America: Merging A Constitutional Democracy and A Republic

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America is often referred to as a democracy, but in truth that is shorthand for a more nuanced reality. America is democratic, but it is also a republic. Democracy and republicanism, though related, are also opposed, much like the American political parties that bear those names.

The signing of the 1787 Constitution of the United States was significant to mankind for a myriad of reasons, not least of which was its innovative application of governance. Perhaps the most ingenious idea put into practice was federalism: the layering of local, state, and national government.

At the local and, to an extent, state levels, citizens are mostly free to self-organize as they please. No two state governments are exactly alike and neither are the community governments within the states. This is the crux of America’s democratic nature.

However, at the national level, the United States is a republic. The constitution does not explain why and how the revolutionaries and founders combined democracy and republic. They had to explain that and more to their fellow citizens in order to achieve ratification.

The struggle for ratification compelled the signatories to launch a campaign persuading the citizens of each state, and their governments, to ratify the Constitution. Doing their part, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay contributed a series of anonymous essays and pamphlets that were published in various state newspapers.

The result of their efforts was, as no less than Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, said, “The best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written.”

Today, the essays are better known as the Federalist Papers.

For the purposes of explaining the principles and application of democracy and republic, there has been no better effort than that of Madison in Federalist 10 and 14. Madison was well acquainted with political history as well as the “new idea” of the times: that individual liberty preexists the state, that legitimacy of authority can only be derived from the polity, and that the power of the state should be held in check by rule of law and sovereignty of the people.

In Federalist 10 and 14, he explains the fundamental differences between democracy and republic: democracy is a form of government in which the people, the demos, of the polity directly control the affairs of governance, and a republic is a form of government in which representatives of the people directly control the affairs of governance.

Both of these ideas, related in their embrace of self-governance, nonetheless have their respective dangers and shortcomings. Democracy has its drawbacks: by giving people direct power, you run the risk of rule by faction and demagoguery; democracy in its most common form means “majority rules,” but that comes at the expense of minority rights. A good democracy is constrained by geography because the people must be in the same community and not be too spread out in order to make good choices.

A republic is not without its flaws either. By giving representatives power, there’s the continuous risk that they will give themselves power and ignore the interests of the people/community. The challenge is keeping representatives accountable to the people they represent and ensuring equal representation.

As Madison explains, the Constitution exploits the advantages of both systems to mitigate their shortcomings. The greatest threat to the integrity of democracy is faction, particularly a faction of the majority. A republic ensures against rule of the many, and the few, because by delegating power to representatives, the power of faction is broken if not encumbered.

The greatest threat to the integrity of republic is the alienation of the representative from the represented. A democracy mitigates that threat through regular elections. An effective democracy is constrained to a small geographic area. A republic, on the other hand, may be extended over a large region because the larger the republic, the more likely that a higher proportion of “fit characters” will be elected to office. It also means more people who participate in elections.

“The more difficult it is for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried.”

It is often forgotten that Madison, Jay, and Hamilton were not unopposed. Another group of writers, later known as the Anti-Federalists, wrote anonymous articles and essays arguing against the Federalists and urging states not to ratify the Constitution. While to the modern American the Anti-Federalists’ position may, at first glance, seem indefensible, many of their warnings have, to an extent, come to fruition.

They warned, among other things, that a powerful central government controlling a large expanse of territory will lead to an overpowered executive branch that will dominate the other two branches and that the Constitution would naturally veer toward a wholly national government at the expense of state autonomy. The Anti-Federalists were by no means anti-American, much less illiberal: their concerns and demands led to the adoption of the first ten amendments to the Constitution — today known as the Bill of Rights.

In short, the radical combination of the revolutionary ideas of democracy and republic is what makes America significant, but also challenging. Madison may be vindicated by the last two centuries, but will the Anti-Federalists ultimately be?

Photo Source: University of Virginia

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437 comments
Rhonda Bateman
Rhonda Bateman

We are a Constitutional Republic. There is no mention of "Democracy" in the Constitution.

Kaiser Rotbart
Kaiser Rotbart

But Kevin, if we were a Republic, as I've said, we wouldn't be able to choose who will govern for us. Rome has a republic, and Roman citizens did not vote for who was in the Senate. The Senate was populated by an elite aristocratic class, which rotates in and our of power.

Robert L Vaughan
Robert L Vaughan

Add unions to the list of those subverting the system and you've completed the set.

Jason H Kendall
Jason H Kendall

With less than 8% seats even competitive, we are no longer a democracy -- only 51% of seats being competitive either red blue or I can we claim to be a working democracy

Daniel Gross
Daniel Gross

More like merging the oligarchy with slavery of the poor. Thomas Jefferson believed that further revolutions would be required approximately every third generation to keep the special interests and the buying of federal politicians in check. Of course President Jefferson was completely correct

Richard Lee Slack
Richard Lee Slack

DUH!!! learned that in 6th grade Civics--that they don't teach anymore.

Eric Pomeroy
Eric Pomeroy

See all the other comments saying that we are an oligarchy-they are correct

Roger Balson
Roger Balson

So what is the alternative? The mob votes in representatives -- if those representatives represent the will of the mob, then this is only an indirect form of mob rule, mitigated by an elite professional political class that exists to placate the mob but really "knows better" and imposes its own ideas of what is just and fair. If that isn't a form of aristocracy, I suppose there's another name for it -- oligarchy?

Jack Gammon
Jack Gammon

It is a democratically elected Republic.

Kevin C. Smith
Kevin C. Smith

Yes! Finally! Something to explain to the "we're not a democracy, we're a republic" parrots.

Kevin C. Smith
Kevin C. Smith

A republic has nothing to do with who has a gun.

Kevin C. Smith
Kevin C. Smith

Yes, the representatives are "elected by this mob". But that does not mean that the alternative to direct democracy (the mob) is aristocracy in any form. So, no, the "anti-democrats" are not OK with that.

Kevin C. Smith
Kevin C. Smith

A quote that I always liked to describe the difference is, "We are not a democracy-we do not govern for ourselves. We are a republic-we choose who will govern for us".

Matthew Crockett
Matthew Crockett

People who argue we aren't a democracy generally do so to hide a petty desire to hate away any election result that didn't go their way. The definitions of the two words don't refer to the same Category of thing at all. We are a republic because of our Constitution; we are a democracy because that same aforementioned Constitution defines an electoral system as the basis for how we select our officials. It's that last part that is precisely why the founding fathers felt we needed the protections within the Bill of Rights: to protect us from the downside of a democratic system.

Tom Bentley
Tom Bentley

A democracy is 2 wolves and 1 sheep vote for what is for dinner. A republic is 2 wolves and 1 sheep vote for what is for dinner but, the sheep has a semi-auto rifle and know how to use it.

Mark Baland
Mark Baland

Your excellent description is concise and accurate.

Lou Damey
Lou Damey

What government can do for you, government can do to you! N.Korea would be a good example!

Lou Damey
Lou Damey

I'm middle class, I would do much much better if I didn't have 40% of my earnings extorted from me by our government, I'm no fan of corporations even though I work for one, I like the idea of co-ops! As far as lobbyists, I fully support the NRA! Unions have lobbying power, we need a tax payers union! The wealthy don't take from me, the people who vote for a living are the ones who take from me through the representatives they vote for!

Duncan Webb
Duncan Webb

More like an oligarchic kleptocracy.

Duncan Webb
Duncan Webb

America is supposed to be a Constitutional Federal Democratic Republic, but the liberal and conservative cults have completely corrupted and perverted our electoral system and government, and also divided and bankrupted our country.

Ilyn Ross
Ilyn Ross

Thomas Jefferson's essence of a Republic: "I believe with you that morality, compassion, generosity are innate elements of the human constitution; that there exists a right independent of force; that a right to property is founded in our natural wants, in the means with which we are endowed to satisfy these wants, and the right to what we acquire by those means without violating the similar rights of other sensible beings; that no one has a right to obstruct another exercising his faculties innocently for the relief of sensibilities made a part of his nature; that justice is the fundamental law of society; that the majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest, breaks up the foundations of society; that action by the citizens in person, in affairs within their reach and competence, and in all others by representatives chosen immediately and removable by themselves, constitutes the essence of a republic..." https://www.facebook.com/IlynRossJeffersonian/photos/a.1418071721738601.1073741829.1418031698409270/1418268005052306/?type=3&theater

Jon Anderson
Jon Anderson

I wonder what the heck kids have been taught the last 20 years. I've only run into maybe 2-3 people that know America is a Democratic Republic. Or is supposed to be anyway....

Wayne Petty
Wayne Petty

america is in a mess......by passing the constitution......spending out of control.......foreign policy not working......american troops in too many wars overseas.......va administration.....irs......food stamp program......too much american dollars going overseas.....unemployment is high.....american fast becoming godless.....american letting too many illegal into the country america security is at risk.....american history being removed from colleges god help us......prayer is being removed from local state and federal government.......need i say more etc

Shane Lackey
Shane Lackey

Why would I move , you're the ones that suck . Mittens would have never gotten my vote thank you . I vote on principled candidates impossible to find in either party . I vote to end the Federal reserve every single time and they won't put it on their ticket so they don't get my vote .

Roger Balson
Roger Balson

Reading the comments it's interesting to note the number of respondents who oppose the notion of democracy and equate it with "mob rule". And yet, do these same people support the idea of democratically elected representatives? If so, then according to these anti-democrats, our representatives are elected by this mob. If not this, what choice would we then have? An aristocracy that makes all the decisions and sets policy? How are they selected? According to who has the most wealth -- in other words, they buy their way into power. I guess the anti-democrats are okay with that. This is pretty much what we have right now: an oligarchic republic masquerading as a democratic republic. The mob can vote, but the powerful elite restricts for whom they can vote.

Johnny Ritchie
Johnny Ritchie

You are totally free to move, you are not free to be a free loader and burden. You get to drive from one end of the USA, as I do, on the same roads and bridges...even into Canada and Mexico. Your National Security is exactly the same as mine...providing you are an American Citizen.

Marlene Hache
Marlene Hache

Not such a great marriage usually results in a dysfunctional family...

Johnny Ritchie
Johnny Ritchie

Which World are you living in...the FOX World? Where Romney was elected President? The people voted for the ACA on the Presidential ticket 2012...and won.

Johnny Ritchie
Johnny Ritchie

LOL, so outhouses, guns, and mules are back in style? No one voting but elderly white males?

Jason Barr
Jason Barr

U.S.A. is a constitutional republic, not exactly a democracy.

Johnny Ritchie
Johnny Ritchie

Lou, that is exactly what elections are for....I vote for whom it appears will represent my best interests/Policies. The one who gets the least votes is not the President. Then the Supreme Court who is suppose to be representing ALL the people is actually Lobbyist owned like the majority of the House of Representatives and rules Money equals free speech, who drowns out my poor ole speech on the National stage with mis-information. I cannot afford my own Lobbyist...to purchase enough legislators to legislate for me and my Family in the House of Representatives..

Jack Dwyer
Jack Dwyer

Therefore, a Constitutional Republic.

Bryan Ludlow
Bryan Ludlow

Let's just keep living like its 1776 like the republicants want .

Rocky Coast
Rocky Coast

Who cares about labels? America was built on the premise that government should have limits to its power. They've exceeded these limits over and over again. Both major political parties only listen to corporations and lobbyists.

Stacy Kuta
Stacy Kuta

democracy should be a temporary state, of transition from a authoritarian regime, to a society where citizens are involved with their fate...but is FAR FROM IDEAL.

Lou Damey
Lou Damey

What the hell are you talking about, domestic chores? Would it make more sense to you if It was 49 men and one woman voting on who's giving hummers? Pure democracy means the majority can vote to take away your individual natural rights! Democracy means the majority has more political power over the individual!

RomeoSajor
RomeoSajor

It is a democracy because power emanates from the consent of the governed, as expressed by their votes, where the rule of the majority applies.   It is a republic because representatives are elected to represent the people in government. It wold be too unwieldy and impractical for the people to have direct participation in all affairs of the government. These representatives are also governed by the rule of the majority in the enactment of laws.  The Supreme Court is also governed by the rule of the majority. Only the president acts alone, with the advice of his cabinet.  That is why there are constitutional provisions for checks and balances, so that no branch becomes too powerful. 

Melanie Collinsworth
Melanie Collinsworth

I would say this country is very much a democracy. 50%+1 have been voting to take away/infringe on my natural, God given rights for quite some time. BTW-You will not find the term democracy in any of the state constitutions, U.S. constitution or Declaration of Independence. This country sought a democratic republic where individual rights were protected from the desires of the majority. We were to have democratic election where only the representatives were elected by popular vote. These representatives are not do "the will of the people" as so many loosely throw around. That would be democracy. The reps are only to uphold the constitution and work within the 20 powers authorized by it and to defend the INDIVIDUAL'S rights. The power of the governments are derived from the people, collectively. They cannot assume authority to do something that the people do not retain the right to do themselves. ie: stealing (taking from one and giving to another), murder (outside of imminent threat to life), fraud (stealing by deception), etc...

Kaiser Rotbart
Kaiser Rotbart

Not really. It has always been a democratic-republic. We democratically vote for people to represent us in the republic in Washington. It was designed that way even before the 17th Amendment. As far as "dictatorship" goes, President Obama, factually, has used less executive powers than any President in almost 100 years (FDR used more, and every president after him did too). I know, it's fun to think Hussein Obama is an evil Muslim dictator, but factually, he has used less executive powers than any President in 100 years. Let's not state polarized partisan bumper sticker slogans as if they are facts.