“The US is a Republic, not a Democracy!”

File this under the category of what’s mildly annoying me this week, or annoying me enough to write about it here.

Whenever someone mentions that the US is a democracy, even in passing, someone will undoubtedly chime in with, “the US is a republic, not a democracy,” as if that somehow negates everything previously said.

How people got this notion remains a mystery. I first recall one of my high school history teachers telling me it, and I’m undoubtedly guilty of repeating the statement as a teenager. Anyway, (before I start discussing my teenage years) it appears that people see a republic and a democracy as two distinct forms of government. Democracies supposedly elect everyone directly while republics elect representatives to vote in their place. By these definitions America is a republic – too bad these definitions are wrong.

People generally get these definitions from re-interpreting or simplifying the debate the founders had at the Constitutional Convention. Should the US be ruled by majority or should there be restraints in the form of elected representatives? The founders weren’t forced to choose from a list of governments; they were free to set up anything they saw fit. The nuances of that debate turned into democracy vs. republic.

Instead, a democracy and a republic are not two competing forms of government, but two aspects of government. A democracy simply means “rule by the people” as opposed to a monarch or tyrant, and republic means the government is considered a “public matter” rather than a private one. In other words, both are alternatives to hereditary rule. With the true definitions it’s very easy to see how you can have both a republic and a democracy. There are times when you can have a democracy, but not a republic, like in the case of Copenhagen’s Christiania or have a republic without democracy as some of the prominent Italian city-states had.

So what is the US? Well people either call the US a “representative democracy” or a “constitutional republic” which perhaps answer the questions of how we elect and how we rule respectively. These are not mutually exclusive, people elect representatives to run the government and create laws. For contrast, you can also have a direct democracy where people would vote on laws themselves like in the state government of California, or you can have a constitutional monarchy where the head of state is a king or queen as it is in many European nations.

Democracy and republic are just terms we use to describe a system of government rather than some all-encompassing organizational rule. It might be akin to how people say that the US is a Christian nation because the majority of its inhabitants practice Christianity while others say that the US is a secular nation because we don’t recognize a state religion. Both are true based on how you define the criteria.

I’ve decided to coin a word for statements like “the US is a republic, not a democracy,” which I’ll discuss in my next post.


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