That is a typical American Right Wing Opinion?

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

    • America is a representative republic… It covers the democracy part of it like a blanket so as to completely avoid being a democracy. Democracies are inherently evil.

      • A republic is a merely a type of democracy; ergo, if a democracy is evil then so is a republic.

      • Being a republic does not mean you cannot also be a democracy. I often hear people argue (often quite militantly) that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. But that’s a false dichotomy. A common definition of “republic” is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, “A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them” — we are that. A common definition of “democracy” is, “Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives” — we are that, too.

        The United States is not a direct democracy, in the sense of a country in which laws (and other government decisions) are made predominantly by majority vote. Some lawmaking is done this way, on the state and local levels, but it’s only a tiny fraction of all lawmaking. But we are a representative democracy, which is a form of democracy.

        And the same two meanings of “democracy” (sometimes direct democracy, sometimes popular self-government more generally) existed at the founding of the republic as well. Some framing-era commentators made arguments that distinguished “democracy” and “republic”; see, for instance, the Federalist (No. 10), as well as other numbers of the Federalist papers. But even in that era, “representative democracy” was understood as a form of democracy, alongside “pure democracy”: John Adams used the term “representative democracy” in 1794; so did Noah Webster in 1785; so did St. George Tucker in his 1803 edition of Blackstone; so did Thomas Jefferson in 1815. Tucker’s Blackstone likewise uses “democracy” to describe a representative democracy, even when the qualifier “representative” is omitted. Likewise, James Wilson, one of the main drafters of the Constitution and one of the first Supreme Court justices, defended the Constitution in 1787 by speaking of the three forms of government being the “monarchical, aristocratical, and democratical,” and said that in a democracy the sovereign power is “inherent in the people, and is either exercised by themselves or by their representatives.” Chief Justice John Marshall — who helped lead the fight in the 1788 Virginia Convention for ratifying the U.S. Constitution — likewise defended the Constitution in that convention by describing it as implementing “democracy” (as opposed to “despotism”), and without the need to even add the qualifier “representative.”

        Sir William Blackstone, who was much read and admired by the framers, likewise used “democracy” to include republics: “Baron Montesquieu lays it down, that luxury is necessary in monarchies, as in France; but ruinous to democracies, as in Holland. With regard therefore to England, whose government is compounded of both species, it may still be a dubious question, how far private luxury is a public evil ….” Holland was of course a republic, and England was compounded of monarchy and government by elected representatives — Blackstone was thus labeling such government by elected representatives as a form of “democrac[y].”

        And this is how “democracy” is like “cash” (and like lots of other words). If you pay cash in a store, what does that mean? It means that you’re paying with bills and coins, rather than with a check or a credit card. But if you buy your house for cash, does that mean that you show up with a briefcase full of bills or coins? Unless you’re in some peculiar lines of work, probably not. Likewise, when people in the framing era were discussing popular government as opposed to government in which the bulk of the people had no voice, they often used “democracy” (or “democratic” or “democratical”) to mean “not monarchy or despotism or aristocracy,” with the “demo-” referring to popular control (what would become Lincoln’s “government of the people, for the people and by the people.” But when they were discussing representative government as opposed to direct government, they often used “democracy” or “pure democracy” to mean “not representative government,” with the “demo-” referring to popular decision-making.

        The same is so today. America is a democracy, in that it’s not a monarchy or a dictatorship. (Some people claim it is too oligarchic, in which case they’d say America isn’t democratic enough — but again they’d be distinguishing democracy from oligarchy.) America is not a democracy in the sense of being a direct democracy. If you’re asking whether to do something by direct ballot or by representative processes, you might ask whether we should be more democratic or more republican. If you’re asking whether China would be better off giving more power to Chinese voters, you might ask whether it should be more democratic or less democratic, quite apart from whether you think the democracy should be direct or representative.

        To be sure, in addition to being a representative democracy, the United States is also a constitutional democracy, in which courts restrain in some measure the democratic will. And the United States is therefore also a constitutional republic. Indeed, the United States might be labeled a constitutional federal representative democracy.

        And you’re a broken pencil But where one word is used, with all the oversimplification that this necessary entails, “democracy” and “republic” both work. Indeed, since direct democracy — again, a government in which all or most laws are made by direct popular vote — would be impractical given the number and complexity of laws that pretty much any state or national government is expected to enact, it’s unsurprising that the qualifier “representative” would often be omitted. Practically speaking, representative democracy is the only democracy that’s around at any state or national level. (State and even national referenda are sometimes used, but only for a very small part of the state’s or nation’s lawmaking.) Democracy, then, has multiple meanings — as do so many words — and has long had multiple meanings. You might think the English language, or political discourse, would be better if democracy had just one meaning. But you can’t arbitrarily select that meaning, and label contrary meanings as linguistically wrong, even if having such a single meaning would be more convenient.

        Nor should you invest so much significance, I think, into the particular word. Concepts are important; there is an important distinction between direct-democracy processes and representative-democracy processes, and among different degrees of directness or representativeness. But don’t expect that the English language as actually used by a large array of English speakers — from Adams, Jefferson, and Wilson on down — will perfectly or even near-perfectly capture such distinctions.

        • What a well thought out and intelligent statement. Thank you. I wish I could copy it to be shared. More people need to know this.

          • The person who “wrote” this comment already copied it. From the Washington Post, I think. Go ahead and copy it. I would suggest citing the actual source, however.

        • Washington Post plagiarism much?

      • You said America is a *representative* republic… Well, those *representatives* are democratically elected. That means we’re a democratic republic.

        Americans who choose to “learn” political science and American History through propagandists like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart, Info Wars, right-wing hate groups, “patriotic” bumper stickers, or social media memes, instead of actually studying America’s history for themselves, are surrendering the original intent of our democratic republic–as written in our Constitution–to a small (but vocal) group of extremists who want to rewrite our history and redefine our Constitution to suit their own agenda.

  • 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.

    • 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?

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

        • 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.

          • 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.

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

          • Missing the point, totally. Congrats on your $ success. I hope you use some of it to help the next person or generation…maybe your own kids & grand kids.

      • 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!!!

        • Ha ha, enter 2018, when the so-called President says he can pardon himself, not unlike Obama’s predecessor.

    • i could not agree more, America is a corporation not a country, and “the people” are its biggest commodity, citizens of the United States are more like commodities with no more power than any other commodity .

  • Why did you not approve of my comment?

  • 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).

    • 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.

    • A representative republic isn’t “under” a democracy like a sub-genre. It covers the democracy system and limits what the majority can do. It’s more like the “representative republic” is a blanket.

  • The U.S. is a relatively democratic republic.

  • 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!

    • wow. so many words, so little substance.

    • Thank the founding fathers for checks and balances.

    • Debera Hitchcock

      That’s what Trump wants. A new world order. He stated it in so many ways. Especially when he said it would be great to have 1 leader, instead of voting again in 4 yrs. You right wingers agree with his tyranny n we will see where he’s gonna take us. The tunnel is getting darker every day under his rule. He’s a total joke. N acts like one

  • The Founding Fathers knew that “Democracy” went all the way back to Ancient Greece. So with that in mind, any guesses on how many times the word “Democracy” or any root of the word therein appears the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, The Constitution, the Bill of Rights..

    A Grand Total of ZERO times.. That is how much the Founding Fathers thought of “Democracy” ..

    In the Federalist Papers -Federalist No. 10, James Madison noted and summed up the framers view of democracy..

    “Democracy, as a form of government, is utterly repugnant to–is the very antithesis of–the traditional American system: that of a Republic,

    • The United States being a democracy is simply a myth. This is simply a republic, ran by a select few who sabotage elections and wealth. This is a republic, which realists likeme are all too aware of!

  • BBC is the last to have a valid opinion of anything outside of where they are stationed.

  • all i know is U.S. Constitution – Article 4 Section 4. so, republic. case closed democracy sucks. stop preaching lies.

  • Placation of mass population

  • Valerie Talbert

    Thank you so much for your information. This helped me so much on my report. (:(:(:(:(:(:

  • I’m not making claims to know what is the perfect system. But in the United States Constitution, where it says “The United States” its not referring to the people of America, as a mass. Its referring to the group of States. On the other hand, the Constitution does have a Bill of Rights that should count for every citizen. The citizens of States have one level of protection in their State, and another in their local government, and another in the U.S. Bill of Rights. But these citizens should not be able, as a mass, to take away the rights given to each of us in the Bill of Rights. Nor should elected representatives alter the laws or the Constitution so as to do this. The principle that our rights are “natural” comes into play. To live in this great country means you wish to live among a group of people who honor such natural rights. Our country’s structure was ingeniously created so that the misled and the ignorant are not able to be tricked into destroying vital freedoms of everyone else, including the Freedom of Speech. When citizens are not educated in U.S. civics, so as to understand how difficult it is to preserve our form of government, our future is in peril because discussions like the one in these comments descends into a purely emotion-driven one. It hurts to be ignorant of the vital lessons of the past. And so in an unpleasant stupor of ignorance people lash out at those they disagree with rather than arguing on the evidence. Democracy implies election based on the popular vote. Two wolves and a sheep, voting on who’s for dinner. But in the U.S. presidential race we help choose the elector, which in turn helps decide who will be the U.S. President:

    “Choosing each state’s Electors is a two-part process. First, the political parties in each state choose slates of potential Electors sometime before the general election. Second, on Election Day, the voters in each state select their state’s Electors by casting their ballots for President. ” (from https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/electors.html)

    Local elections are different because our State and local governments affect us, but the U.S. presidential election can negatively impact those living in every State, including those represented by smaller numbers of U.S. citizens, who it was decided, by our founders, should be protected from this.

    There are cases where a popular vote might lead to good things. But doing harm without a right to do so is also a concern. The question is, do you still care about this latter problem, or is your desire to “do good” (that you presume based on the less-than-infinite wisdom you possess) greater than any need to restrain your potential recklessness.