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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899 comments
Prince Duncan
Prince Duncan

The USA is supposed to be a Constitutional Federal Democratic Republic in my opinion, but it has become an oligarchic kleptocracy under the rule of the liberal and conservative cults.

Don Dey
Don Dey

Lennie, you must live in the dark or under a rock, or just an uneducated fool..

Lori Turner
Lori Turner

Totalitarianism is a concept used by some political scientists in which the state holds total authority over the society and seeks to control all aspects of public and private life wherever possible.

Tim Sturm
Tim Sturm

REPUBLIC. It is called State's Rights.

Timothy Carl Potts Sr.
Timothy Carl Potts Sr.

...and to the REPUBLIC for which it stands. But we are now an oligarchy and sadly few understand this or care to do anything about it. We are all so tangled up in day to day life that we forget to keep our government in check.

M.Allen Taylor
M.Allen Taylor

America is a Constitutional Republic, always has been.

Terry Kremin
Terry Kremin

Can't be both. We are by definition a republic. We elect some that then make the decision. That is definition of a republic. That we vote for them doesn't make it a democracy, it makes it a republic, by definition. Do not understand how people can not understand simple definitions. Now how that republic became an oligarchy is another story, but it completely supports that we are a republic. If we were truly a democracy, we could not have becomr an oligarchy.

Joseph Girschick
Joseph Girschick

America has become a Serfdom masquerading as a Democratic Republic.

John Galtw
John Galtw

With the high degree of corruption at the Congressional level, it is safe to say that we are a mess. Insider trading and corporate payoffs are a national embarrassment. Our Congress refuses to insist on the same level of transparency for themselves that they insist on for the President.

Ryan Sterken
Ryan Sterken

Article 4 section 4 requires a republican form of government, both parties support fascism. The only democratic principle was to be used to elect reps. None of government nor the people have authority over prohibited powers, ever. Per the 10th.

Donald Seidel
Donald Seidel

It's a republic ruled by oligarchs and plutachest

Keith Pope
Keith Pope

REPUBLIC no where in the constitution does is say democracy

Florence Urbish Sebern
Florence Urbish Sebern

It was designed to be a constitutional republic with a democratic system of voting (one man/one vote, majority+1 wins). A straight-up democracy has no minority voice and is NOT what we want!

John Russell
John Russell

Oligarch puppeteers making the democrat puppet and the republican puppet fight like Punch and Judy, small children and those mentally feeble enough to believe WWF and reality shows are real exercise their right to vote on which puppet they like better while they are pick-pocketed. The rest of the audience pretends it's real excepting for a few hecklers that are declared possible terrorists who get whisked away in black vans. It is nice too so many responses from enlightened citizens from across the political spectrum seeing the same problem.

William Arrick
William Arrick

We are a republic that uses a democratic process to determine our representation. It did not start out that way, as only the House of Representatives was elected by the public, and even then, it was limited to who was allowed to vote at the time. Our republic has evolved over time to be more inclusive in the voting process, but there are still restrictions and the ability to be truly representative of the demographics is skewed by special interests who gerrymander the representative districts to their advantages. It is time to once again make some changes in the election process as is evidenced by the low voter turnout nationwide.

Richard Santomauro
Richard Santomauro

Once we let the masses decide Presidential elections for states we diminished the Republican Form of Senate being involved thereby diminishing the voices of the people. Electoral change must include greater republican based citizen representation instead of lobbyists selecting our candidates with funding influence. Both parties are guilty. Abolish or block political parties from the electoral process.

Doug Adams
Doug Adams

Want some more something for nothing ? Nothing in this life is free.

Doug Adams
Doug Adams

Our founders had time to look over every form of governance and they passed on everyone but republic ! It took along time for progressives to get the 17th introduced taking away the states power to recall their representative.Now with state Governors dependent on federal funds and most not even knowing that they have the power to nullify any federal law interfering with their state. It's taken a while but yes we are in dire straights and unless brought to realize this seems we are doomed.

Stephen P Kershaw
Stephen P Kershaw

umm... with legislation like Citizen's United, its an Oligarch that practices feudalism.

Holly LeRoque
Holly LeRoque

Shrouds of corruption really puts a clamp on everyone.

Mike Kridner
Mike Kridner

Does it really matter when the educational system (controlled by the PC liberal progressives for over 50 years) have been brainwashing our young and trying to rewrite our history.

Kirk Fletcher
Kirk Fletcher

It is a Constitutional Republic. Period. Quit trying to re-label.

Htennek Hguabrac
Htennek Hguabrac

Lmao... Are we really discussing this still? We can only elect those who reach the ballot. I have faith in out local officials and elections still. Local government works, once that Gubna seat and above is pushed I start to wonder. There are many people in government services who started out with all the right moves and sadly they became a part of the machine they tried to change.

Ronald C Baker
Ronald C Baker

It used to be a representative democracy Its been hijacked by citizens United . Is the Supreme Court Corrupt ?

Len Feder
Len Feder

America is not a democracy. It is an oligarchy. It was supposed to be a representative democracy but the representatives do not represent the people. They represent the wealthy.