More on “A Republic, not a Democracy”

For a change not by me.

Longtime (and perhaps short-time) readers are aware of my fondness for the phrase “we have a republic, not a democracy.” And by “fondness” I mean an increasing inability to read the phrase without my skin crawling at least a little (and certainly an inability to keep quiet if the phrase appears in my proximity). Indeed, I have spilled so many electrons on the subject, there is a meta-post that contains all the links: The “A Republic, not a Democracy” Library.

Instead of listening to me, let me refer you two pieces I read this week that echo and add to my normal attempts to note both the generally vapid aspects of the formulation in question, as well as to point out how Madison used the terms in the Federalist Papers.

First we have, NYT columnist Jamelle Bouie: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Understands Democracy Better Than Republicans Do.

A good bit of the piece is a re-iteration of numerous things I have pointed out about Madison. For example, Bouie correctly notes:

When James Madison critiqued “democracy” in Federalist No. 10, he meant the Athenian sort: “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.” This he contrasted with a “republic” or “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place.” Likewise, in a 1788 speech to the New York ratification convention, Alexander Hamilton disavowed “the ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated.” They “never possessed one good feature of government,” he said. “Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.”

In more modern terms, the founders feared “direct democracy” and accounted for its dangers with a system of “representative democracy.” Yes, this “republic” had counter-majoritarian aspects, like equal representation of states in the Senate, the presidential veto and the Supreme Court. But it was not designed for minority rule.

Indeed. You know, minority rule: when the candidate with less popular support and less votes gets to be president. That wasn’t what the Framers were after.

At any rate, the more interesting part of the column is the portion which gives a partial origin story of the phrase “a republic, not a democracy”:

Nicole Hemmer, a historian of American politics and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics,” traces it to the 1930s and 40s. “When Franklin Roosevelt made defending democracy a core component of his argument for preparing for, and then intervening in, the war in Europe, opponents of U.S. intervention began to push back by arguing that the U.S. was not, in fact, a democracy,” she wrote in an email.

One Roosevelt opponent, for example — Boake Carter, a newspaper columnist who supported the America First Committee (which opposed American entry into World War II) — wrote a column in October 1940 called “A Republic Not a Democracy,” in which he strongly rebuked the president for using the word “democracy” to describe the country. “The United States was never a democracy, isn’t a democracy, and I hope it will never be a democracy,” Carter wrote.

The term went from conservative complaint to right-wing slogan in the 1960s, when Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, used it in a September 1961 speech, “Republics and Democracies.” In a democracy, Welch protested, “there is a centralization of governmental power in a simple majority. And that, visibly, is the system of government which the enemies of our republic are seeking to impose on us today.”
“This is a Republic, not a Democracy,” Welch said in conclusion, “Let’s keep it that way!”

These origins are important. If there’s substance behind “We’re a republic, not a democracy,” it’s not as a description of American government. There’s really no difference, in the present, between a “republic” and a “democracy”: Both connote systems of representation in which sovereignty and authority derive from the public at large.

The point of the slogan isn’t to describe who we are, but to claim and co-opt the founding for right-wing politics — to naturalize political inequality and make it the proper order of things. What lies behind that quip, in other words, is an impulse against democratic representation. It is part and parcel of the drive to make American government a closed domain for a select, privileged few.

This all extremely important. The phrase encapsulates a pseudo-intellectual attempt to justify defying popular sentiment because a privileged minority might lose some level of influence. It is counter to the spirit of government of, by, and for the people.

Another essay worth nothing is by Political Scientist Ed Burmila: wE’rE a rEPuBLiC nOt A dEMoCRacY at The Baffler.

Burmila correctly notes the main reason most seem to use the phrase:

in the most common scenario, it is simply a way to create the appearance of having said something profound while saying nothing at all.

In the end, invoking republicanism is little more than a way out for the many Americans who honestly think they support government Of, By, and For the People but are perfectly happy with undemocratic processes that produce the outcomes they want.

Indeed.

He also goes to Madison:

To declare that America is “not a democracy” is as useful as pointing out that it is not a monarchy, or that the Pope wears a funny hat.
That Madison’s own definition of a republic directly invokes democratic processes—“a small number of citizens elected by the rest“—makes it sufficiently clear to word-understanders that there was no hard line drawn between republican and democratic principles as an either/or. The nation would be a republic, but a democratic republic. The Constitution gave powers to state legislatures, elected by the people, including the selection of electors who would choose the president. House members were elected directly. Open-ended powers like the Necessary & Proper Clause and the amendment process created the possibility for democratic participation to be expanded—and it was, slowly.

Yup.

Both pieces are worth reading in full.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. 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

Comments

  1. Teve says:

    First we have, NYT columnist Jamelle Bouie: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Understands Democracy Better Than Republicans Do.

    I follow both of them on Twitter but i’ve stopped reading the comments on both of their feeds because of way too many studious, well informed missives like “Were a Republic not a Democracy U Dum Skank.” And “Typical Affirmitive Action Hire by the New York Slimes!!!1” etc.

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  2. Gustopher says:

    “He’s an ephebophile, not a pedophile…”

    Technically true and more accurate, but a distinction without a difference.

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  3. Kathy says:

    You know what many, if not the vast majority, of originalists all too often miss, and don’t seem to even realize? Context.

    There were very few democracies or republics in the late XVIII Century. Wikipedia provides a list of early modern republics. Contrast to today.

    The big model to use, ironically, was Great Britain, a constitutional monarchy.

    Going further back, the term “Republic” comes from the Latin phrase “The people’s concern/affair,” or “The public concern/affair.” Democracy, as is well known, is Greek for “Rule by the people.” The two terms are in no way mutually exclusive. I like to say that “Respublica” was what the Romans called their “Demokratia.” The Romans had plenty of elected offices, and the assemblies voted on laws.

    Of late, many on the right assume “democracy” stands for unlimited majority rule. you know, “if 51% voted to enslave the other 49%” etc. Which completely negates standing institutions, separation of powers, the rule of law, etc.

    Lastly, many countries have styled themselves “republics” while not having even a token kind of democracy. Just contemplate the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the People’s Republic of China.

    These two, and many others, were/are republics and not democracies.

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  4. Stormy Dragon says:

    The problem is that you’re basically arguing with a parrot about whether cookies are better than crackers.

    People who say “We have a republic, not a democracy” have no idea what those sounds actually mean, they’ve just been trained to repeat them, and they get agitated when it makes you start yelling at them instead of giving them the treat they’ve come to expect as a reward for the behaviour.

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  5. Teve says:

    If some doofus dingbat is repeating creationist nonsense at you, you can direct them to the index of creationist claims.

    If the idiot is repeating global warming denial nonsense to you, you can direct them to skeptical science’s list of the common 197 bogus claims.

    We need a similar catalog for dumb political arguments.

  6. Hal_10000 says:

    Of course, direct democracy has now given us Brexit. My understanding of the “Republic not a Democracy” thing has always been about the Bill of Right and Separation of Powers insulating us from the very real dangers of mob rule. I don’t think it can be stretched toward some of things the GOP is currently doing.

  7. charon says:

    In the context of the common modern understanding of those terms, U.S. is both republic and democracy.

    The only people who, out of the blue, assert U.S. is republic not democracy are conservatives. The context is always an assertion that some identifiable group(s) or class(es) should continue to be disadvantaged.

    Just as one minor example, two senators per state is a circumstance conservatives will defend until the last dog dies.

    The instant someone says that, they have lost all credibility afaic.

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  8. Tyrell says:

    September 11: America is invaded for the first and only time. The year: 1812. Thus began one of the strangest and least known of America’s wars. Few adults could give even basic facts about this war, including any of the causes and issues. The War of 1812 is ignored or given short shrift in school social studies. Yet it was a major turning point in this country becoming a nation.
    “The major issue* was settled before the war began. The largest battle was fought after the war was over” (PBS)
    The British army went on a fire setting frenzy up and down the eastern US.
    President Monroe and his wife Dolly rallied an amazing group of people to bravely resist the British juggernaut and save this country from total destruction.
    Andrew Jackson assembled a motley crew of Tennessee backwoodsmen, pirates, criminals, and citizens of New Orleans to fight and defeat the British army in one of the most amazing victories in military history.
    *impressment. Few people outside of historians would have any idea what that word means.
    Watch: “First Invasion” (PBS)

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  9. Kari Q says:

    @Teve:

    I was thinking that “Republic not a democracy” and “just a theory” are essentially identical. No one who says them understands the topic. Any attempt to engage them would require extensive education and explanation (which they will disregard any way) before you could actually begin the conversation. It’s almost never worth engaging them.

  10. Teve says:

    @Kari Q: “Evolution is just a theory” is a Conversation Ender.

    It’s on the same knowledge level as “oh yeah well if we came from monkeys…”

    🙂

  11. charon says:

    @Kari Q:

    No one who says them understands the topic.

    No, not true. Someone who says

    “Republic not a democracy”

    is likely disingenuous, deliberately misleading. Likely understands just fine.

    It’s almost never worth engaging them.

    That is true, such people are generally unreachable.

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  12. Mister Bluster says:

    Evolution is just a theory.

    My response to that is always:
    Genesis isn’t even a theory. It’s a fairy tale.

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @charon:

    is likely disingenuous, deliberately misleading. Likely understands just fine.

    Not in my experience. When I ask them if they know the difference they stumble and stutter. When I ask them if they can define them, they mangle it well beyond any semblance of their true meaning. These are by and large people who uncritically hear shit on FOX news and then incoherently regurgitate the bits and pieces they are able to recall.

  14. charon says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    My RWNJ sibling mailed me this link:

    https://thefederalist.com/2019/08/21/no-america-wasnt-built-slavery-faith-men-created-equal/

    I presume someone clever enough to write a screed for the Federalist understands what he wrote here:

    ” … Forgiving the fact that America is not a democracy but a constitutional republic … “

    This was my comment to him on that piece:

    As soon as I encounter these words, the author’s credibility vanishes completely (for me, obviously they seem valid to Conservatives such as you). But, I will humor you by continuing to read.

  15. Polkem says:

    We have a democratic-republic. Move on.

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  16. de stijl says:

    @Polkem:

    And since our representatives are elected by popular vote, we have a People’s Democratic Republic.