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. Duncan Webb Lawlessness is ANARCHY, not democracy.
  2. Somaura Monique It's a plutocratic republic A democracy and a republic are not mutually exclusive A democracy speaks of who has fundamental power. All citizens as opposed to a certain group of people, or the rich A republic speaks to elected officials rather than appointed officials, or officials chosen by birth You can have a republic and a democracy at the same time It's Kind of like the democracy is the who, And republic is the how. But we've never had a time where all residence have had ultimate power in government It was always wealthy land owners. Over Half the population wasn't even allowed to vote or participate in government. Now we use felonies to take away people's right to self govern. And even of those allowed to vote, over 40% still don't participate.
  3. Kaiser Rotbart We're number one in citizens imprisoned, and military spending though!
  4. Thomas D Sylvester ConstitutionalRepublic. Can't we read
  5. Janet Hiney Definitely NOT a democracy.
  6. Brian Uhler It is the small part of democracy of our Republic that is the issue.
  7. David Nineteenelevenitis B People have bought into the manufactured image of the Tea Party, Bryan. "Tea Party Republicans" is a load of crap.
  8. David Nineteenelevenitis B Neither. It's a freaking oligarchy!
  9. Matthew Crockett We are both because they refer to different criteria. We have a constitution (republic) but that document specifies a democratic process for selecting our officials.
  10. Kaiser Rotbart On paper, the US is a democratic-republic. Functionally, it's a plutocracy.
612 comments
Duncan Webb
Duncan Webb

Lawlessness is ANARCHY, not democracy.

Somaura Monique
Somaura Monique

It's a plutocratic republic A democracy and a republic are not mutually exclusive A democracy speaks of who has fundamental power. All citizens as opposed to a certain group of people, or the rich A republic speaks to elected officials rather than appointed officials, or officials chosen by birth You can have a republic and a democracy at the same time It's Kind of like the democracy is the who, And republic is the how. But we've never had a time where all residence have had ultimate power in government It was always wealthy land owners. Over Half the population wasn't even allowed to vote or participate in government. Now we use felonies to take away people's right to self govern. And even of those allowed to vote, over 40% still don't participate.

Kaiser Rotbart
Kaiser Rotbart

We're number one in citizens imprisoned, and military spending though!

Brian Uhler
Brian Uhler

It is the small part of democracy of our Republic that is the issue.

David Nineteenelevenitis B
David Nineteenelevenitis B

People have bought into the manufactured image of the Tea Party, Bryan. "Tea Party Republicans" is a load of crap.

Matthew Crockett
Matthew Crockett

We are both because they refer to different criteria. We have a constitution (republic) but that document specifies a democratic process for selecting our officials.

Kaiser Rotbart
Kaiser Rotbart

On paper, the US is a democratic-republic. Functionally, it's a plutocracy.

Shaelyn Ferguson
Shaelyn Ferguson

America is ran by the corrupted government!!! Wake up America only we the people can make a change!!!!

Pierre Fortin
Pierre Fortin

Watch Aaron Russo's movie America -Freedom to Fascism . Aaron states that America was founded as a Constitutional Republic. A democracy is ruling by majority vote 51 percent can control 49 percent. A Republic can not be run as a democracy even though we have been taught for many years that America is a democracy. Today we do not have either. It is a Corporation run by corporate central banks with the wealthiest having the biggest share of control over the USA.

Ciro J. Giue
Ciro J. Giue

Neither. It's a corporation. USA Inc. but the current administration is moving us to socialization.

Alan Crandall
Alan Crandall

Both and both of FRENCH origin for those that don't know.

Linda Dixon LaRosa Theis
Linda Dixon LaRosa Theis

Could not tell you anymore and I have a book of the constitution sitting next to me at my desk. I open it read put it down and shake my head!

Explore the TRUTH
Explore the TRUTH

A republic, read Insolence of Office for why that is so important. The rebranding and changing to the democracy has been part of the process of our demise as seen in history.

Josh Coleman
Josh Coleman

We were formed as a Republic, which DEVOLVED into a Democracy. Now we are neither.

Milt Weisman
Milt Weisman

Whatever it is, we have to make sure it doesn't become an oligarchy. We are well on the way to that, I'm afraid.

Michael Vanna
Michael Vanna

It's a police state! A corporate pluocracy? Hmnnn?

Irina Collister
Irina Collister

What kind of corporation, Andrew Kurywczak? I never liked politics, because no one government never REALLY cares about people and it's always involved huge money and dirty games. In some northern European countries though they have pretty good life, people paying about 60% of income for tax, but they have free medicine, free education, and work 36-40 hours a week ( no overtime, no 2 or 3 jobs!), have enough time to dedicate to the family, and practically they DON'T HAVE A CRIME! That governments should be a role model! ( unfortunately in real life everything is way more complicated)

Len Feder
Len Feder

America is an oligarchy, as Greg Barton wrote. The government serves the wealthy and steals from the rest of us.

John Schmidlapp
John Schmidlapp

Democracy or Republic? Neither. What does one call a nation's government that's bought and paid for by corporate special interests?

Joel Demass
Joel Demass

Its a union! Its just not united at this point. but we will get it back.

Glen Durrant
Glen Durrant

Moreover it is a corporatist oligarchy. Props to Greg.

Kevin C. Smith
Kevin C. Smith

Which "America"? -Our government is a republic. We do not govern ourselves directly but choose who will govern for us. -Our society is democratic. All have equal rights and responsibilities. -Our elections are, to varying degrees, both. The officeholders of the republic are drawn from the democracy.

Kevin C. Smith
Kevin C. Smith

...and even on this, when people can't make everyone see it there way, the name calling begins.

Rhonda Bateman
Rhonda Bateman

We are NOT a Democracy. The word is NOT in the Constitution. We are a CONSTITUTIONAL REPUBLIC....

Richard Skaggs
Richard Skaggs

In a Democracy majority rules the minority looses . In a Republic the minority is protected from harm from the majority .

Lance R. Fletcher
Lance R. Fletcher

We were meant to be a democratic republic. A kinda odd mishmash of both ideas that drew from the classical era. But now? An coporatocracy or an oligarchy. Take your pick.

Bill Persell
Bill Persell

By design, we are a Republic (I pledge allegiance to the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands......). We have a democratic form of government which has gotten way out of hand.