Democracy Vs. Republic?

It’s bound to happen. Mention something about protecting American democracy within earshot of a right-winger, and you are pretty much guaranteed these days to get a canned response like this: “America is not a democracy, you libtard snowflake moron! It’s a republic!” This is a snappy comeback intended to “own the libs”, but all it actually does is demonstrate ignorance and gullibility.

Saying that a nation is “a republic and not a democracy” is like saying that an animal is a dog, and not a mammalian quadruped. Because democracy and republic are not at all antithetical or mutually exclusive. Rather, a republic is a particular kind of democracy: namely a democracy in which citizens elect representatives to make laws on their behalf.

As the entry for republic over at Britannica states:

republic, form of government in which a state is ruled by representatives of the citizen body. Modern republics are founded on the idea that sovereignty rests with the people… republics may be distinguished from direct democracy, though modern representative democracies are by and large republics. The term republic may also be applied to any form of government in which the head of state is not a hereditary monarch.

So the real distinction is not between republic and democracy, but between republic and direct democracy. When the founders set up the government structure of their new nation, they were inspired by, among other things, the ancient example of democratic Athens. But they realized that exactly the same model would not work in the U.S., because it would be too large both in population and geographic area — thus making it impractical for all citizens to assemble and have a proper discussion about measures being considered for passage into law. They further realized, no doubt, that in the future, the nation might be even more populous and even more expansive.

Of course, they could not have foreseen that modern technology would eliminate some of the difficulties by putting people into contact with each other in real time. Yet still, the volume and complexity of legislation in the Twenty-First Century makes it essentially impossible for the great majority of citizens to keep abreast of it all — thus still necessitating the use of elected representatives to do that job for them. (Even so, legislators often don’t even read the bills they are voting on!)

In other words the U.S. government still is, of necessity, a republic. But it’s also still a democracy. Or at least it’s supposed to be; just how well it measures up to that billing has varied from time to time.

And there’s another important point that, like most other important points, often gets brushed aside: democracy is not merely a thing — i.e., a form of government — but also a quality — i.e., the condition of citizens having a voice in how they are governed. While the former might be an absolute distinction (a government is either a democracy or it is not), the latter is a matter of degree. Some societies are more democratic than others. Even a dictatorship could be democratic to some extent, although dictatorship is certainly not a democratic ideal.

Furthermore, within a particular society, no matter how democratic it is or isn’t, specific institutions exhibit varying degrees of democracy. The U.S. House Of Representatives is arguably more democratic than the U.S. Senate, because its numbers represent states according to their population. It’s difficult to conceive of the U.S. Supreme Court as being very democratic at all, since (a) its members are appointed by one person, who may or may not be acting on behalf of a majority of citizens; (b) its edicts are final, and (c) its members serve for life. The Electoral College is both somewhat democratic, in the sense that it provides a mechanism for tallying votes for president, and egregiously anti-democratic, since it has the potential to greatly distort and even reverse the will of the people.

The folks who spout the republicnotdemocracy nonsense are, to a person, blissfully unaware of such distinctions. They’re simply regurgitating what has been shoveled into them by right-wing pundits and politicians. They assume that if Sean Hannity or Dennis Prager says it, then it must be a thousand percent true. But figures like them must be thoroughly confused, yes?

Well, no. They know exactly what they’re doing. It’s no accident that the same voices who spread this silly narrative are invariably enthusiastic fans of the Electoral college, the filibuster, gerrymandering, court packing, obstructionism, the bullying of school boards, and bogus claims of election fraud followed by legislation to suppress the “wrong” kind of vote.

But if you think these people are indifferent toward democracy, you couldn’t be more mistaken. They absolutely hate democracy; it’s what stands between them and absolute power. They are hellbent on doing whatever it takes to eradicate all remaining traces of it. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt their cause any to convince a large part of the public that democracy never even existed in the first place.

3 comments

  1. Reblogged this on silverapplequeen and commented:
    Man, I hear this ALL the time! A really good break-down of the debate. “…if you think these people are indifferent toward democracy, you couldn’t be more mistaken…it certainly wouldn’t hurt their cause any to convince a large part of the public that democracy never even existed in the first place.”
    From what I hear, lots of people already believe that.

  2. While establishing a democratic republic may have been the founders intent, we know there were a few serious impediments that obstructed that promise of a more perfect union. And these were in addition to the nation’s original sin of slavery.

    I have also grown weary of the “It’s not a democracy. It’s a republic.” pablum from the radical Right enemies of democracy.

    Coincidentally my most recent post was a discussion of this same subject.

    My opening remarks of my piece titled “Myth Busting”:

    First, let’s identify two American myths.
    1. “America is a democracy.”
    2. “No, America is a republic.”

    Sorry folks. It is neither. And that means it is NOT a democratic republic. Fair political representation for the voters is what defines a democratic republic.

    Here’s the primary problem that is eroding the integrity and rotting the soul of the United States of America.

    Our elections are rigged. And NOT in favor of Democrats.

    Along with the fiction of “corporate personhood” and the secret dirty money in election campaigns, there are three institutional poison pills that are suffocating democratic representation in America.

    It’s not just the anti-democratic and unrepresentative Electoral College. The Constitution has other fatal flaws undermining fair representation in the Senate and House.

    State control of federal elections means gerrymandering, and partisan control of elections, vote counting, and the results. Republicans can control the House with fewer votes than Democrats.

    The Senate is the least representative body in any democratic republic in history. Republicans can control the Senate with fewer votes than Democrats.

    Some numbers for your consideration:

    Washington DC has an estimated population of 650,050 with zero representation in the Senate.

    That is more than Vermont’s 643,077 and Wyoming’s 576,851, but they each have two senators.
    California has 39,938,223 with the same Senate representation.

    There’s no way the founders could have foreseen this gross imbalance of legislative power. This is clearly not what they meant by “consent of the governed”.

  3. I should add this study that delves into the shadows over our undemocratic non-republic:

    Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens

    Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page

    Preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically nonsignificant impact upon public policy.

    “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

    “A proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favour) is adopted only about 18% of the time,” they write, “while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favour) is adopted about 45% of the time.”

    “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it.”

    They conclude:

    “Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

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