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'Democracy' or 'Republic': The Debate Distracts from A Much Larger Problem

US Capitol
Photo Credit: Joshua Sukoff / Unsplash
Created: 20 June, 2024
Updated: 09 July, 2024
5 min read

Photo Credit: Joshua Sukoff / Unsplash

 

Once again, the US finds itself having a familiar discussion. Some people will use the term “democracy” to refer to the US, and then there will inevitably be some who respond with, “We’re not a democracy; we’re a republic.”

IVN regularly sees this in its comment sections on social media whenever an author refers to the US as a “democracy.”

So, which is it? Is the US a democracy? Is it a republic? The answer is both. The US is a constitutional democracy and a republic at the same time.

The US: Two Approaches to Self-Governance under One Umbrella

The US is composed of 50 sovereign states and within those states are thousands of local municipalities that have their own approach to governance. People directly elect the officials who form these governments for most if not all of their branches.

Voters elect local justices of the peace and other judicial roles, sheriffs, city council members, mayors, election supervisors, etc. Direct elections form the bulk of these municipalities.

The US Constitution does not impose a single type of government on the states. Each state has its own rules and regulations, and some even take a different approach to government structure.

Nebraska, for example, only has one legislative body. Texas has two high courts, a Supreme Court for state constitutional matters and civil disputes and a Court of Criminal Appeals.

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And in many states, voters can have a direct say in policy through the ballot initiative process. 

At the national level, the US Constitution establishes a republic form of government in which voters do not have a direct say in government affairs, but elect representatives that in theory should act on their behalf. 

Even the president is chosen by a body of electors – not by direct vote.

Oftentimes when people call the US a “democracy” it is used as a shorthand description for a system of government in which voting is a critical function – whether that is directly voting on the affairs of government or voting for representatives.

Even the Framers of the US Constitution used the terms “democracy” and “republic” interchangeably because the Constitution that was signed in 1787 combined both under the umbrella of federalism – a novel approach to governance at the time.

Put simply, federalism unites individual states under a centralized and overarching political system (republicanism) while preserving the sovereignty and integrity of each state and the people (democracy). 

The reason why the Framers combined the two approaches to self-governance is because alone they had their benefits, but they also had their dangers that could be checked by the other. 

James Madison wrote in Federalist #10 that a pure democracy admits “no cure for the mischiefs of faction.”

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“A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual,” he wrote.

In other words, the interests of the majority would likely endanger the rights of the minority, and such a government would be “incompatible with personal security or the rights of property.”

Madison argued that a republic would check the passions of these “factions,” but a purely republican form of government risks a situation where representatives become detached from the needs of their electors in favor of their own self-interests.

“The federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures,” he wrote.

He further expounds on these ideas in Federalist #14

The Republic vs Democracy Debate Misses the Bigger Picture

The debate over “democracy” versus “republic” is not only unnecessary, but it can also get needlessly heated and distract from a far more important conversation:

The system of government the US has today does not protect against the drawbacks of a pure republic or a pure democracy… It embraces them.

The dangers of faction? Two private political parties control the levers of elections and government at every level and put their own interests above the needs of citizens in everything -- from how elections are administered to a refusal to prioritize problem solving.

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Detached and self-serving representation? Congress sits at a 13% job approval. More voters than at any point in modern history feel unheard and unrepresented by the people elected to put their interests and needs first.

Because elected officials are too busy putting the interests of their respective parties first. To put it bluntly, the US is much closer to oligarchy than it is to democracy or republicanism. 

A 2014 Princeton study came to the same conclusion, and things have only gotten worse in the last decade. 

The marriage between republicanism and democracy was supposed to temper the passions of factions, but this goal is all but impossible in a system where the factions make and enforce all the rules.

This includes who gets to vote, who gets to run for office, and how they are elected.

It isn’t a coincidence that in the last decade, voters have seen a surge in efforts to reform how they elect their representatives. There is a broad understanding that to realize the benefits of a “Democratic Republic,” elections have to put the public interest first.

Voters have to come first.

In 2024 alone, IVN has covered campaigns and efforts in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, and more that add to victories and momentum already seen in some of these states and others across the US. 

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And all of these efforts are aimed at making elections and the process by which voters elect public officials truly nonpartisan and creating a fairer system that enfranchises all eligible voters, empowers their voices, offers more choice, and guarantees greater competition and accountability. 

This should be the goal of any democratic system of governance – a goal that is hindered by the current system and those who benefit from it. 

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