It has become a common gambit to tell people the United States of America is not a democracy; it is a republic. This argument seems to be coming from right wing circles, for the most part anyway. It gets a lot of its force from the fact that so many on left and even in the middle ground of our nation’s politics commonly refer to the United States as a ‘democracy.’ It gets a lot more force from the fact that at least some of the nation’s founding fathers expressed reservations about democracy. So, anyone casually referring to the nation as a ‘democracy’ becomes low hanging fruit for a quick correction easily supported by a few quick references to some of America’s founding documents. And of course the Republican party gets a little pay-off out of nudging out vocabulary in the direction of their own party moniker.
Fake quotes from America’s founders help to exaggerate the contrast even to the point of caricature (e.g. Not-Jefferson on Democracy, Two Wolves and a Franklin). It is also common to find those making the correction suggesting that anyone who refers to America as a ‘democracy’ must be advocating the very horribles imagined in such spurious quotations.
People do this all the time.
But are they really doing something?
(When they do, this I mean.)
Are people really doing something when they do this?
Yes! They are indeed doing something.
What they are doing is semantics.
That’s right! At bottom, this is a word game, nothing more. What’s more, it’s not a particularly helpful word game, owing to a deceptive shift in meaning over the course of the argument. Folks who make this argument aren’t helping u to understand anything; they are confounding real issues about how to design a government with minor shifts in vocabulary.
I’m not normally a fan of argumentum ad dictionary, but this topic is all about definitions, so let’s take a moment to cover a few options.
Democracy: We’ll go with Merriam Webster Online…
1a: government by the people especially : rule of the majority
b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections
2: a political unit that has a democratic government
3 capitalized : the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the U.S. from emancipation Republicanism to New Deal Democracy— C. M. Roberts
4: the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority
5: the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges
Republic: Also using Merriam Webster…
1a(1): a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usually a president
(2): a political unit (such as a nation) having such a form of government
b(1): a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law
(2): a political unit (such as a nation) having such a form of government
c: a usually specified republican government of a political unit the French Fourth Republic
2: a body of persons freely engaged in a specified activity the republic of letters
3: a constituent political and territorial unit of the former nations of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, or Yugoslavia
Of course, there are plenty of other dictionaries out there, but the better ones are going to have MORE rather than less options for the meaning of the terms in question, and those up above are pretty representative of the options you’ll find in other dictionaries (though the specific examples mentioned are likely to vary). So, I am going with this.
What I want to note right off the bat here is the fact that government outlined in the U.S. Constitution, with its system of elected representatives, would match definition 1b for ‘Democracy’ above, and also definition 1b for ‘Republic’ above. I used to use a government textbook that spoke of the U.S. as a ‘representative democracy’ or an ‘indirect democracy’ as well, both phrases quite synonymous with common uses of the term ‘republic’ or ‘republican government.” In my experience, these are common ways of talking about the subject. In fact, I’ll wager that that is what people generally have in mind when they refer to the United States as a ‘democracy.’ They would be quite surprised to find that they are referring to a direct democracy with no constitutional restrictions on government authority (as those using the not-a-democracy gambit typically suggest).
Simply put; there is, in every day usage, considerable range of overlap between the meaning of ‘democracy’ and the meaning of ‘republic.’ The two words are commonly used to refer to the same thing.
Okay, so where do people get the idea that they are different? They do so because America’s founding fathers were openly skeptical of democracy. Sometimes the founders expressed this in terms of a need check extreme forms of democracy and sometimes they voiced opposition to democracy altogether. And yet, their comments on the subject were not uniformly negative. It says something that the Jefferson and Madison faction of post-Constitution politics was (and is) known as the Democratic-Republicans. If democracy and republicanism could be juxtaposed in opposition to one another, they could also be seen as complementary. Those snarking about how the United states is a ‘republic’ and not a ‘democracy’ take notice of the one theme while seeking to hide the other.
Perhaps the most strident diatribe against a democracy in the founding era comes from Federalist 10, written by James Madison. The relevant passages begin…
From this view of the subject, it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society, consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.
It’s worth noting the hedge in Madison’s comments at this point in the article; he is speaking of “pure democracy,” which seems to leave open the possibility of other not-so-pure democracies. Also, it’s worth noting that he attributes two separate features to this pure democracy; small size and direct participation. The former is a direct function of the purpose of the Federalist papers; they are an effort to sell the Constitution to the public, and along with the Constitution, a much larger and stronger central government. Madison is making a case for a larger government by telling us that smaller governments are more prone to corruption by factional interests. That is part of what he means when he contrasts ‘democracy’ with ‘republic.’ Significantly, this theme runs quite counter to the politics of the Republican Party with its current penchant for bashing big-gov. So, it should be no surprise that those insisting America is a republic would not take up this aspect of Madison’s thinking. The second theme, that direct democracy is a problem (i.e. that letting the people as a whole make decisions about government themselves) makes more of an appearance in their rhetoric. At least some of those telling us the USA is not a democracy will call attention to the representative nature of our legislative process. A lot of educational materials will put that closer to the center of a discussion on the topic. So, did Madison.
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure, and the efficacy which it must derive from the union.
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic, are first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
Note that Madison describes the U.S. model of government in terms of elected representatives which would put it squarely in the domain found in definitions 1b above for both ‘democracy’ and ‘republic’ found in the dictionary above. That Madison refers to this as a republican model of government in contrast to a ‘pure democracy’ does not change the fact that today, people use the word ‘democracy in a manner that is precisely consistent with his own use of ‘republic.’ The point he is making is about the virtues of elected representatives, and there is absolutely no reason to believe this point – or would be – lost on those who refer to the present government of the United States as a ‘democracy.’ There is no reason to suppose that modern usage of the word ‘democracy’ (particularly in reference to the U.S. Government) is meant to apply strictly to direct democracies as Madison does in Federalist 10.
By the end of Federalist 10, Madison has dropped his hedge, and the contrast is simply between a democracy and a republic. The fact remains, however, that Madison’s use of the term is significantly more narrow than that of modern usage in which the word ‘democracy’ is commonly taken to include representative government or indirect democracy. If Madison (or any other founder restricting the term to a comparably narrow range of meaning) rejects democracy, then what stands between them and those Americans who think they live in a democracy is a question of semantics, NOT factual or practical matters. Those producing this sophomoric correction never account for the shift in meaning. They would prefer to pretend that they are weighing in on a matter of great substance.
Note: Another way of distinguishing a ‘republic’ from a ‘democracy’ is to talk about the role of a constitution as a document defining the terms of government authority and restricting that authority to specific contexts of application. This is particularly, important, some would suggest, insofar as a constitutional republic (theoretically) prevents the majority from voting away the rights of a minority. This too is deceptive. Those referring to the USA as a ‘democracy’ are not ignorant of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, nor are they talking about government in a way that negates the significance of either. In college, the distinction is often made between a “strict majoritarian democracy” and a government limited by the terms of a Constitution. It could be added that such provisions are still part of a democratic process, because even constitutions can be modified (albeit usually by the higher standard of a supermajority vote) and in the U.S. at least, our legislative representatives are still elected to office. People who call the U.S. a ‘democracy’ know this, and they certainly aren’t suggesting in such references that the Bill of rights or the proscriptions on government authority in Article 8 section 9 should be set aside.
I should add that the matter is not entirely trivial. The Constitution incorporates democratic principles into government in a variety of ways, balancing them off against measures concentrating power in elite circles. We can ask legitimate questions about how well these serve the people (or even whether or not they were ever meant to serve the people), but any questions about what we should do are poorly served by this simple either-or distinction. Recent efforts to subvert the democratic elements of U.S. government (such as the independent state legislature theory) pose a real threat to the integrity of American government.
Not to mention, a flagrant attempt to subvert the result of an election!
There are those who would genuinely prefer it if America were less democratic. This gambit gives them a cheap shortcut to an agenda they might find more difficult to articulate in responsible terms.
Semantic discussion should help us clarify meaning, not obscure it in the immediate partisan interests of those seeking to gain the rhetorical upper hand. There is a legitimate point to be made here, that America’s founding fathers had their concerns about democratic government. That point is not well made by opportunistic gotcha games like the notion that our nation is not a democracy because it is actually a constitutional republic. The United States of America is both.