Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Is America a Democracy or a Republic?

Simple answer: yes.

Every now and then, I have a conversation with someone who seems to take particular delight in insisting that America is a republic and not a democracy. Indeed, as a younger person, I myself frequently made such a statement with the firm belief that it was not only factual but significant.

The most common justification for this view comes in the form of asserting certain definitions of the words republic and democracy. Take for example, this article from the website “Foundations of Liberty”:

In a democracy, all laws and decisions of government are made by the majority. This is not how the United States is governed. The key difference between a democracy and a republic lies in the limits placed on those in the government by the law. In a republic there exists a constitution, or charter of rights, to protect certain inalienable rights that cannot be taken away— even if a majority of voters demand it.

But these definitions don’t really match the ones in the dictionary. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines republic as:

a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch

And democracy as:

a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives

Those in the know might go so far as to cite Federalist No. 10, which contrasts democracies and republics. The problem is that it doesn’t. It contrasts pure democracies with republics. It even defines what is meant by pure democracy:

[…] a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person[…]

So yes, Federalist No. 10 contrasts direct, participatory democracy with representative republics but as the dictionary entry above clearly demonstrates, that is simply not what most people mean when they say democracy (without a pure or direct in front of it).

Put simply, republic and democracy are not mutually exclusive terms. They are utterly compatible and often appropriately used together: a democratic republic. Indeed, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson themselves used the term representative democracy. While we’re at it, why not throw in a few more non-mutually-exclusive descriptors? How about constitutional? How about federal? So is America a federal republic? Yup! Is America a constitutional federation? Yes! Is America a constitutional democracy? You betcha! Now let’s put them all together: the United States of America is a federal constitutional democratic republic.

Instead of focusing on semantics, might I humbly suggest we direct our energies instead to ensuring that everyone has a voice in our country? Perhaps by fighting against voter suppression wherever it rears its ugly head?