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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  1. guestx4x It is interesting to check out how some (most?) modern 'experts' on Federalism interpret what Madison said about "the vicious arts" as well as the entire scheme of what the Federalist Papers laid out. One expert discusses Madison's essay #10 (http://thefederalist.com/2013/12/10/what-the-founders-meant-by-self-governance/) and concludes that "Madison’s expectations of representation were surprisingly naive and that representation, in practice, is surprisingly unhelpful for the culture of self-government." Well, there you have it. Madison was surprisingly naive. What an idiot that Madison guy really was, right? Hardly. The more one looks coldly, objectively, in a neutral way, i.e., by discarding ideology, the more obvious is the poison flowing from ideology. Everything the modern federalist crowd is based on their personal beliefs, i.e., if, and only if, the Founders thought or stated that something in accord with their limited central government power ideology, it is meritorious - everything else is garbage.  To the extent that hard core anti-central government ideologues see something that doesn't conform to their infallible beliefs, they publicly call Founders 'naive' or something nice like that, while in private they are thinking that the Founders were really idiots or something worse (traitors*). These are the blowhards who give us garbage like Originalism**, Textualism, strict constructionism & etc. but only when those intellectual vehicles get them to their required anti-central government destinations. What a load of fetid rot.  Right, criticism is cheap and easy. So how about this: We face big problems. Conservative and liberal ideologies have had many chances to govern and they failed on multiple levels. The Founders were very smart, but not perfect, and they knew they could not predict the course of history or technological progress. Given that reality, they left the constitution open and flexible to respond to unknown future problems or issues, regardless of which ideology (or no ideology) a solution might fit best with. Ideology is not just obsolete, it divides us, it is inefficient and it badly distorts both reality and logic. Ideology arguably stifles creativity: "The absence of ideology in a work does not mean an absence of ideas; on the contrary it fertilizes them." (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Eug%C3%A8ne_Ionesco)  The only way to significantly or mostly (not completely) negate that issue is to reject ideology and simply look to pragmatism for potential solutions. When it came to the constitution they left us with, the Founders as a whole preferred no ideology and they were more pragmatists than ideologues. If there is another way to deal with the reality distorting power of ideology, it would be so nice to hear it. Or, is ideology not a big part of the venom behind the vicious art of politics as alleged here? If not, then why things like this?: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-should-choose-science-over-beliefs/ * Yup, the Founders might very well be traitors, but traitors to what? Traitors to ideologues anti-government ideology, that's what. ** Under most circumstances, supreme court ideologues won't hesitate to use Originalism, Textualism, strict constructionism or any other ism (or even equal protection) to arrive at the decision they see fit in their ideological sanctity. Its hypocrisy, but that doesn't faze anyone in politics, including supreme court justices.
  2. Frederick John LaVergne IT is a "Democratic Republic" - hence "Democratic-Republican"....Frederick John LaVergne, "Democratic-Republican" for Congress, NJ CD3 2014 https://www.facebook.com/FrederickJohnLaVergneForCongress?ref=hl
  3. Tommy C Loggins What planet are you people living on?
  4. Tommy C Loggins Even 60 years ago when I was in school we were taught that the US was a "democracy." When I got to college, I learned different.
  5. Tommy C Loggins Even 60 years ago when I was in school we were taught that the US was a "democracy." When I got to college, I learned different.
  6. Barbara Treglown I pledge allegiance says it all
  7. Paul Womack We have a big problem in America right leg is limping so we shoot ourselves in the left now we only have one bullet and who do we use it to relieve their suffering
  8. Rob Gaunt They were afraid of an all controlling central government. This coming from their experience with King George. Power of the government was meant to checked all the way down to the local level. Man is meant to be free. But checked as in what Jefferson stated that your own personal liberty stops at the tip of my nose.
  9. KarlHumphreys Although all that is written is true. Since its creation the Constitution has been attacked and slowly shredded. What started out a a Democratic-Republic, has become mired in wasteful, useless laws, created to swing our country either to the right or the left. As a Nation, we must, and pray, will restore the U.S. Constitution to it's full strength, and rid ourselves of both the Democrats and Republicans who wish to destroy the greatest nation in the world.
  10. Alden Huckvale -- The USA was a Republic. Now it is a democracy! It's not too late to change it back. It's all up to the People just as the Founders instructed us.
706 comments
guestx4x
guestx4x

It is interesting to check out how some (most?) modern 'experts' on Federalism interpret what Madison said about "the vicious arts" as well as the entire scheme of what the Federalist Papers laid out.

One expert discusses Madison's essay #10 (http://thefederalist.com/2013/12/10/what-the-founders-meant-by-self-governance/) and concludes that "Madison’s expectations of representation were surprisingly naive and that representation, in practice, is surprisingly unhelpful for the culture of self-government."

Well, there you have it. Madison was surprisingly naive. What an idiot that Madison guy really was, right? Hardly.

The more one looks coldly, objectively, in a neutral way, i.e., by discarding ideology, the more obvious is the poison flowing from ideology. Most everything the modern federalist crowd has faith in is based on their personal beliefs, i.e., if, and only if, the Founders thought or stated that something in accord with their limited central government power ideology, it is meritorious - everything else is garbage. 

To the extent that hard core anti-central government ideologues see something that doesn't conform to their infallible beliefs, they publicly call Founders 'naive' or something nice like that, while in private they are thinking that the Founders were really idiots or something worse (traitors*). These are the blowhards who give us garbage like Originalism**, Textualism, strict constructionism & etc. but only when those intellectual vehicles get them to their required anti-central government destinations. What a load of fetid rot. 

Right, criticism is cheap and easy. So how about this: We face big problems. Conservative and liberal ideologies have had many chances to govern and they failed on multiple levels. The Founders were very smart, but not perfect, and they knew they could not predict the course of history or technological progress. Given that reality, they left the constitution open and flexible to respond to unknown future problems or issues, regardless of which ideology (or no ideology) a solution might fit best with. Ideology is not just obsolete, it divides us, it is inefficient and it badly distorts both reality and logic. Ideology arguably stifles creativity: "The absence of ideology in a work does not mean an absence of ideas; on the contrary it fertilizes them." (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Eug%C3%A8ne_Ionesco

The only way to significantly or mostly (not completely) negate that issue is to reject ideology and simply look to pragmatism for potential solutions. When it came to the constitution they left us with, the Founders as a whole preferred no ideology and they were more pragmatists than ideologues.

If there is another way to deal with the reality distorting power of ideology, it would be so nice to hear it. Or, is ideology not a big part of the venom behind the vicious art of politics as alleged here? If not, then why things like this?: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-should-choose-science-over-beliefs/


* Yup, the Founders might very well be traitors, but traitors to what? Traitors to ideologues anti-government ideology, that's what.

** Under most circumstances, supreme court ideologues won't hesitate to use Originalism, Textualism, strict constructionism or any other ism (or even equal protection) to arrive at the decision they see fit in their ideological sanctity. Its hypocrisy, but that doesn't faze anyone in politics, including supreme court justices.

Tommy C Loggins
Tommy C Loggins

Even 60 years ago when I was in school we were taught that the US was a "democracy." When I got to college, I learned different.

Paul Womack
Paul Womack

We have a big problem in America right leg is limping so we shoot ourselves in the left now we only have one bullet and who do we use it to relieve their suffering

Rob Gaunt
Rob Gaunt

They were afraid of an all controlling central government. This coming from their experience with King George. Power of the government was meant to checked all the way down to the local level. Man is meant to be free. But checked as in what Jefferson stated that your own personal liberty stops at the tip of my nose.

KarlHumphreys
KarlHumphreys

Although all that is written is true. Since its creation the Constitution has been attacked and slowly shredded. What started out a a Democratic-Republic, has become mired in wasteful, useless laws, created to swing our country either to the right or the left. As a Nation, we must, and pray, will restore the U.S. Constitution to it's full strength, and rid ourselves of both the Democrats and Republicans who wish to destroy the greatest nation in the world.

Alden Huckvale
Alden Huckvale

-- The USA was a Republic. Now it is a democracy! It's not too late to change it back. It's all up to the People just as the Founders instructed us.

Nima Faanunu
Nima Faanunu

ummm Im going to go with Constitutional Republic... that evolved into a elected monarchy...

Pat Kennedy
Pat Kennedy

I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America and too the Republic, for which it stands... so which part of republic didn't you didn't hear in school or many other places?

Robert Bruscino
Robert Bruscino

It's a constitutional republic that has adopted the democratic process to elect public officials.

Scott O. Smith
Scott O. Smith

Try again. America is neither democratic, nor is it any longer a republic. Instead, America has become an Oligarchy checked by an unelected Judiciary that oftentimes legislates from the bench.

Chris Nixon
Chris Nixon

it was a republic first and foremost to its core

Evelyn Couch
Evelyn Couch

You really ought to read the true history of America. About the elected presidents . All from a certain class Shocking.

Laura Behr
Laura Behr

It's an oligarchy slipping insidiously into a fascist society.

Dave Gregory
Dave Gregory

May be so, but it is still the best government on the planet !!!

Deborah Kaye Rogers
Deborah Kaye Rogers

My 8th grade teacher, Mr. Steele, explained this well for the way things were in 1968-69. He said we each had a vote, and every vote carried the same weight in the process, and that made us a democracy. But we were also a nation of rules instead of rulers, and no one, regardless of wealth or station, was above the law, and that made us a republic. sadly, some important things have changed since Mr Steele (rest his soul) was teaching junior high kids.

Greg Barton
Greg Barton

Steve the amendments to the Constitution are in fact part of the Constitution, whether you like them or not. They were legitimately added, and the federalists did win the early arguments, even though they generally opposed the Bill of Rights. Read somewhere other than on the internet, and many history books are not very accurate.

Carol Taylor
Carol Taylor

Yes. It's is the purest for of people governing themselves designed thus far by man for man. But not the first. That was really the Greeks, the true father of demicracy.

Barry Disbrow
Barry Disbrow

I agree. We have a democratically elected republic.

Dennis Boyer
Dennis Boyer

I call it a "nominal democracy" with many trappings, bells and whistles that perpetuate myths and ignorance. But it is fast becoming a "Wizard of Oz democracy", where its continuance depends on its citizens paying no attention to that "man behind the curtain" pulling the levers and pushing the buttons.

Matthew Crockett
Matthew Crockett

For those who see this as a chance for another "democracy vs. republic" argument: The delegates who voted on whether to ratify the Constitution included those who insisted they would only vote yes if the provisions in the Bill of Rights were included to protect against the pitfalls of having a democratic system of government. This means that the US is Both.

Matthew Crockett
Matthew Crockett

Read a book. The delegates who voted on whether to ratify the Constitution included those who insisted they would only vote yes if the provisions in the Bill of Rights were included to protect against the pitfalls of having a democratic system of government.

Medra Lopes-Pattillo
Medra Lopes-Pattillo

History 101, we are a constitutional republic and not a democracy. That is why we have representatives and an electoral college so the rights of all are protected from manioulation by a few holding power. However our courts have corrupted this, through judicial activism. The supreme ciurt cannot make or enforce law and by voiding a law sies not create a new law or right in that laws ansence as has been assumed. Thus nany if the questions considered settled are not such as abortion and gay marriagw. Until states pass laws, in the affirmative legalizing these, things they truly are not legal under our system rega4dless of whether or nit the court has struck down a law banning it. Unfortunately our schools no longer teach US history or the US constitution and other founding documents and the history that is taught assumes all the worlds ills are America's fault. Now they don't even teach cursive writing because the socialists running everything do not want our children to be able to read our historical documents about the founding of this nation such as the constitution, the federalist papers and so on. Knowledge is key and it seems that even the writer of this does not have accurate knowlehe of our history. What a pity!

Ernie Wilson
Ernie Wilson

So, a Democratic Republic..........like North Korea? ;-)

Steve Dutton
Steve Dutton

Or the individual. The Constitution was designed, specifically, to keep power out of the hands of a central government and the people as a whole but rather to leave power over the individual where it belongs, with the individual. The Constitution had and has a single purpose, to inform the government what it can not do and remind the citizenry that our rights are ours to lose not the governments to grant

Steve Dutton
Steve Dutton

United States as you are inferring is not, in fact in the Constitution. The conception the "United States" as a singular country doesn't come about until after the Civil War. The Amendments you quote also become part of the Constitution during the same period. You're ignoring the Constitutional Congress, the Federalist Papers and the debates during the INDIVIDUAL States ratification process. Anyone who believes that the federal government was supposed to govern the individual States rather than the other way round needs a non revisionist refresher on the Constitution

Chris Jamieson
Chris Jamieson

Some famous Republics The Union of Soviet Socialists Republic. The Republic of Iran. The People's Republic of China.

Al Clouse
Al Clouse

If three of our congress people locked themselves I a room, each drank a pint of whiskey and one leaves the room ~ the remaining two would have absolutely no idea who left!!

William Woodburn
William Woodburn

*ahem*, Nathaniel: They didn't say how MUCH property, just that property was unalienable without due process of law, except where taken for public use with just compensation provided against that particular form of "depriv"al.

William Woodburn
William Woodburn

Yes, there have. But I know of only one case - the name of which I can't recall off the top of my head - that presented the "republican form of government" guarantee as an issue, and the Court basically said it was nonjusticiable as it was a guarantee that no Court could fulfill by order.

Mark Kelsey
Mark Kelsey

It assumes that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are adhered too. Reading will also ensure that isn't the case and therefore issue stands as questioned.