Democracy or Republic? There are two ways to answer this frequently heard question: “Is the American government a republic or a democracy? Let’s start with contemporary definitions from the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition.
Democracy. Defined as, “A government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation, usually involving periodically held free elections.”
Republic. Defined as, “A government in which the supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law.”
For practical purposes — and since today in no U.S state or local government does the entire population of “the people” meet to rule directly — there is no significant difference between the above definitions. American governments today are more accurately defined as democratic-republics in which the people elect a select few citizens (elected representatives) to conduct the public’s business but that the people also, through various citizen participation mechanisms, take part in, and influence, the governing and decision making process.
Direct Democracy. Still, the debate — republic versus democracy — goes on and on. In the December 2013 issue of the New Yorker, Senator Orrin Hatch is quoted as follows: “This [America] has never been a democracy. This is a representative republic with heightened democratic principles.”
What exactly are “heightened democratic principles?” The confusion here, I suspect, is due simply to the senator’s use of the term “democracy.” I am sure he knows how today’s dictionary defines the term. I believe what the senator means is that the U.S. government has never been a direct democracy, a government in which citizens do not elect representatives to conduct the public’s business on their behalf but, instead, assemble personally to conduct the public’s business.
In 1789, our aristocratic founders had no use for direct democracy or the hybrid form of democracy we are familiar with today. To them, direct citizen participation by the common man amounted to mob-rule.
James Madison, in Federalist Paper 10, published on November 23, 1787, clearly favored a governing process that relied on a few public-spirited men with an ample storehouse of civic virtue (see below) not the people themselves when he wrote: “a chosen body of citizens [are] more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.” Madison rejected the idea that citizens ought to have any direct role in the governing process beyond electing members to the House of Representatives.
Thomas Jefferson, however, placed a good deal more faith in the democratic, civic abilities of the common man. He said, in a letter to Joseph Cabell on February 2, 1816, “Where everyman ..feels that he is a participator in the government affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year but every day; when there shall not be a man in the State who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.”
For emphasis, the U.S. Constitution not only establishes a republican – that is, a strict representative republic — form of government nationally, in Article IV, Section 4, specifies the establishment of a “Republican Form of Government” in each state. In fact, for many years before the U.S. Constitution was approved, the 13 independent states were already operating under republican forms of government with elected legislatures.
One reason the democracy vs. republic debate never ends is found in the words in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Yes, the founding father did establish what they thought would be a lasting, strict republican form of government in America. But, in 1791, with the addition of the first ten amendments to the Constitution clarifying the rights of citizens with respect to their government, the seeds of a future democracy were planted. And, as the role of citizens in the governing process expanded in the 1800s — at the ballot box and between elections as various forms of citizen participation were introduced — the early republic evolved into the democratic-republic we know today,
Self-government. This term, first appearing in print in 1734, is defined as: Government under the control and direction of the inhabitants of a political unit rather than by an outside authority; control of one’s own affairs. Self-rule: This term, first appearing in print in 1855 is, today, generally used to mean self-government.
Citizen Participation. Beyond simply voting, perhaps the most common form of citizen participation, this term implies that citizens are actively involved in the governing and decision making process between elections when they contribute money to political party, attend political rallies, contact local officials concerning public issues, take direct action by forming a citizens group to solve a local public problem; write letters to newspapers, sign petitions.
Civic Virtue. In the late 1700s, the founding fathers acknowledged that the success of their experiment with a republican form of government depended, in large part, on all Americans, but especially elected officials, to exhibit what was known as “civic virtue” — the personal trait where one places the public interest above one’s own private self-interests.
In Federalist Paper 55, published on February 15, 1788, James Madison wondered if the American people would, in fact, develop a sufficient level of civic virtue. Speaking of the more admirable human qualities, he wrote: “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”