People’s silhouettes are seen on an American flag as President Joe Biden addresses in Cleveland on July 6, 2022.
Evan Vucci/Associated Press
What do we call the American political system? Is our country a democracy or a republic?
The conundrum is, as the saying goes, “as old as the republic itself.”
But it’s no longer only a question for academics and semanticists.
Since the 2020 election, supporters of former President Donald Trump have grown significantly more inclined to say that voting in America is dubious. That Trump won an election he did not win. “Millions of ballots” went uncounted or were miscounted. Voting by mail was fraught with danger.
Despite a lack of evidence and the judgements of election officials from both parties, as well as judges selected by presidents from both parties, election denialism has become more than a thing; it has become a movement. When critics call this an attack on democracy, some election skeptics argue that the United States is a republic, not a democracy.
In August, The New York Times’ Robert Draper wrote an article about Republicans who think this. He quoted Selina Bliss, a Republican candidate for the Arizona state senate, as saying: “We do not live in a democracy. The term “democracy” appears nowhere in the Constitution. The Democratic Republic of the Congo comes to mind. That is not our style.”
But we are a democratic republic. Exactly.
We have served as both throughout our history. To put it another way, we used aspects of both. People make decisions, but they do so through elected representatives who labor in pre-established, rule-bound, and purposefully ambiguous organizations such as Congress and the courts.
The government in Washington, D.C., represents a democratic republic that controls a federated union of states, each of which has its own democratic-republican government.
The dynamic and vital component of our history has been the interplay between the democratic and republican elements of this equation. But it hasn’t always been easy, and in our day and age, the conflict between them has become yet another flashpoint in our partisan warfare.
Going to battle over weaponized language
We frequently hear people on the left accuse conservatives of ruining democracy, and we hear conservatives accuse Democrats of not respecting the Constitution. To add to the complexity, the two camps frequently switch offensive and defense lines. Republicans brand Democrats as opponents of democracy, while Democrats howl against Republican disregard for the Constitution.
In some ways, this makes sense, because both sides want to portray themselves as supporters of democracy and the Constitution to voters.
Yes, as a nation, we believe we are and can be both. We want to be both. However, in practice, this can be challenging. And in our day and age, when so much of public dialogue takes place on Twitter and cable television news, the terms have become increasingly weaponized.
“Equality and democracy are under attack,” President Biden declared last week on the steps of Independence Hall. “Pretending otherwise does us no favors.”
Biden used the word democracy 31 times in Independence Hall, including three times in one phrase. He only used the word republic twice.
Republicans, on the other hand, have recently seemed to emphasize the importance of the republic and its limitation on democracy. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, an outspoken Republican but rarely an oddity, received a lot of attention in October 2020 for asserting simply on Twitter, “We are not a democracy.”
Lee then explained what he meant on the internet. It stated, in part, that “our system is best described as a constitutional republic [where] power is found in carefully balanced power rather than mere majorities.”
Lee went on to describe how difficult it was for majorities in Congress to enact legislation, have it signed by the president, and then have it reviewed by the courts. Lee’s point was that he was fine with everything. It was the founders’ intention.
“There isn’t supposed to be federal legislation in the absence of unanimity,” Lee wrote.
George Thomas, the Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions at Claremont McKenna College, discovered “There is some validity to this emphasis on calling the United States a republic, but it is primarily deceptive. The Constitution was intended to create a complicated type of majority rule rather than to allow minority control.”
This isn’t merely a semantic dispute. It is a fundamental conflict about what the American government aims to be. Are we a democracy in which the voice of the people is the voice of God, as it reads in Latin on several of our official buildings (Vox Populi, Vox Dei)?
Or do we have a republic? That is, a government of laws rather than persons, gaining its authority not from divine right of inheritance or military might, but from reason and devotion to the processes of the Constitution.
Using proper names for things
It’s also no surprise that those names tend to indicate which side of the democratic-republican divide they support. Our present parties share a common progenitor in a party founded in the early decades of nationhood by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
That party arose in contrast to the founding party of George Washington and John Adams, known as the Federalists, since they emphasized the combined 13 states’ central authority (the original 13 colonies that had rebelled against the crown of England).
Jefferson and others who spoke out in opposition were labeled as anti-Federalists. Jefferson liked the word republican and used it frequently, owing to its anti-monarchist connotation.
Others said the phrase had less value because it was claimed by so many different types of people. The Democratic-Republicans title was eventually given to the party. That moniker may have been too difficult to pronounce, and its coalition may have been too broad to sustain.
There were also people and candidates at the time who favoured the term “National Republicans,” particularly in New England. That group evolved into the Whigs, while the Democratic-Republicans controlled the
South and finally became simply Democrats — President Andrew Jackson’s preference.
The Whigs gave way to a new party formed in the Great Lakes region in the 1850s, tired by the North-South hostilities that were building to the Civil War. The new party’s main concern was abolition, but they adopted the previously orphaned half of the old Democratic-Republican Party name (possibly at the suggestion of journalist Horace Greeley). They are now simply known as Republicans.
However, both names have much deeper roots in the ancient world.
Around 500 BCE, Athenian democracy in Greece denoted the right of the people (demos) to personify authority (kratos), and it meant the entire polity – or at least its males. Approximately 5,000 citizens were enfranchised to participate, and even when they elected to transfer some of the governing tasks to a smaller body, the council still had 500 members (boule).
According to Thomas, “the founding generation” in the United States never regarded the Greek model to be viable outside a narrow area (idealized perhaps by the New England town hall). According to Thomas, that age was “very dubious of what it called ‘pure democracy,’ defending the American experiment as ‘wholly republican.'”
That is, it was a people’s government, not a royal one. It also included some of the inspiration mentioned in the Latin word republic, a nod to the Romans who founded the first Senate around 750 BCE.
According to Thomas, the American experience has been about reconciling democratic and republican models, two “popular systems of government” that “derived their legitimacy from the people and relied on popular authority.”
The crucial distinction was the function of representatives in standing in for the assembling of all people at one point in time and location.
“To interpret this as a rejection of democracy overlooks how the concept of popular governance, comprising both democracy and republic, was understood when the Constitution was established and approved,” Thomas said. “It also ignores how we comprehend the concept of democracy now.”
Jefferson explicitly defined this idea in 1816, writing, “We may say with truth and meaning, that governments are more or less republican as they have more or less of the element of popular election and control in their creation.” [emphasis mine]
It’s difficult to think of a better way to express the two principles as they can be combined and act in tandem.
It is up to our generation, two centuries later, to revive that understanding in the context of our own time.