Concerning Republics and Democracies

This blog post is a response to a reader’s recent email.  In that email the reader sent an article (not authored by the reader) discussing the difference between a republic and a democracy.  The article was sent by the reader because I used the term democracy several times in a recent blog post (Advice to Christians Concerning Religious Freedom) in reference to some of the recent political issues of religious freedom. The reader’s point was to say that the US government is a republic rather than a democracy.

First of all, the US governmental framework is rightly termed a republic: “state in which supreme power rests in the people” (see this link for a definition and origin of the word). That is really as far as the definition of that term can take us: it simply says that the people rule rather than a monarch. Machiavelli was one of the first to recognize two types of government: a principality ruled by a “prince” or monarch, and a republic…which was basically anything else. By the way, according to the definition even an oligarchy (rule by an elite, wealthy, or royal class) is a republic, though certainly not the intended US form of government.

What the term “republic” does not describe is how the people rule in their sovereignty.  With an oligarchy, for example, a representative group of people rule (a republic), but those people rule based on royal succession, superior education, etc. However, in governmental structure the how of the US republic is best described as “democracy.” We appoint our representative ruling people by popular election. That, even according to the article you sent, is the definition of democracy: “In a pure democracy 51 beats 49[%].” Interestingly, by using the word “pure” the author of this article admits that the US is, in fact, a democracy…though “impure.” I would agree with that assessment. We are not “majority rule” according to the strict definition of democracy, but our government is based on democratic process.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the reasoning and language of this article, and many articles like it that try to distinguish a republic from a democracy, is derived from the Federalist No. 10, an essay by James Madison published, along with many other essays by our nation’s founders, in support of the new constitutional government being then formed. Madison explains that according to his definition “pure democracy” (his words) is different from a “republic” because in a republic the people rule by representation rather than by simple majority vote. His argument is that in a “pure democracy” factions could arise that garner enough support to push their agendas, by popular vote, onto the public, or a suffering minority (think “taxation without representation”). His solution was representative government as a safe-guard. He believed such representatives would be less susceptible to temporary or factious whims, and have more virtue and wisdom in choosing rightly for the whole nation, or potentially-oppressed minority groups (reasoning that can obviously be quite faulty…but that discussion is for another time).

In any case, what Madison defined as a “republic,” and what he understood the Constitution to establish, could accurately be described as a form of representative democracy: the majority rule by popular election (democracy) of representative officials (who then, subsequently, make many decisions by majority vote…which is still democratic process). The whole system is a “republic” (from Latin phrase res publica, meaning “a public affair”) because the people rule rather than a monarch or dictator, but the means of rule is representative democracy, officials appointed by popular election. But, Madison used the term “republic” to contrast democratic rule by representation with democratic rule by majority vote.

What this article you forwarded better represents is a contrast between direct democracy and representative democracy. But, the word “republic” seems to be used because of Madison’s influence in employing that term to attempt to distinguish the US form of government (representative democracy) from what was to him a lesser form of government (direct democracy). In other words, he didn’t call it a “democracy” but used “republic” instead because he wanted to emphasize its differences from “pure democracy,” or majority rule.

However, Montesquieu, a political thinker of the early 1700s and major influence on our nation’s founders, defined democracy as a form of republic (see point #2 under Book II at this link). To Montesquieu (similar to Machiavelli), a republic was any government ruled by the people (as opposed to a monarchy), and any type of democracy would fall into that definition.  He did not define “republic” and “democracy” as oppositional forms of government.  All democracy was a form of republic (though not the only form of republic…he mentions aristocracy as an alternative to democracy, though still a form of republic).

All that to say that the term “republic” as used by the founding fathers in our
founding documents is different than its more historic definition, and could also be called “representative democracy.” The term “republic” is actually much broader than what they used it for, but they wanted a way (it seems to me) to distinguish US government from what most people thought of as “democracy,” that is, popular rule. But, according to a more historically established definition, “republic” describes our type of government (of the people), whereas “democratic” describes how that government functions (by the people). And, “republic” as used by the founding fathers more specifically defines our government function as “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place” (from Madison’s Federalist No. 10).

Now, in regards to how I used the term in my article…
The concept of every citizen having equal rights is better described as a “democratic” ideal rather than a “republican” ideal (not in the sense of political parties, but in governmental descriptions). It is the democratic ideal that says that every citizen gets a vote, has equal say (otherwise popular vote would not work). “Republic” only says that the people rule (or that they rule by representation, according to the founding fathers), but “democratic” says that we each have equal say.

So, the problem of every religious holiday having equal standing in a school is a problem of democracy.

There are also plenty of difficult questions with a “republic,” both in the
historical definition of the term, and in the way it was used by the founding
fathers. And many of those questions also become evident in the religious freedom issues (e.g., when can elected representatives override the rights of the people, or a minority of them (such as Muslims)?) But, I wasn’t really addressing those in my article……that is for another time. Actually, I believe these religious freedom issues also display some of the merits of representative democracy (“republic”): the majority who oppose the Ground Zero mosque cannot override the protected rights of Muslims to build such a mosque without the action of the elected representatives who were appointed to act in the interests of the people and to protect the rights of the minority. That is a good thing because it also means the majority cannot keep us from building church buildings, if the majority should swing that way in the future.

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