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A Republic, Not a Democracy

Inspired by an OTB comment thread, Steven Taylor has written two essays questioning the use of the phrase “A Republic, Not a Democracy.”   In Part I: Looking at Terms, he cites the political science literature to show that the terms are interchangable.  Part II: Madison, Republican Government and Federalism, he argues that even the founders wanted democratic institutions — i.e., a nascent form of representative democracy — despite the use of the term Republic throughout the Constitution and other founding documents.

He’s right, of course, on the merits.   I’ve used the phrase myself in casual conversation to mean that we have a limited government rather than one in which the majority has the right to do whatever it wishes.   That’s an important theoretical concept that many Americans seem not to fathom.

Walter Williams, amidst a lot of drivel, captured the essence of that distinction:

John Adams captured the essence of the difference when he said, “You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.”

[...]

Nothing in our Constitution suggests that government is a grantor of rights. Instead, government is a protector of rights.

In recognition that it’s Congress that poses the greatest threat to our liberties, the framers used negative phrases against Congress throughout the Constitution such as: shall not abridge, infringe, deny, disparage, and shall not be violated, nor be denied. In a republican form of government, there is rule of law. All citizens, including government officials, are accountable to the same laws. Government power is limited and decentralized through a system of checks and balances. Government intervenes in civil society to protect its citizens against force and fraud but does not intervene in the cases of peaceable, voluntary exchange.

[...]

John Adams said, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Chief Justice John Marshall observed, “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.” In a word or two, the founders knew that a democracy would lead to the same kind of tyranny the colonies suffered under King George III.

The phrase is a popular one, used by paleocons like Pat Buchanan and libertarians like Ron Paul.

As a matter of political science, however, all polities that empower popular sovereignty employ representative democracy, which filters the passions of the people through elected politicians, with some restrictions on what those leaders can do with their power.   Some, like the United States, put more obstacles in the way of the majority than others, such as the UK.   But there are no “pure” democracies.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. We are in agreement that there are limitations on what the majority (and the government) can do. Indeed, I would argue that some kinds of limitations of that nature are inherent to democracy in the modern usage of the word. (Which is n agreement with your last paragraph).

    And, of course, the usage of the word “democracy” by Adams in the quote above was one that reflected the Greek and Roman usage (all inspired by Plato) which conceptualized the idea as rule by the poor that would degenerate into mob rule, and not stable governance. It doesn’t reflect what we in 2009 mean when we use the term.

    The bottom line of my two posts is that the terms “democracy” and “republic” are far from mutually exclusive–and I say that not to argue with James’ post, but to hopefully be clear for others who might read them.

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  2. Wayne says:

    James
    Nice post. What irates me is those who think that a simple majority should rule when it suits their purpose. I a big believer in States and individuals rights and they shouldn’t be infringe upon simply because someone can muster a simple majority or find a slick procedure to circumvent those rights. For example federal government taxing people of a state then holding giving that money back unless the state pass a state law that the federal government wants.

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  3. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    I am reasonably sure the founders never intended for a tax structure to be in place that took from some to give to others. Outside of government that is referred to as theft.

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  4. PD Shaw says:

    I don’t see Professor Taylor reference Federalist No. 10, wherein Madison wrote:

    A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

    The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

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  5. anjin-san says:

    I am reasonably sure the founders never intended for a tax structure to be in place that took from some to give to others. Outside of government that is referred to as theft.

    So tell us, what do you have to say to the guy who lives a mile up the road from you, has an income four times as large as yours, and pays more taxes?

    I am pretty sure that you both have roughly equivalent fire and police services. You both benefit equally from having our military defend the country. He pays more than you for the same services. He is carrying some of your water.

    Are you making the trek up the street every year to give this guy the money you owe him, or just stealing it? Perhaps you pony up an extra 5 or 10 k to the IRS every year voluntarily so that you are not taking advantage. Keep us posted.

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  6. Michael says:

    I am reasonably sure the founders never intended for a tax structure to be in place that took from some to give to others.

    What other form of tax structure exists that the founders could have intended?

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  7. PD:

    A perfectly fair quotation, but it does not any way mitigate my argument. The key phrase in the quotation is “pure democracy”–and I am not arguing that we have ever had a “pure democracy” in the way that Madison means it in Fed 10. Indeed, that’s the whole point: that “republic” as the founders used the term is directly equivalent to the way we use the term “democracy” today–i.e., a representative democracy.

    Also, the Fed 10 ref is quite similar to the sections from Fed 39 and Fed 51 that I did cite.

    Part of the problem that I am trying to deal with is that people are mixing and matching old (sometimes ancient) usages of these terms with modern ones, without understanding that that is what they are doing, or even doing so consistently.

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  8. Dave Schuler says:

    What other form of tax structure exists that the founders could have intended?

    Well, the system they put in place prevented the federal government from enacting any domestic taxes other than fees and head taxes. We amended the Constitution a little over a century ago to change that. It couldn’t have been done without a constitutional amendment.

    Unfortunately, it’s impossible to have a modern society that includes things like food inspection, monitoring the effectiveness and safety of pharmaceuticals, social insurance (which gives people a lot of freedom they otherwise wouldn’t have), or a large standing army without a progressive income tax which by its nature will take money from some people and give it to others.

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  9. Bithead says:

    Nothing in our Constitution suggests that government is a grantor of rights. Instead, government is a protector of rights.

    I have a small mountain of respect for Doctor Williams, and I always have. But I do have a quibble with this line.

    I suggest rather, that government isn’t the protector of rights… that job is in the constitution… the vast majority of which is written in terms which do nothing but limit the power of government. The founders recognized as does Williams himself, the idea that government is the biggest threat to rights.

    Such as the right to property, vis’a’vie ‘progressive’ taxation.

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  10. sam says:

    The most succinct characterization of what we (strive to) have here is:

    Majority rule and minority rights.

    And:

    the Greek and Roman usage (all inspired by Plato) which conceptualized the idea as rule by the poor that would degenerate into mob rule, and not stable governance

    Of course, Plato had a problem here given his family history…but of that, anon.

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  11. Michael says:

    Well, the system they put in place prevented the federal government from enacting any domestic taxes other than fees and head taxes.

    Yes, but how is that not still “taking money from some and giving it to others”?

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  12. Wayne says:

    Steve that happens with many of words and terms. Once someone\groups creates a new meaning in their mind for a word then that is what it means in their minds. It is a fact of life and we need to accept it to an extent but I think original and historical meaning of words should have relevance.

    The word Democracy is often use today different from what it originally meant. Like any word, as long as everyone is on the same meaning it fine. However some try to twist word by switching meaning. Some try to act like today’s Democracy is a pure one and simple majority rules. Also if you have a representative then you have no cripes on infringement of your rights because majority rules. Simple majority in my opinion isn’t and shouldn’t be our form of government and the many rights of minorities group are just as important as rights of the majority groups.

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  13. PD Shaw says:

    Prof. Taylor: I think the phrase “republic, not a democracy” is used by me and many others in the Madisonian sense of “representative democracy, not a direct democracy.” I’ve taken a few poli sci courses and understand why one turn of the phrase might be more accurate, but I don’t really see anything wrong with Americans using the terms as defined by Madison. (I find it much odder when people quote Anti-federalists or Constitutional critics like Thomas Jefferson to explain the intent of our system)

    It’s also my understanding that Madison used these terms to deflect Platonic criticism of “democracy.” But I don’t find Plato’s critique dated. In Illinois, we’ve had a number of odd issues that reflect on the concern over mob rule. Yes, Blagojevich is Aristotle.

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  14. PD Shaw says:

    Argh, I meant Socrates. Blagojevich is Socrates.

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  15. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    The difference between giving and earning seems to be lost here. Government provides services I as an individual could not afford, however when you take my tax money to loan to an industry who through their own mistakes are unable to operate at a profit or pay someones mortgage who through whatever machanism bought property they could not afford. You are stealing from me. Tea Parties are a sign many of us are just plain tired of this BS. Government is not the solution, it is the problem.

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  16. [...] (Part I and Part II), let me return to the fundamental issue at stake, and respond to a comment at OTB (on a post wherein James addresses my above-linked posts) about my lack of reference to Federalist [...]

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  17. sam says:

    Argh, I meant Socrates. Blagojevich is Socrates.

    That’s one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever read. Did you mean Alcibiades? (Even that would be extraordinary, though in a different way.)

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  18. PD:

    If I thought that what people meant was simply that they wanted to use the language of Madison, I suspect that I wouldn’t give much concern to the semantics of the situation. My guess is that most people who use the phrase really haven’t thought about it.

    Beyond that, the thing that frustrates me, and that inspired the posts, is that people use the phrase as an argument for bizarre things that confirms (to me) that they don’t understand what they are saying. For example: the proximate example would be someone arguing in the Chuck Norris thread on OTB that secession from the union was justifiable on the notion that we are a republic, not a democracy. That makes no sense. Another time, when it was argued (here on OTB and at my place–I forget where the comment itself was) that special elections should be held to fill vacant Senate seats, someone argued that for the constitution to be so amended was problematic because we have a republic, not a democracy. Indeed, over the years I have seen and heard people argue about the relationship between the central government and the states as somehow part of our being a republic–but this is clearly not the case, and Madison is on my side on that one (see Part II of my post) People seem to pour non-Madisonian meanings into the phrase, and that is my main concern.

    If I though people simply meant “we have a representative democracy, not a direct and perfectly majoritarian one” then I wouldn’t be all that bothered by the formulation.

    I will dissent with the notion that the ancient Greek conceptions of democracy really have any resonance today, but I will leave it at that for the moment.

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  19. Michael says:

    I find it much odder when people quote Anti-federalists or Constitutional critics like Thomas Jefferson to explain the intent of our system

    Jefferson was a critic of the Constitution? I thought he and Madison were largely in agreement on these things.

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  20. Grewgills says:

    In the usage I have seen the “republic, not a democracy” is misused even if one takes republic to mean representative democracy and democracy to mean pure democracy. What they seem to mean is constitutionally limited republic, not a pure democracy. The constitution is the break, not the fact that we elect others to represent out will and that is the key point missed by using that phrasing. It is sloppy, but so much commentary is sloppy and words and phrases have a way of loosing their meanings.

    Along this same line a pet peeve of mine is the transformation of “begs the question” into somehow meaning “asks the question” rather than petitio principii. This has gone from being uncommon several years ago to being ubiquitous now.

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  21. Grewgills says:

    What they seem to mean is constitutionally limited republic, not a pure democracy.

    should have read,
    What they seem to mean is a constitutionally limited federal republic, not a pure democracy.

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  22. Michael says:

    Lately I’ve seen “A republic, not a democracy” used to mean “A federal government, not a national government”, often in the case where the speaker is arguing the supremacy of state’s rights, as was the case in the thread that sparked all of this.

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  23. Rick Almeida says:

    I suggest rather, that government isn’t the protector of rights… that job is in the constitution… the vast majority of which is written in terms which do nothing but limit the power of government.

    Bit,

    You should take some time and brush up on your Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, for starters. One essential belief of classical liberalism is that individuals in the state of nature voluntarily give some of the unlimited freedom they have to the State, who is given, through the consent of the governed, the obligation to protect the natural rights of all citizens through coercion.

    You speak of the Constitution like it’s magic piece of paper…what it does, is constitute a government.

    And if you think that the “vast majority” of the Constitution limits the power of government, you should read it again. The vast majority of its text talks about selecting the various officeholders specified therein.

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  24. Lately I’ve seen “A republic, not a democracy” used to mean “A federal government, not a national government”, often in the case where the speaker is arguing the supremacy of state’s rights,

    Yup, that was what sparked the discussion. However, as I have noted several times now, that isn’t what the term “republic” means or ever meant. It isn’t the way that Madison used it–that much is clear.

    Further, since the base meaning of “republic” has to do with popular sovereignty, which makes a linkage to territorial rights (i.e., those of states) all the more problematic.

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  25. Bithead says:

    You speak of the Constitution like it’s magic piece of paper…what it does, is constitute a government.

    A LIMITED government. Again, look at the nature of the document, and what it actually says.

    It’s no accident for example, that you find the word “freedom” in it, exactly once, and it’s a disintegrated shard expressed in an afterthought.

    The word “liberty”, meanwhile, appears three times, first as a rhetorical flourish, and then twice more as afterthoughts, both of them subordinating it to “due process”.

    But why? Because the document was not written to establish government as a protector and arbitor of those rights, rather, it seeks to protect rights by limiting government. Almost the whole of the document addresses that one function; limiting the power of government.

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  26. Grewgills says:

    Almost the whole of the document addresses that one function; limiting the power of government.

    Once again it would be difficult for you to be more wrong. Most of the document lays out the structure of the government.
    The constitution does place limits on government, but to claim that is the bulk of the printed document is obviously false with even a cursory examination.

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  27. While it is certainly true that there are important elements of limited government in the US Constitution, Greg is correct here: it is hardly the main purpose of the document. If what the Founders had wanted was a severely limited central government, they would never have sought to replace the Articles of Confederation in the first place.

    Further, many of the restrictions to governmental power (although not all) were added after ratification (the Bill of Rights). The fact that this was a post hoc action indicates that Bit’s interpretation of the main purpose of the constitution is off base. The convention was concerned primarily with a document to produce a working government, and one that was more powerful than what the Articles gave them, not enshrining specific protections for the governed.

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  28. Bithead says:

    Once again it would be difficult for you to be more wrong. Most of the document lays out the structure of the government.

    And placing limits on it at each step, grew.

    While it is certainly true that there are important elements of limited government in the US Constitution, Greg is correct here: it is hardly the main purpose of the document. If what the Founders had wanted was a severely limited central government, they would never have sought to replace the Articles of Confederation in the first place.

    OTOH, if they hadn’t thought to create a limited government, they’d not have done the BOR, either, the whole of which is limits on government.And yes, I hear ya, steve… If you’ll but recall, the big argument amongst the founders at the time against the BOR was that the constitution itself already placed sufficient limits on governmental power, in it’s very construction.

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  29. sam says:

    @Bit

    OTOH, if they hadn’t thought to create a limited government, they’d not have done the BOR, either, the whole of which is limits on government

    Dude, now you’re arguing their case. It’s just because the original constitution did not
    limit government that some of the colonies balked at ratification until they were given assurances that a bill or rights would be incorporated. Had the BOR been in the constitution from the getgo, you’d be right–it wasn’t and therefore you’re wrong.

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  30. PD Shaw says:

    Prof. Taylor, your complaint is a variation of mine, which is that of taking the Founders’ name in vain. They either ascribe consensus where none existed, or conclusions on issues which were never discussed.

    Folks, there is no “Founders’ consensus” on whether the federal government can levy income taxes. The Constitution essentially prohibits direct taxes, but the term was not defined or publicly understood at the Convention. A delegate asked what it meant, and nobody answered. My view is that each delegate had his own view on what it meant, but was afraid to utter it publicly less it not achieve consensus. They bit their lips to continue the argument for another day. The argument continued until 1895 when the SCOTUS decided it. That is, the courts decided, not the Founders.

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  31. anjin-san says:

    Government provides services I as an individual could not afford

    In other words, you have no problem with benefiting personally from an unfair tax system, but when others derive a benefit you do not agree with, they are thieves. Got it.

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  32. PD Shaw says:

    Beyond that, the thing that frustrates me, and that inspired the posts, is that people use the phrase as an argument for bizarre things that confirms (to me) that they don’t understand what they are saying. For example: … Another time, when it was argued (here on OTB and at my place–I forget where the comment itself was) that special elections should be held to fill vacant Senate seats, someone argued that for the constitution to be so amended was problematic because we have a republic, not a democracy.

    Wait a minute, that was me! Here is the comment:

    The people of most states want their Governor to appoint the replacement. We live in a republic — most of our decision-making is made by authorized representatives. Who better to know how the people of a given state want replacements picked than the people of that state?

    My point was that you could select replacements for Senate either by vote of the people (direct democracy) or by decision of elected officials (representative democracy). My argument was not that only one option is available, but that one is arguably normative.

    I see also that I made an implicit state’s rights argument too, and subsequent commentors emphasized that point. I’m a Lincoln-phile, so my state’s rights soil is quite thin. But I maintain a high threshold for Constitutional amendments.

    Link

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  33. dutchmarbel says:

    As a foreigner I have to confess that this is a very confusing expression. It seems to have all sort of connotations, but for me republic is a state form. China is a republic, Cuba is a republic, the USA is a republic, Switzerland is a republic. It doesn’t say anything about how democratic you are – I think that Switzerland has one of the most direct democracies in the world. We are a monarchy, but we are also a democracy. Dutch republicans are people who want to get rid of the monarchs, but it doesn’t say anything about how limited they think the government should be.

    When an American says ‘Republic, not a democracy’ all I hear is ‘we have a president but our citizens don’t have a say’. Though I agree that the US is not one of the most democratic countries, I would not qualify you as UNdemocratic. So I don’t understand the statement, never understand what it is supposed to express, just have a vague feeling that it is connected with something conservatives like because they are usually the ones saying it.

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  34. Michael says:

    A LIMITED government. Again, look at the nature of the document, and what it actually says.

    Hamilton and Madison spent more time arguing against limiting the federal government in their defense of the Constitution than they spent emphasizing the limits it did place.

    The US Constitution, for it’s time, was a huge expansion of federal power, the argument had to be made that it ought to be expanded and in certain areas unlimited.

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  35. Bithead says:

    Dude, now you’re arguing their case. It’s just because the original constitution did not
    limit government that some of the colonies balked at ratification until they were given assurances that a bill or rights would be incorporated

    (Shake of the head) Look at the notes of the thing; The arguments against the BOR at the time were that the constitution already provided for such, by means of the limits on it. Argue that this was insufficient as you will, the point I’m making is one of intent.

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