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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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1464 comments
Gary Wiedebusch
Gary Wiedebusch

Democrat republican money who has the most to push there agenda that is what this country is today strap what ever name you want on it its the truth

Gary Wiedebusch
Gary Wiedebusch

This country is what the almighty dollar says it is weather i are you like it or not

Gary Wiedebusch
Gary Wiedebusch

I agree kent its like who ever has the most money pushes the agenda that helps them and i have always wondered just how much stock a politician has in an agenda he is trying to push like Obama on climate control what is his interest in wind power-solar power etc

Anita Brokaw
Anita Brokaw

I guess the fork in the road still leads to Rome?. Its very simple. The American way of life has no boundaries. The constitutions are framed according to the will of the American people. What most have forgotten is that without the American people assisting the sick and wounded many of your ancestors may not have made it. That is until the use of fire arms began. However,the form of democracy exercised in America is based on family value. Not political science. Nor scientific research. Most of the examples of democracy are only based in theory. The concept was adopted from observations not actually practice by those who managed to have their worked published. It was the form of participation amongst the tribes. However,one thing that was practiced in the American way was the peace process. Any thing that interfered with the common good for the nations of American society was frowned upon. Furthermore,American's are civilized people. The majority of issues we have today have absolutely nothing to do with the American people. There is no independence from unity. The United States of America today has no American value system. Every agenda of political parties is lined with competition and innovation. Giving these two items rein on both sides of the board. Using political gerrymandering to divert the goal to the disadvantage of the people. So tell us what political party is responsible for causing these socioeconomic conditions?. What label would be appropriate to define the current conditions that are preexisting under continuous unethical practices. Crisis after crisis. One political discourse after another. Its very obvious that financial resources are not the issue. However,the issue that brings the most concern,is the abuse and neglect of the conditions caused by politics. The US has from the beginning of "states rights",concerned themselves with any other agenda outside of there own. With black people being the target of much of the violence and murders. No one feels a need to address the issue as responsible individuals. However,ignoring the problems or blaming and excusing them only makes matter worst. These are not apart of the American way. Business should not be in government. And politics should not be in neither.

Jimmy Mac
Jimmy Mac

Eileen Mari, probably the same as George Soros and Michael Bloomberg.

Jimmy Mac
Jimmy Mac

Jeff Korenak, you need to read Article 4 of the Constitution that specifically mentions "Republican form of Govt" and then come back and tell us the likely hood of a Constitutional amendment that will be ratified by 2/3 of all state legislatures and 2/3 of Congress and signed by the President and ruled Constitutional by the Supreme Courtin FAVOR of giving the ability to turns RIGHTS into privileges at the whim of a mob rule.

Brian Hunter
Brian Hunter

We are a Constitutional Republic. However, I do not feel like we are represented at all by our represenatives.

Jeff Nagy
Jeff Nagy

We are a democratic republic. In a pure democracy everyone would have a vote on every issue which would be very inefficient so we elect representatives to vote for us. This makes us a democratic republic.

Robert Edward Volution
Robert Edward Volution

the American political parties that bear those names are not opposed at all. they are exactly the same. if Obama/bush/Clinton/bush haven't proved that to you, you are blind.

Roger Smith
Roger Smith

A Third World Country in the making...

Craig Merryweather
Craig Merryweather

I could give a poly sci/history lesson here but I will just suggest that everyone read Polybius six forms of government. It will show the differences from aristocracy which is where people are represented often elites put into the position because of social standing not elected and with lifelong terms, to democracy where each person has an equal vote and elite officials have minimal power, to a republic where each person votes on an elected official to represent a group of people (often based demographics) in senate. We are a constitutional republic which is a hybrid of all 3 plus some. Let's break it down; first of all we have the right to vote on representatives and local issues (democracy), we have elected officials who create and vote on laws in the legislative branch (republic), we also elect someone to oversee and enfirce those laws with veto power in the executive branch or the president. This was actually adapted from an empire but with checks and balances to limit power such as limited terms they are also elected by the people not chosen by senate. There is the judicial branch more importantly the supreme court who are chosen and approved by elites with life long terms (aristocracy) this particular branch determines if laws are constitutional whose rulings supersede all others and set precidents. To top it all off there is this unwavering document called a constitution to protect the people and guide the lawmakers. Maybe the biggest problem with our government is that the common person doesn't even know what it is or how it works. There is much more to it than this, I am just giving a simple breakdown of why we do not live in a democracy or a republic, because neither of those provide these checks and balances of power. This is to avoid any person or group of people to gain too much control. We live in a constitutional republic which is its own form of government. Thanks for your time.

Davidiva Allen
Davidiva Allen

We are a Republic....nothing more nothing less...

Craig Merryweather
Craig Merryweather

An example of added and not taken away are the 18th which made the sale of alcohol illegal. That ammendment still exist as part of the Constitution. But the 21st was later written to ratify the 18th and allow the sales of alcohol. The Constitution is a living document. You are absolutely correct we are a constitutional republic. Hence why this country is not run like a democracy.

Kendal McOmber
Kendal McOmber

We are a constitutional republic in order to protect the "rights" of the individual from majority rule. We elect the governing officials democratically who also vote democratically on issues, however the constitution is a list of rights that cannot be infringed upon. In other words can only be added to not taken away. Just like the federal government being broken up into the separate powers the governing system is hybrid aswel.

Eileen Mari
Eileen Mari

The U.S. Has many owners the Koch brothers citizens United

Eileen Mari
Eileen Mari

What democracy a plutocracy, we a republic that used to practice democracy but it's hanging by a thread

Bryan Simper
Bryan Simper

We are supposed to be a democratically elected constitutional representative republic.

Leon Thunderheart Williamson
Leon Thunderheart Williamson

I believe while there are supposed principle differences between the two party system we practice in the United States of America, that we have failed a system which creates political confrontation between the two parties to the extent that it stagnates the decision process for which it was created and costs the public both wasted time and money.

Robert Brecht
Robert Brecht

Joshua has it right. The U.S. is a blended form of government encompassing both types of governing styles.

Jeff Korenak
Jeff Korenak

Always remember the constitution was written to be amended. It has changed. The founders wanted it that way.

Jeff Korenak
Jeff Korenak

We were a republic but it has evolved into more of a democracy... expanding the vote, Direct election of the Senate. But since we do not have direct elections on all levels we are still a republic.

Jill Maratea
Jill Maratea

Big deal. We no longer have either in a functional form.

John A Ingram
John A Ingram

You guys at Independent Voter should read "Thoughts on Government" by John Adams. Yes, THAT John Adams.

Jim Wacker
Jim Wacker

True, that's why we've never had good government.

Bryan Wilcutt
Bryan Wilcutt

Raoul Duke does a make a valid point... too much big $$ is mixed with politicians... on both sides. That I can agree with. This is why Raoul should support Trump. He is funding his own campaign and owes favors to no special interest. I support Trump, too, and for that reason... he is putting his OWN money where his mouth is. You vote for anyone else, Raoul, and you are voting for another politician with their hands in the pockets of Wall St.

Peter Tharaldson
Peter Tharaldson

I live in Minnesota, and like the other 49 states, we are a democracy. With 5.7 million people, an average size state roughly, it's the size of Finland, bigger than Norway, and does quite well for itself. It's also much much better at delivering direct services to its population than the feds. I'm very glad we have a republic with fifty different democratic experiments.

Preston Meyer
Preston Meyer

A republic is a representative democracy. By definition.

Adam Bourg
Adam Bourg

can't wait forever Bernie Sanders the new American revolution, backed by American people who want their country back from the two percent who bought it from crooked politicians in Washington

Lawson Jake
Lawson Jake

At this point in time this country has been hijacked by a greedy two headed snake that calls itself the democrat and republican parties.

Barbara Smith
Barbara Smith

It shows how tuned we are to discord when we can't even see that we agree when we agree.

Tom Armstrong
Tom Armstrong

I am not an American, I always thought 'of the people, by the people' or something like that.

Mortimer Maffy
Mortimer Maffy

Even after one has defined their terms, enough ambiguity exists to make a case for all sides of the issue. The words alone are nearly meaningless; the actions (or inactions) they inspire are worth the research.

Jimmy Mac
Jimmy Mac

No, the United States is a Constitutional Republic. No more no less, end of story.

Ted Kovach
Ted Kovach

Raoul Duke you make the counter point for everyone reading your line of reasoning.....the "facts" you cite are not only wrong but attributed to the wrong people.....when you resort to the lowest form of debate ie name calling you automatically lose and even if you had a point to make (sadly you dont) it is discounted by the poor form......so please remember it is better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak up and remove any doubt.

Bob Kain
Bob Kain

It's time for a revolution ! It's time for Bernie !

Aaron Vansell
Aaron Vansell

We are in a giant tug of war that never ends. Our country is divided because we are stuck with a two party system that is failing. They use every tactic to separate us and gain a vote and they wander why we have such a murder rate and so much hatred in this country. It's disheartening to say the least . We are the United States of America. We should be Americans!!! Not republicans and democrats!!

Tony Schmitz
Tony Schmitz

Obamacare is paid for by tax dollars through subsidies so, yes it is a social program. My point on taxes is that we shouldn't be taxing people to produce on what they earn but rather what they spend, that incourages people to spend so, you mainly tax consumption. I paid 25% of my income last year in taxes, that's way too much. Also, they tax you more on overtime, how stupid is it that they tax people that work harder and more hours more than if he would stop working at 40 hours? Our tax code is stupid and it kills the middle class.

Sue Howell Gallenstein
Sue Howell Gallenstein

I may, at some point, after I haven't worked a 14 hour shift in health care, go back and read this. I thought we were a representative republic! Goodnight all!

Sue Howell Gallenstein
Sue Howell Gallenstein

Here is how I understand it...and I could be wrong. Don't we elect LOCAL leaders who can represent our values nationally? This is a representative republic.

Preston Meyer
Preston Meyer

Ugh fine. A constitutional representative democracy

R.a. Massey
R.a. Massey

Chris Jamieson And you didn't call him names, nice job

Ellen McPhetres
Ellen McPhetres

Jimmy Mac And that has what to do with whether we are a representative democracy?

Anthony Brancato
Anthony Brancato

Republic is overrated. It merely means any country that lacks a hereditary monarchy.

Leave a Comment
  1. Gary Wiedebusch Democrat republican money who has the most to push there agenda that is what this country is today strap what ever name you want on it its the truth
  2. Gary Wiedebusch This country is what the almighty dollar says it is weather i are you like it or not
  3. Gary Wiedebusch I agree kent its like who ever has the most money pushes the agenda that helps them and i have always wondered just how much stock a politician has in an agenda he is trying to push like Obama on climate control what is his interest in wind power-solar power etc
  4. Anita Brokaw I guess the fork in the road still leads to Rome?. Its very simple. The American way of life has no boundaries. The constitutions are framed according to the will of the American people. What most have forgotten is that without the American people assisting the sick and wounded many of your ancestors may not have made it. That is until the use of fire arms began. However,the form of democracy exercised in America is based on family value. Not political science. Nor scientific research. Most of the examples of democracy are only based in theory. The concept was adopted from observations not actually practice by those who managed to have their worked published. It was the form of participation amongst the tribes. However,one thing that was practiced in the American way was the peace process. Any thing that interfered with the common good for the nations of American society was frowned upon. Furthermore,American's are civilized people. The majority of issues we have today have absolutely nothing to do with the American people. There is no independence from unity. The United States of America today has no American value system. Every agenda of political parties is lined with competition and innovation. Giving these two items rein on both sides of the board. Using political gerrymandering to divert the goal to the disadvantage of the people. So tell us what political party is responsible for causing these socioeconomic conditions?. What label would be appropriate to define the current conditions that are preexisting under continuous unethical practices. Crisis after crisis. One political discourse after another. Its very obvious that financial resources are not the issue. However,the issue that brings the most concern,is the abuse and neglect of the conditions caused by politics. The US has from the beginning of "states rights",concerned themselves with any other agenda outside of there own. With black people being the target of much of the violence and murders. No one feels a need to address the issue as responsible individuals. However,ignoring the problems or blaming and excusing them only makes matter worst. These are not apart of the American way. Business should not be in government. And politics should not be in neither.
  5. Jimmy Mac Eileen Mari, probably the same as George Soros and Michael Bloomberg.
  6. Jimmy Mac Jeff Korenak, you need to read Article 4 of the Constitution that specifically mentions "Republican form of Govt" and then come back and tell us the likely hood of a Constitutional amendment that will be ratified by 2/3 of all state legislatures and 2/3 of Congress and signed by the President and ruled Constitutional by the Supreme Courtin FAVOR of giving the ability to turns RIGHTS into privileges at the whim of a mob rule.
  7. Brian Hunter We are a Constitutional Republic. However, I do not feel like we are represented at all by our represenatives.
  8. Jeff Nagy We are a democratic republic. In a pure democracy everyone would have a vote on every issue which would be very inefficient so we elect representatives to vote for us. This makes us a democratic republic.
  9. Robert Edward Volution the American political parties that bear those names are not opposed at all. they are exactly the same. if Obama/bush/Clinton/bush haven't proved that to you, you are blind.
  10. Roger Smith A Third World Country in the making...