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Is the United States a Democracy or a Republic? - An Essay

"The United States is not a democracy, it's a republic" - this talking point has in recent years gained traction among far right circles.

"America Is a Republic, Not a Democracy", wrote on its website the Heritage Foundation, a conservative organization that since its founding in 1973 has followed the American right's trajectory of radicalization to the point of embracing Trumpism.

"US Capitol Building" by Hey Paul is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In October 2020, Republican Senator Mike Lee stated in an article: "During the recent vice presidential debate, I pointed out on Twitter that our form of government in the United States is not a democracy, but a republic."


An op-ed by Thomas Koenig published on January 16, 2021, on the conservative National Review was titled: "A Republic, Not a Democracy".

Various media organizations have noted how the far right has been repeating this anti-democratic slogan. "Why the Right Keeps Saying That the United States Isn’t a Democracy", asked Sue Halpern of The New Yorker in October 2020.

The false narrative that the US is a republic and not a democracy is often spread on social media by accounts which may be genuine or may be troll accounts. Considering the opaque nature of social media, it is impossible to tell. 

Does the far right have a point? Is the US a republic but not a democracy?

The answer is simple. The United States is a democracy. Before I proceed with the argument, let me make the following observations:

The United States is a republic and a democracy.

The United Kingdom is a monarchy and a democracy.

The Kingdom of Sweden is a monarchy and a democracy.

The People's Republic of China is a republic and a dictatorship.

The Russian Federation is a republic and a dictatorship.

Comparing the aforementioned countries' forms of government we can clearly see that the US, the UK and Sweden can be characterized as democratic although the UK and Sweden are not republics. 

Just to prevent criticism, let me make clear that democracies may have within them groups or parties with authoritarian tendencies. Any country that, as of the time of writing, is in broad terms a democracy could grow increasingly autocratic. 

I shall now explain where the fallacy in the far right's anti-democratic narrative lies, and how the resulting misconceptions are popularized by propagandists to undermine US democracy.

How did the Founding Fathers define democracy and republic?


In its original meaning, democracy is derived from the Greek dēmokratia, which is a compound of dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”). The term began to be used in the middle of the 5th century BC to describe the political systems of some Greek city-states, the most influential of which was Athens.


The Latin term res publica (from which the English word republic originates) literally means "public thing" and is often translated as "state" or "commonwealth". 

In his book De Republica (On the State), the ancient Roman philosopher, lawyer, politician and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero coined the phrase "the state is the people's property" (res publica res populi).


But even in Cicero, the meaning of res publica varies. He used it to refer to either any constitutional form of government; a popular government as opposed to a monarchy; or any morally legitimate form of government (Cicero 2017, pp. xxxi-xxxii).


In late medieval and early modern Europe, the term came to be understood broadly as any morally legitimate form of government pursuing the common good. It encompassed democratic, oligarchic, aristocratic and monarchical states, but it excluded tyrannies.


In the 18th century the meaning of the word republic once again shifted as the principle of absolute monarchy faced increasing opposition. Republic came to signify a government "in which the leader is periodically appointed under a constitution, in contrast to hereditary monarchies."


Let us now look at how James Madison and Alexander Hamilton used the terms democracy and republic.


In Federalist No. 10, Madison defined a "pure democracy" as "a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person."


By contrast, he defined a republic as "a government in which the scheme of representation takes place."


What Madison meant by democracy and republic was basically our present-day distinction between direct democracy and indirect democracy. In a direct democracy, the people "vote on policies and laws themselves, instead of electing politicians to do it on their behalf." In a representative democracy, as the name suggests, people elect representatives.


Madison's definition derived from the ancient Greek political system of the city-state. Robinson (2004) describes Greek democracy in the 5th and 4th centuries BC as follows:


"[D]emocracy meant that the demos (the people) were sovereign in the deliberations of state. A popular assembly, to which all citizens were invited, met regularly and provided a forum for debating and voting on the most important matters. Representative councils typically prepared in advance the agenda for the assembly meetings.


"Popular courts, with ordinary citizens serving as jurors, tried legal cases, and administrative officials (magistrates, generals, treasurers, examiners, etc.) were either elected or chosen by lot for relatively brief terms, usually one year. Officials were held to account after their terms of office as a check on corruption. While property qualifications often applied to some of the higher offices, generally wealth requirements were minimal or non-existent for participation in the assembly, courts, and other positions.


"Some democracies employed more unusual institutions as well. Ostracism and analogous laws allowed the people to vote into exile for several years leaders who seemed to have grown too powerful, troublesome, or threatening to the popular order. Some states paid citizens for their service on juries or attendance at assembly meetings, encouraging active participation from all classes including the poor. Underlying the development of these institutions were the ideals of freedom and equality" (Robinson 2004, p. 3).

It must be pointed out that in ancient Greece political rights were limited to male citizens. Women, slaves, and resident aliens were excluded from participation in the democratic system (ibid.).

Direct democracy in ancient Greece was feasible because it was made up of independent city-states. For example, classical Athens and its surrounding region of Attica had a population of between 250,000 and 300,000 people. However, only around 30,000 people were citizens entitled to attend the Assembly.

Since the Assembly, located on the Pnyx hill about 500 metres west of the Acropolis, could accommodate around 6,000 people, it is likely that only a portion of the citizenry participated in the meetings at any given time (Thorley 2004, pp. 1, 32).

James Madison equated the term "democracy" with Greek democracy, i.e. with a direct democracy where the citizens had the right to assemble and vote in person. He rejected that form of government on the grounds that it was not capable of preventing factionalism. He believed that in a democracy:

"A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert results from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property …"

By a faction, Madison understood "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

Regarding the causes of factionalism, he further wrote:

"The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.


"But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of government."

Athenian democracy had been criticized in antiquity for its instability and for giving too much power to the "multitude" as well as to popular leaders (demagogues) who could sway the crowd through speeches. For instance, the historian Thucydides and the philosopher Aristotle both denounced the excessive arbitrary power of the Athenian Assembly.

One infamous episode that illustrates the lack of checks and balances on the Assembly was the execution of six generals after the battle of Arginousai.

In 406 BC, the Athenian navy won a battle near the islands of Arginousai during the Peloponnesian War. Soon afterwards, however, a storm wrecked some of the ships, resulting in the loss of crews and two generals. When the six remaining generals returned to Athens, the Assembly put them on trial as a group, sentenced and executed them for failing to save their crews (Balot 2008, p. 113).

As the historian Xenophon wrote:

"At the conclusion of his speech Euryptolemus proposed, as an amendment, that the prisoners should … be tried each separately, as against the proposal of the senate to try them all by a single vote. At the show of hands the tellers gave the majority in favour of Euryptolemus's amendment, but upon the application of Menecles, who took formal exception to this decision, the show of hands was gone through again, and now the verdict was in favour of the resolution of the senate. At a later date the balloting was made, and by the votes recorded the eight generals were condemned, and the six who were in Athens were put to death.


"Not long after, repentance seized the Athenians, and they passed a decree authorising the public prosecution of those who had deceived the people, and the appointment of proper securities for their persons until the trial was over."

The above excerpt shows how the Assembly could make rash decisions based on speeches and emotional reactions. There were few checks and balances to slow down the decision-making process or avoid abuse of power by the Assembly. The framers of the US constitution were so concerned with giving too much power to any branch of government that they divided the legislature into two chambers to act as a check on each other.

Whether the depiction of Athenian democracy in ancient texts is reliable, or whether it is an exaggeration on the part of those who wrote about it, it undoubtedly influenced how the Founding Fathers perceived direct democracy as inherently unstable and arbitrary.

But Madison made another argument against direct democracy, namely that the United States was too large a territory to implement a form of government that had existed in a relatively small city-state.

In Federalist No. 14 he wrote:

"As the natural limit of a democracy is that distance from the central point which will just permit the most remote citizens to assemble as often as their public functions demand, and will include no greater number than can join in those functions; so the natural limit of a republic is that distance from the centre which will barely allow the representatives to meet as often as may be necessary for the administration of public affairs."

From the aforementioned quotes we can conclude that James Madison used the terms democracy and republic as synonyms for what we would nowadays call direct and indirect democracy.

Alexander Hamilton had a more ambivalent view of the term republic, which he seemed to use to refer to forms of government that were not monarchies.

In Federalist No. 6, he stated that "Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics". Thus he contradicted Madison's clear distinction between republic and democracy.

In Federalist No. 9, Hamilton depicted the republics of ancient Greece and medieval Italy as unstable:

"It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy …"

In Federalist No. 34, he extolled the ancient Roman republic, specifically the existence of two separate legislative bodies, the comitia centuriata and the comitia tribuna:

"It is well known that in the Roman republic the legislative authority, in the last resort, resided for ages in two different political bodies not as branches of the same legislature, but as distinct and independent legislatures, in each of which an opposite interest prevailed: in one the patrician; in the other, the plebian … And yet these two legislatures coexisted for ages, and the Roman republic attained to the utmost height of human greatness."

Hamilton criticized those who cited the failure of the Greek and Italian republics as a justification for despotism:

"From the disorders that disfigure the annals of those republics the advocates of despotism have drawn arguments, not only against the forms of republican government, but against the very principles of civil liberty …"

In a later passage he summarized his vision for a good form of government based on Enlightenment ideals:

"The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments [separation of powers]; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times."

The phrase "progress towards perfection" needs to be emphasized, because it shows - contrary to the political dogma of originalism developed in recent decades - that the framers did understand that societies and political systems could be improved over time as human knowledge and experience evolved, as we shall see below.

In Federalist No. 39, Madison remarked:

"The government of England, which has one republican branch only, combined with an hereditary aristocracy and monarchy, has, with equal impropriety, been frequently placed on the list of republics …"

He further gave another, more detailed, explanation of the term republic:

"we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is essential to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic. It is sufficient for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people; and that they hold their appointments by either of the tenures just specified; otherwise every government in the United States, as well as every other popular government that has been or can be well organized or well executed, would be degraded from the republican character …"

Madison based his ideas on the premise that human beings, due to their own nature, tend to oppress each other. The apparatus of government therefore had to be designed to limit abuse of power by any faction in society or branch of government, and to prevent the perpetration of violence by the strong against the weak.

In Federalist No. 51 he argued:

"A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State. But it is not possible to give to each department an equal power of self-defense. In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit …

"In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects …

"Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit. In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger …"

The structure of the US government was designed to prevent abuse of power, to dilute authority, to form checks and balances on institutions. The wisdom of the Constitution lay in the framers' awareness of the flawed nature of human beings, including themselves.

In Federalist No. 85, Alexander Hamilton urged the people of the State of New York to support the ratification of the Constitution. But he didn't argue that they should do so because the Constitution was perfect. Quite the opposite. He claimed that the proposed document was the best possible result of a compromise between different views and interests that could be achieved at the time. Hamilton reminded his audience that the Constitution could be improved over time through amendments after it was ratified:

"I should esteem it the extreme of imprudence to prolong the precarious state of our national affairs, and to expose the Union to the jeopardy of successive experiments, in the chimerical pursuit of a perfect plan. I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man.

"The result of the deliberations of all collective bodies must necessarily be a compound, as well of the errors and prejudices, as of the good sense and wisdom, of the individuals of whom they are composed. The compacts which are to embrace thirteen distinct States in a common bond of amity and union, must as necessarily be a compromise of as many dissimilar interests and inclinations. How can perfection spring from such materials?

"If … the Constitution proposed should once be ratified by all the States as it stands, alterations in it may at any time be effected by nine States. Here, then, the chances are as thirteen to nine in favor of subsequent amendment, rather than of the original adoption of an entire system."


The Evolution of the Terms Republic and Democracy Since the 18th Century


At the time of the founding of the United States it might have been reasonable to make a distinction between republic and democracy. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, political developments took place throughout the world which redefined the two concepts.

In the United Kingdom, the role of the monarch in governing the state was reduced and gradually taken over by Parliament. Moreover, the right to vote was expanded. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

"England’s political life was dominated by the monarchy for centuries after the Middle Ages … By about 1800, significant powers, notably including powers related to the appointment and tenure of the prime minister, had shifted to Parliament. This development was strongly influenced by the emergence of political factions in Parliament during the early years of the 18th century. These factions, known as Whigs and Tories, later became full-fledged parties.

"To king and Parliament alike it became increasingly apparent that laws could not be passed nor taxes raised without the support of a Whig or Tory leader who could muster a majority of votes in the House of Commons. To gain that support, the monarch was forced to select as prime minister the leader of the majority party in the Commons and to accept the leader’s suggestions for the composition of the cabinet. That the monarch should have to yield to Parliament in this area became manifest during a constitutional crisis in 1782, when King George III (reigned 1760–1820) was compelled, much against his will, to accept a Whig prime minister and cabinet—a situation he regarded, according to one scholar, as 'a violation of the Constitution, a defeat for his policy, and a personal humiliation.' By 1830 the constitutional principle that the choice of prime minister, and thus the cabinet, reposed with the House of Commons had become firmly entrenched in the (unwritten) British Constitution.

"Parliamentary government in Britain was not yet a democratic system, however. Mainly because of property requirements, the franchise was held by only about 5 percent of the British population over 20 years of age. The Reform Act of 1832, which is generally viewed as a historic threshold in the development of parliamentary democracy in Britain, extended the suffrage to about 7 percent of the adult population ... It would require further acts of Parliament in 1867, 1884, and 1918 to achieve universal male suffrage and one more law, enacted in 1928, to secure the right to vote for all women."

The expansion of the prerogatives of the elected House of Commons and of the franchise changed the British political system, making it similar to the republic that the Founding Fathers of the United States had envisioned. Other kingdoms in Europe and other parts of the world followed the same pattern. In the 19th century:

"emerged a group of European monarchies that adapted to the new challenges. These became the 'constitutional monarchies,' the leading contemporary examples of which are the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. In these states, a legacy of political bargaining has existed, witnessing the monarch’s gradual transfer of authority to various societal groups.

"Although the monarch remains the head of state and the emblem of state authority, the sovereign accepts that this authority has been transposed to that of a formal position, and the monarch waives actual political power, which is assumed by the people. In such monarchies, political authority is exercised by elected politicians, and the political process runs according to democratic procedures."

We therefore see that the distinction between republic and monarchy no longer reflects the political reality.

In the 20th century, many of the old monarchies of the world collapsed. The first major of them to be overthrown was the Qing Dynasty in China, which was replaced by the Republic of China (ROC). Following the First World War, more followed suit.

But a large number of the republics founded since the beginning of the last century have not been popularly elected governments with checks and balances, separation of powers and civil rights and liberties.

The Republic of China, founded in 1912, was in theory democratic, but de facto it was ruled dictatorially for decades. From 1912 to 1916, general Yuan Shikai was the head of a military regime. From 1916 to 1927 it was controlled by different warlords who established regional domains. In 1927 the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang) seized power and formed a one-party state.

In 1917 the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was founded. In 1922 it became part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Many socialist republics were founded over the following decades. One of them was the People's Republic of China (PRC), which was proclaimed after the Chinese Communist Party defeated the Guomindang, forcing the latter to flee to Taiwan.

Many states today call themselves republics because their leaders aren't hereditary monarchs possessing executive, legislative or judicial powers. However, these republics may not have free and fair elections, civil rights (such as free speech), separation of powers and systems of checks and balances.

A country like Singapore fits the definition of a republic. It is not a monarchy. It has a written constitution. It has elections. But one party is firmly in control. It restricts civil rights. It doesn't have the checks and balances necessary to allow the population to be the ultimate sovereign.

In 2002, the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights compiled a list of the essential elements of democracy:

  • Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of expression and opinion
  • Access to power and its exercise in accordance with the rule of law
  • The holding of periodic free and fair elections by universal suffrage and by secret ballot as the expression of the will of the people
  • A pluralistic system of political parties and organizations
  • The separation of powers
  • The independence of the judiciary
  • Transparency and accountability in public administration
  • Free, independent and pluralistic media.

The aforementioned principles are consistent with how Madison and Hamilton understood the notion of popular government. As they stressed the idea that their theories were guided by the progress of human knowledge and experience, and by the desire to improve what had come before them, so today we must integrate the lessons from the past two centuries and a half into our own political system and terminology.

Today, the term republic has two distinct widely accepted meanings. According to Merriam-Webster, it can mean: 1) a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usually a president; 2) a government in which 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.

The two definitions, however, can be mutually exclusive. The People's Republic of China has a head of state who is not a monarch, but he is not elected by the people. Citizens have no right to vote for their representatives. There is no separation of powers and there are no insitutional checks and balances.

Therefore, I would argue that the term democracy should be preferable to the term republic, because the latter has two widely accepted meanings that can be contradictory and thus be exploited by authoritarian propaganda.


The Far Right's War of Words


The debate around whether the US is a republic or a democracy has very real political implications. The far right is trying to discredit the concept of democracy in order to push towards authoritarianism. If their base of supporters becomes convinced that the US is not a democracy, they will more willingly accept the destruction of democratic principles.

As historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat told Business Insider in June 2022, the Republican Party is "becoming an authoritarian party", it is "like a far-right party with an authoritarian culture."

When far right propagandists claim that the US is not a democracy, their aim is to sow confusion and convince people to embrace authoritarianism. Because, after all, the US would still be a republic even if it was ruled like China, Hungary, or Singapore. But it would no longer be a democracy.

If you want to support me, you can check out some of my books and translations. More to come. Thank you!

Bibliography 
  • Balot, R. K. (2008). Greek Political Thought.

  • Robinson, E. W. (2004). Ancient Greek democracy. Readings and sources.

  • Thorley, J. (2004). Athenian Democracy.

  • Cicero, M. T. (2017). Cicero: On the Commonwealth and On the Laws. (Zetzel, J. E. G., Trans. & Edit.).








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  1. Insightful and educational, thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thank you so much, I'm glad you enjoyed my essay :)

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