Jon Rowe points to Eugene Volokh talking about whether we are a republic or a democracy:

To be sure, in addition to being a representative democracy, the United States is also a constitutional democracy, in which courts restrain in some measure the democratic will. And the United States is therefore also a constitutional republic. Indeed, the United States might be labeled a constitutional federal representative democracy. But where one word is used, with all the oversimplification that this necessary entails, “democracy” and “republic” both work. Indeed, since direct democracy — again, a government in which all or most laws are made by direct popular vote — would be impractical given the number and complexity of laws that pretty much any state or national government is expected to enact, it’s unsurprising that the qualifier “representative” would often be omitted. Practically speaking, representative democracy is the only democracy that’s around at any state or national level.

Tom Van Dyke beat me to a lot of this in the comment section of Row’s post, but no reason not to slap my own words on our similar views of the subject. Different words mean different things to different people, but for me, at least, “We’re a republic and not a democracy” is a phrase that does have meaning, even if it doesn’t track 100% with the words themselves.

Specifically, it is an acknowledgement that democracy is intentionally limited here and there. Least controversially, by refusing to allow the majority to abridge the rights of the minority (though how we define abridged rights is subject to debate). And, as TVD mentions, we have purposefully disproportionate representation in one of our two houses, as well as in our presidential selection process.

People who say that there is no distinction between republic and democracy in the US, or that the US is both, are not necessarily wrong. They are, however, often using that as a springboard to point out the ways in which we’re “failing” to be democratic, be it through the existence of the Senate, the filibuster, the constraints on the government of the Constitution, or single-member districts. Irrespective of the merits of these anti-democratic or non-democratic mechanisms (I agree with some of the criticisms, and disagree with others), there is something circular about simultaneously saying that our system is democratic and then turning around and arguing that our system – even as intentionally designed – is failing at being democratic.

There are specific cases where our system wasn’t designed to be how it worked out. The Electoral College, for example, had one thing in mind and became something else. Single-member districts were intended, but gerrymandering wasn’t. The Filibuster as it currently exists is a later invention, though one agreed upon by the members elected in proportion to how it was designed (although elected directly now).

I have found it easier to sidestep the “a republic is a democracy” argument by adding a qualifier to “republic.” We are a constitutional republic. We are a federal republic. We are not, and never have been, and were never intended to be, a directly democratic republic. The idea of a straight (and sole) population-based legislative body was raised, and was rejected. And the “federal republic” part was absolutely intended, and is not (contrary to the perceptions of some) an anachronistic example of American exceptionalism. We are one of many federal republics throughout the world, and nowhere near alone in having disproportionate representation.


Category: Statehouse

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Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

8 Responses to Republic vs Democracy

  1. James Hanley says:

    To me, the problem with the phrase is it most often gets trotted out by people who are defending a minority tyranny.

    • trumwill says:

      I consider it a useful antidote to the notion that it’s a failure in the system when a majority of people support something that hasn’t happened. (Or oppose something that has, though that’s less common due to the number of veto points and consensus requirements.)

  2. Michael Drew says:

    Even Tom admits we’re democratic. Thirdly, but that’s on the podium.

    Your argument that it’s circular or contradictory to say we’re democratic but that we’re not democratic enough seems like an excluded middle argument. We can plainly be democratic and also should maybe be more democratic still.

    And we are a democracy, I don’t think there’s any disputing that. Certainly by world standards we would fall under a list of democracies (and one of republics too). Not purely or exclusively – as Tom points out the substantive limits on state power and disproportionate representation show that there are limits to pure democratic voting’s power over policy. But the large bulk of policy and representation are given over to broadly democratic process.

    So if we’re at least in large part a democracy (though not a pure one), then why shouldn’t the argument be made that 1) we are a democracy (with whatever caveats), 2) we aspire to be a democracy, along with whatever else (I think the 17th amendment and the state laws assigning presidential electors based on popular vote is an important indication of that) 3) democracy up to a set of necessary limits is desirable, there fore 4) let’s eliminate some of the unnecessary and outdated limits on democracy holds up perfectly well.

    Obviously one can place one’s preferences completely apart from that, but I don’t think one can claim that argument doesn’t flow from facts. It doesn’t have super strong support in 18th century intentions for this country, but as formal a process for amending that intent that we have in our system has been completed to create a signal of democratic aspiration for our country, along with myriad sub-constitutional laws on the books granting more control to democratic processes and emphasizing the overarching importance of the right to vote and to have one’s teeny tiny individual vote count in the system. These are strong indicators that the nation currently conceives of itself as a democracy, so arguments that appeal to a desire to realize that aspiration in my view at least have a basis in real evidence of a democratic self-conception. Which is not to say that such arguments shouldn’t be resisted or can’t be rebutted. But I don’t think such responses to appeals to more fully realize our well-established democratic aspirations is well-met by a response of “But we’re not a democracy: we’re a republic,” especially when that denial means to address itself, as you say it does, as much to our intentions as to our present reality.

    • trumwill says:

      I don’t disagree that “We are a democracy” is an accurate statement. I was less than clear on that, but it’s certainly true from my own personal perspective, in most contexts.

      If we’re in a phase of the discussion where someone is making the distinction between republic and democracy, we’re typically talking about what kind of democracy we are and whether we are more democratic or less democratic within the part above the threshold of being called democratic. We’re talking either about an aspect of our system that is undemocratic, or something that happened despite poll numbers suggesting it shouldn’t have (or vice-versa).

      Where I get tripped up with your #1-4 is between 1 and 2. If we meet the speaker’s threshold for being a democracy, then by the time we get to #2 then the requirement has been satisfied and so to get to #3 we’d need the words “should” and “more of” in there. It would make sense for me to say “We are a democracy (#1), but we should aspire to be more of one (#2), and so… (#3).”

      There are a number of ways that I would personally like to see our system become more democratic than it is (national popular vote, felony voting rights, more representatives, perhaps different district formulation). But using “We’re a democracy” as a justification to correct the alleged shortcomings of our democracy is different from arguing that while we are a democracy we could be more of one and that this would be a good thing. And to the latter, I think pointing out the federal or constitutional republicanism of our sentence can fairly be part of the response.

      • Michael Drew says:

        I think 3 is what addresses why to go from 1 to 2, otherwise you;d have a good point.

        I.e., 1 could be true, but you could try to deny that we even aspire to be a democracy (2). But I think the evidence shows that we both are and aspire to be a democracy (with limits). But that still doesn’t get you to an argument that the limits are set in the wrong place. And 2 alone doesn’t get you there either, because, as I think you think, we could both aspire to be a democracy, but also have achieved it, up to the limits that are necessary (or that we want). So you have to have a substantive reason to want to move where the limits are set. 3 is kind of a placeholder for the various arguments for that.

        You could say, Then why is 2 necessary? But that is really where the point you’re making comes in. A person could sit in a democracy, and have a set of what he thinks are good arguments to flash out 3, but if it’s a society that has just sort of backed into democracy and doesn’t satisfy 2, then it’s kind of an idle theoretical case, because there’s no basic democratic aspiration animating the polity. If the polity isn’t trying to do democracy,then what particular reason does it have to be more democratic than it happens to be (even if it is democratic). They may be decent arguments (in 3), but if the basic aspiration to democracy isn’t there, then the society will react to the arguments for greater democracy with relative indifference. In a sense, the arguments lose (ironically) by democracy – by being outvoted, or in any case by not winning votes, even if they’re good arguments.

        It’s only if good arguments for greater democracy are accompanied by a real motivation to have democracy (at least, if not to have the right amount of democracy) that the arguments for adjusting the limits on democracy become really a live, vital issue.

        That’s why 1-3 are necessary in order for the prescription at 4 to have force. I;d say the least crucial is actually 1 – it would need to be a pretty compelling definition and justification of a non-democratic system in order for the combination of real aspiration for democracy and good arguments for what kind of democracy to have not to have any purchase. (Though in such a case the prescription at 4 becomes democratic transformation itself, not merely the proper limits on democracy, though those are at stake as well.) In this combination I’m thinking of a society like Iran, where the Republic itself is defined as exactly not Democratic, but as Islamic, so that any democracy is totally subjugated to theocracy. 2009, as well as basic familiarity with the IRanian people, show that democratic aspiration exists, and I’m guessing there are lots of good arguments for democracy (with limits of X) in Iran, so that the arguments at 2 & 3 for 4 (plus democratic transformation) are present. But that all butts up against the hard reality that Iran is not a democracy – it’s explicitly and robustly defined as not a democracy but an Islamic Republic – so the force of the arguments is very much in question, since it appears that the societal aspiration for democracy remains for the moment not salient to the question of how the political system is defined.

        • trumwill says:

          I think 2 and 3 get you to four. Which is to say, #2 is that democracy is one of the values we have #2, and we should therefore apply scrutiny to things that are non-democratic and they should be able to be justified on some other basis.

          Where WARANAD comes in, though, is that it’s a response to the notion that outside very specific limits (ones the notioner approves of), non-democratic aspects are self-evidently a failure of the system. Well, they’re only a failure of the system if the goal is to maximum democratic efficiency (or as maximum as is feasible).

          I agree with your above comment that “We are a republic and not a democracy” is not, in and of itself, a sufficient argument against something. I’m not sure it even qualifies as an argument (against or in favor of some kind of reform). But it’s a distinction that matters in trying to establish why More Democratic Is Better is not always the case, preferably laying a groundwork for what the argument actually is.

  3. Michael Cain says:

    I am always amazed at how much heat can be generated by starting a discussion of the wave of direct democracy that swept over most of the western half (geographically, not by state count) of the country a hundred years ago — state constitutional changes that created ballot initiatives, assorted mechanisms for referendums, recall provisions, etc.

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