What is the system of government in the United States called? Are we a democracy or a republic?
The enigma is, well, as the common saying goes, “as old as the republic itself”.
But this is no longer just a question for academics and semanticians.
Since the 2020 election, supporters of former President Donald Trump have become markedly more willing to assert their belief that voting in the United States is suspect. That Trump won an election he lost. That “millions of ballots” were either uncounted or miscounted. That postal voting was full of abuse.
Despite the lack of evidence and the judgments of election officials from both parties and judges appointed by the presidents of both parties, election denial has become not just a thing, but a movement. And when critics call it an attack on democracy, some Holocaust deniers respond by saying the United States isn’t a democracy, it’s a republic.
Robert Draper of The New York Times published an article about Republicans saying this in August. He quoted a GOP candidate for Arizona state legislature, Selina Bliss, as saying, “We’re not a democracy. Nowhere in the Constitution does he use the word ‘democracy.’ I’m thinking of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it’s not us.
But a democratic republic is we. Exactly.
Throughout our history, we have operated as both. In other words, we used the characteristics of both. The people decide, but they do so through elected representatives working in pre-established, rule-bound, and intentionally recalcitrant institutions such as Congress and the courts.
The government sitting in Washington, DC, represents a democratic republic, which governs a federated union of states, each of which in turn has its own Democratic-Republican government for its jurisdiction.
The relationship between the Democratic and Republican elements of this equation has been a dynamic and essential part of our history. But it hasn’t always been easy, and in our time, friction between them has become another flashpoint in our partisan wars.
Go to war for armed words
We regularly hear from people on the left talking about conservatives destroying democracy, and just as regularly we hear from conservatives saying that Democrats have no respect for the Constitution. To add to the confusion, the two sides often swap lines of attack and defense. Republicans call Democrats enemies of democracy, Democrats rail against what they see as Republican disrespect for the Constitution.
And it also makes sense, in a way, because both sides want to be champions of both democracy and the Constitution, and portray themselves as such to voters.
Yes, as a politician we believe we are and can be both. We aspire to be both. But in practice, this can be difficult. And in our time, with much of the public discourse taking place on Twitter and cable TV news, the terms have increasingly become weapons.
“Equality and democracy are under attack,” President Biden said on the steps of Independence Hall last week. “We are doing ourselves no favors to pretend otherwise.”
Biden at Independence Hall used the word democracy 31 times, including three times in one sentence. He only used the word republic twice.
Republicans, on the other hand, have lately seemed to emphasize the role of the republic and its restraint on democracy. Senator Mike Lee of Utah, an outspoken but hardly an outlier Republican, drew considerable attention for saying bluntly on Twitter in October 2020, “We are not a democracy.”
Lee then posted an explanation of what he meant online. It said, in part: “Our system is best described as a constitutional republic [where] power is not found in simple majorities, but in carefully balanced power.”
Lee went on to catalog how difficult it was for majorities in Congress to pass legislation, get it signed by a president, and see it undergo judicial review. Lee’s point was that he was okay with all of this. This was the intention of the founders.
“Absent consensus,” Lee wrote, “there is no supposed to be federal law.”
Write in 2020 in Atlantic, George Thomas, Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions at Claremont McKenna College, found “some truth in this insistence” on calling the United States a republic, but added: “It’s mostly dishonest. The Constitution was supposed to favor a complex form of majority rule, not activating minority rule.”
It’s not just a dispute over terms. It’s a fundamental battle over what the US government aspires to be. Are we a democracy where the voice of the people is, as it says in Latin on some of our official buildings (Vox Populi vox dei), the voice of God?
Or are we a republic? That is to say, a government of laws and not of men, drawing its authority not from the divine right of inheritance or the force of arms, but from reason and adherence to the mechanisms of the Constitution.
Call things by their proper names
It’s also no coincidence that these names tend to suggest which end of the Democratic-Republican market they favor. Our current parties have their roots in a common ancestor in a party launched by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the nation’s early decades.
This party was formed in opposition to the original party of George Washington and John Adams, known as the Federalists because they emphasized the central authority of the combined 13 states (the original 13 colonies who had rebelled against the English crown).
Jefferson and others who rose up in opposition were called, quite naturally, anti-federalists. Jefferson liked the word republican and used it a lot, partly for the anti-monarchist emphasis.
Others thought the term made less sense because so many different viewpoints claimed it. The party eventually took on the Democratic-Republican label. That nickname might have been too long to state, and his coalition might have been too broad to sustain.
At the time, there were also voters and candidates who preferred to call themselves National Republicans, especially in New England. This element morphed into the Whigs, while the Democratic-Republicans dominated in the South and eventually became simply Democrats – the preference of President Andrew Jackson.
In the 1850s, exhausted by North-South tensions leading to the Civil War, the Whigs gave way to a new party from the Great Lakes region. The new party’s biggest problem was abolition, but they adopted (perhaps at the suggestion of journalist Horace Greeley) the previously orphaned half of the old Democratic-Republican Party name. They have since been known simply as Republicans.
But both terms have much deeper origins in the ancient world.
Athenian democracy in Greece around 500 BCE denoted the right of the people (demos) personify power (kratos) and meant that it included an entire regime – or at least its men. Something like 5,000 citizens were empowered to participate, and when they chose to delegate some of the governance task to a smaller body, they still had 500 members of that council (ball).
Thomas says that “the founding generation” in the United States never saw the Greek model as feasible beyond a limited area (perhaps idealized by New England City Hall). Thomas says this generation was “deeply skeptical of what they called ‘pure democracy’ and defended the American experience as ‘entirely republican.’
That is to say, it was a government of the people and not of royalty. He also incorporated some of the inspiration referenced in the Latin word republic, a throwback to the Romans who established the first Senate around 750 BCE.
Thomas says that the American experience was to harmonize the democratic and republican models, two “popular forms of government”, each of which “derived its legitimacy from the people and depended on the power of the people”.
The essential difference was the role of representatives to substitute for the gathering of all people at one point in time and space.
“Taking this as a rejection of democracy misses how the idea of government by the people, including both a democracy and a republic, was understood when the Constitution was drafted and ratified,” he said. said Thomas. “It is also missing how we understand the idea of democracy today.”
One way of understanding this idea was formulated by Jefferson himself in 1816, when he wrote: “We can say with truth and sense that governments are more or less republican because they have more or less the element of popular election and control in their composition. [emphasis added]
It is difficult to imagine a better statement of the two concepts because they can be confused and act together.
It is incumbent on our generation to renew this understanding in the context of our own time, two centuries later.