Because we Need another “Republic v. Democracy” Post

But just to mix things up, I won’t write it, but will instead link to Eugene Volokh in WaPo:  The United States is both a ‘republic’ and a ‘democracy’ — because ‘democracy’ is like ‘cash’

I often hear people argue (often quite militantly) that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. But that’s a false dichotomy. A common definition of “republic” is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, “A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them” — we are that. A common definition of “democracy” is, “Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives” — we are that, too.

The United States is not a direct democracy, in the sense of a country in which laws (and other government decisions) are made predominantly by majority vote. Some lawmaking is done this way, on the state and local levels, but it’s only a tiny fraction of all lawmaking. But we are a representative democracy, which is a form of democracy.

More at the link (and indeed, about the militant nature of proclamations on this topic).

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. James Joyner says:

    I haven’t used the “Republic, not a democracy” argument in years. When I did, though, I meant something specific: That our system is not one of majority rule but rather one in which there are all manner of checks on the majority: a Bill of Rights, checks and balances, and various manifestations of federalism including the Senate and the Electoral College. I’ve quit using the phrase both because others seem to mean something very different than that and because I’ve grown less enamored over time with federalism.

  2. Kylopod says:

    Volokh does a good job of debunking the common “republic vs. democracy” argument and clarifying what these terms have actually meant both historically and today. Earlier, I compared people who insist that “The US is a republic, not a democracy” to people who correct split infinitives. It’s something people say when they want to sound smarter than everyone else when in reality all they’re doing is parroting a questionable bit of received wisdom they picked up in 3rd grade.

    One point I’d add is that even the simplistic schoolroom definition doesn’t make for a very good argument in support of the Electoral College. The EC originally was an attempt to put the choice of president almost entirely in the hands of elites, but it never ended up functioning that way in practice, and its primary effect of magnifying the power of small states has got pretty much zero to do with any version of the democracy-republic distinction. The argument basically uses “republic” as a stand-in for “federalism” and then incorrectly assumes something like the EC is a necessary component of the latter simply because the Founders happened to design it that way.

  3. Jim Schultz says:

    Republic v. Democracy is always good for some spirited discussion. But I don’t think that the 3rd grade definitions quite make it for most adults. If you examine closely what the Founders did with the Constitution, you’ll see they constructed a government to benefit people, not rulers or aristocracy, as that was something they were fighting against. The word republic, derived from the Latin res publica, or “public thing,” refers to a form of government where the citizens conduct their affairs for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of a ruler. Historically republics have not always been democratic in character, however. For example, the ancient Republic of Venice was ruled by an aristocratic elite.

    You can discern Founder’s intent from the Constitution itself. Article IV, Section 4, states “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government….” Though the language was vague, the authors of the Constitution clearly intended to prevent the rise to power of either a monarchy or a hereditary aristocracy. Article I, Section 9, states, “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States,” and most state constitutions have similar provisions.

    Given the starting point of disabling any potential for a monarch or aristocracy, they made the rest up as they went along. But they followed the guidelines developed in representative rule already in force in most of the colonies, adding to it when necessary, e.g. The 3/5th Compromise, the Electoral College, etc. Given all this, I can accept that we’re a democratic republic.

    I lifted a lot of this from . It’s an excellent post that speaks directly to this argument.