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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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1615 comments
Jeff Harrod
Jeff Harrod

Supposed to be a republic , but it's a little of both republic and democracy , which is way better than a communist nation that the left is gunning for , please save us from ourselves .

Susan Bloodgood
Susan Bloodgood

Just replace the "Stars and Stripes" with dollar signs and bombs

David Elliott
David Elliott

Constitutionally limited Federalist Republic.

Joel F Penick Jr
Joel F Penick Jr

No, we are not both, but so many have been lied to about this for so long that far too many think we are. Please see above. Understanding the Constitution, which is not difficult to do, means understanding that this nation was never intended to be a Democracy in any way, shape, or form. It has only ever been intended to be a Constitutional Republic. One which elects representatives through a democratic voting process, who are then bound to and limited by the Constitution to the United States. A Constitution which clearly places the rights of the individual above the will of the majority, meanig that no representative or collective of representatives can pass laws or regulations that infringe upon the rights of even a single individual. By no definition can such a system of government be considered a Democracy, not even close. And the fact that we've allowed our Republic to drift towards Democracy is exactly why we're in he trouble we're in. I don't get what's so hard to understand about this.

Rudy Luevano
Rudy Luevano

We're actually a little bit of both as our country is a democratic republic and a representative democracy. That's something that I was taught in social studies nearly 30 years ago. I love how people love to argue that we're not a democracy as if that's something to proud of. Thankfully we elect our own representatives, senators, governors, and presidents. Unfortunately, most of those representatives are a joke, but people will continue to re-elect them even if they are incompetent and unpopular. https://www.uscis.gov/system/files_force/USCIS/files/Government_and_You_handouts.pdf

Electoral Reform for a More Favorable Congress
Electoral Reform for a More Favorable Congress

“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.” -- Joshua Alvarez But if the regular elections are rigged by rules imposed by an oligarchy through the duopoly political parties, the threat is not mitigated sufficiently. The fact that nowadays the “represented” are alienated from the represented attests to the hindsight that the founding fathers should have been at least a little more trusting of democracy. They should have included a provision for initiative and referendum by a supermajority. Possibly that omission just might be eventually remedied through an Article V convention amendment.

Kevin E. Goodrich
Kevin E. Goodrich

As i recall . . . a form of democracy known as a representative republic . . . i believe that constitutional republic is redundant as you need a constitution to form a republic . . .

Marty Wolff
Marty Wolff

It has never been a democracy. It was a republic. It is now an oligarchy.

James Calvert
James Calvert

I found the article to be very enlightening. I don't think many Americans understand this.

Bruce Sweatte
Bruce Sweatte

Well said, it amazes me how many people don't know this do they not teach social studies in school anymore? I learned this in the fourth grade I am convinced that the reason they have core education is to dumb down future generations so that they will believe people like Bernie Sanders are smart they want stupid people to vote because stupid people are easy to fool and to control America stop being stupid educate yourselves you live in a constitutional republic learn it live it embrace it or move somewhere else

Joel F Penick Jr
Joel F Penick Jr

The Electoral College is not bound to acting in line with the public. Combine this with fraudulent vote recording and you get pure manipulation of the system. Remember, it's not who vote what that counts but rather who's counting those votes. The Electoral College is merely a safety net. I get what the stated purpose of the EC was but as with Social Security it's true purpose was something entirely different.

Brad Ridenour
Brad Ridenour

Anyone know the reason behind "Super Delegates?" I understand they make up about 15% of the delegates on the Denocratic Party side. Less on the Republican side.

Brad Ridenour
Brad Ridenour

Joel F Penick Jr Not exactly right on the Electoral College. The Electoral College was trying to prevent only having politicians campaigning in the largest states and ignoring most. Iowa and Montana would be entirely ignored otherwise. Don't get me wrong the Electoral College is not perfect but is does have it's purposes.

Linda Wooley
Linda Wooley

Republicans should be prosecuted for gerrymandering districts, illegally removing names from voter rolls, intimidating people at the polls and into not going to vote, moving voting machines from high democrat voting districts to lower districts as to discourage voters standing in line for long periods of time. Moving voting places to out of the way areas so people without cars would have a harder time and be discouraged from voting. Have I forgotten any if the Republican tricks? And, they wave the flag and believe so much in the Constitution. Their actions speak otherwise.

Jc Wordsmith
Jc Wordsmith

I could add a similar definition to the many already well-written ones. Instead, I would like to say that I appreciate the inteligence and considerable thought put into the comments. Thank you.

Duane Lindstrom
Duane Lindstrom

It matters little what it was intended to be since the oligarchy has moved in to take over.

Mike Guay
Mike Guay

The one thing I know it isn't, and should never be, is a Theocracy!

Steve Fredrickson
Steve Fredrickson

I guess it comes down to the intent of the constitution as set forth in its preamble ... think 'we the people' ... "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Bernard Kenneth Baldwin
Bernard Kenneth Baldwin

No, I did not fail history. Were you looking in the mirror when you made this comment? 

Joe King
Joe King

What is the difference between a direct democracy and representative democracy? In a direct democracy all citizens meet together and make decisions via a vote. In a representative democracy citizens elect leaders who make decisions on their behalf. A republic (meaning rule by elected officials) is a form of democracy.

Tell Burke
Tell Burke

Walter Speer; I agree with your assessment ,with perhaps factions differing over who should be in charge! Hopefully, dog eat dog style will kill them off as people awaken!

Deacon Taylor
Deacon Taylor

The reason that the founders choose a republic is because the three branches of government were meant to review legislation against the law of the land, the constitution. Over time that has been lost and allowed to be overlooked, so technically it is majority rule no matter how you want to review it, but the representatives are supposed to use the law of the land as an anchor point. Unfortunately for the last 100-150 years the trend has been moving toward the undermining of the law of the land for greed.

William Nelson
William Nelson

You do realize that dead democrats voting was debunked and proven false right? And we are a Republic first and a democracy 2nd , simple way to tell that is the house of Representatives which holds the most power of governing is a republic form while the Senate is a democracy.

David Stoeckl
David Stoeckl

It used to be. It's now owned by corporations, billionaires, and entrenched career politicians.

Joe King
Joe King

No democracy is ruled by law. The everyone votes on every law. In a republic we elect officials to vote for us. They are both majority ruled.

Joe King
Joe King

So a Republic isn't a representative democracy man you better tell northwestern University that they taught me wrong.

Steven Fredrick Struckhoff
Steven Fredrick Struckhoff

Awesome video and why I fight tooth and nail for the Constitution and my convictions will not change on this aspect.

James Duncan
James Duncan

It's SUPPOSED to be a Constitutional Republic, At present it's an Oligarchy, run by international corporations.

Stephen DeHart
Stephen DeHart

"A Republic, Madam. If you can keep it." Benjamin Franklin

Charles Samek
Charles Samek

Jim Ray is correct about mob rule when the people are not educated. Sufficient proper votes can circumvent a revolution.

Charles Samek
Charles Samek

Perhaps a good recipe: two cups democratic, 1 1/2 cups socialistic and two tablespoons republic. Mix well. The more educated and informed the people are, the less republic needed.

Lewis White
Lewis White

Timothy Wrbas That's what I said, if you can't comprehend two short sentences, perhaps you're the fool.

Don Anderson
Don Anderson

Timothy Wrbas, I'm a retired union worker. I sincerely believe unless we get all organizational money, Union, Corporate, PACs of any kind out of the electoral process we will never again have "government by the people" as was originally intended.

James Robinson
James Robinson

The Republicans will not work with any democratic president . We should vote them out. They ruined the house , senate and now the Supreme Court. For the last 8 years they have done nothing while getting paid by the American tax payer for doing nothing. . We will come out of the woodwork anyway because the Supreme Court is at play. Bernie cannot win the general election because Republican FB groups describe him as a socialist Jew. Considering that the majority of Americans want to have a Christian president means that Bernie is a lost cause particularly because of his socialism . Hillary can win a general election . Bernie cannot. That is why Fox News is attacking Hillary even before she is the nominee but have not attacked Bernie yet The "religion crap" is not going to be overlooked in a general election when you have over a 100 million Americans voting. It's not only urban residents in the cities who will vote but in rural areas who are the majority . If any republican tells you they will vote for a leftist socialist like Sanders they are lying to you. Use your common sense

Timothy Curtin
Timothy Curtin

James V Duffy Read the comments Lots of good stuff

Jeff Opalka
Jeff Opalka

America is Governance by Oligarchic Plutocracy.

James V Duffy
James V Duffy

It's the other way around. As we all know. We are a Republic, a Democracy is when 51% of the people rule the othet 49%. This is Facism at its best....

Sean McKeon
Sean McKeon

Timothy Wrbas, get a grip "Fail"? You can be anal and argue it's more one than the other, that's subjective. However it's a hybrid government, The founders definitely had a government of the people in mind. It has the elements of a republic, democracy and has a constitution. Don't get hung up on your preferred name. Many people call it an oligarchy, and some of those arguments seem to also ring true!

Robert Degoey Jr.
Robert Degoey Jr.

Benjamin Franklin was asked after the ratification of the Constitution from a lady. What do we have? He answered, a republic if you can keep it.