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.
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.
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.
About the Author
please enter your email address on this page.