Republicanism and Madison

As long term readers know, I have written on several occasions (e.g., here and here) about the “republic not a democracy” claim that some in contemporary politics like to make.

Part of my problem with said assertions is that they usually are made in a way that shows a lack of understanding of semantics, history, and theory.  Further, the phrase is typically deployed in way that 1) makes the two terms represent two different regime types (which is simply an incorrect assertion) and 2) supposedly tells us something about contemporary governance (usually something along the lines of why majority sentiment can be ignored).

Along those lines, I give you James Madison, from Vices of the Political System of the United States (written in April, 1787):  “In republican Government the majority however composed, ultimately give the laws.”

Now, one has to readily grant that because of the limited suffrage of the day, Madison was clearly not talking about a majority of all inhabitants.  However, he is clearly equating (and does elsewhere in the piece as well) “republican government” with “majority rule” of the electorate.

Just something to keep in mind when making the claim that “the US is a republic, not a democracy.”

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Political Theory, 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. dr says:

    Obviously, despite their choice of terminology the distinction being reached for is between direct democracy and representative democracy. Obviously, you have the training to understand that distinction. Obviously, you have the ability to interpret your interlocutors charitably.

    So what is the point of this (series of) post(s)?

  2. @dr:

    So what is the point of this (series of) post(s)?

    Oh, there are multiple points/motivations.

    1) My basic rule of blogging is “I blog what it occurs to me to blog, more I cannot blog” (and like most writers I write for myself as much as anyone else–call it the Ricky Nelson rule).

    2) The political point is that most people who deploy the “republic, not a democracy” are not, in fact, making the distinction between direct and representative variants, but instead are making claims about majority rule.

  3. Ben Wolf says:

    @dr: “Democracy” in the modern usage encompasses all forms of rule by the people. So unless it is that which you oppose (which I strongly suspect), you continued attempt to draw an arbitrary line between democracy and republican forms of government is nothing more than a fierce cry for other people to give you uneeded attention.

  4. WR says:

    The first rule of Republicanism: When they have the majority, elections have consequences. When the majority turns against them, we are a republic, not a democracy.

    Shorter version: Heads I win, tails you lose.

  5. dr says:

    @Ben Wolf: you are an idiot

  6. dr says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yes, they are making claims about majority rule. Moreover, those claims are confused. They are trying to say majority rule=direct democracy, and to generate conclusions from that. All of this is obvious. My point is that rather than trying to untangle that confusion, you’ve written a gotcha post. Congratulations! You know more about your field than amateurs.

  7. @dr:


    1) What ‘they” mean is amorphous. Having argued with any number of “them” over the years, I can attest that your characterization of “them” is not accurate for at least a subset thereof.


    2) So, is you basic point that I posted something that is correct and demonstrates some level of expertise and you find this offensive? Just curious.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I find your expertise offensive. Factual information pisses me off.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    @michael reynolds:

    You’re in luck! You won’t find a great deal of it in the blogosphere.

  10. Trumwill says:

    You are, of course, semantically correct (though I do believe we would be better served we had a word that meant what some people mean when they say “republic”).

    Also worth mentioning is that the will of the majority was and is not only counted by counting people individually, but by counting states individually as well. And that our system, democratic though it may be, put more constraints on majoritarian rule than a lot of other democracies.

    I have no problem saying we live in a democracy, because we do. So long as we are not following that up by saying “But our democracy isn’t right because it has these undemocratic provisions.” Because, perhaps, ours was not intended to be a “right” democracy.

    Which brings us back to semantics. We need a word for what it is supposed to be. It’s a pity that word isn’t “republic,” which is kind of superfluous anyway in its actual meaning.

  11. @Trumwill:

    Well, it is possible for the US to be a democracy and have undemocratic elements within its institutional structure. The problem is that a lot of people seem to think that that is what makes it a “republic” (which, as noted, it does not).

    And, btw, the fact that there are undemocratic elements (and that some were even intended) does not mean that one cannot criticize them. Why should it?

    That is, I would argue, far more than just an argument about semantics.

  12. @michael reynolds: I think that there is a market for a t-shirt emblazoned with that slogan.

  13. dr says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: My basic point is that you posted something just to say ‘nyah, nyah, I’m smarter than you are!’

  14. @dr: I repeat: “So, is you basic point that I posted something that is correct and demonstrates some level of expertise and you find this offensive?”

    Fair enough, I guess.

  15. Trumwill says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: There’s no problem with criticizing the undemocratic elements. It does seem… circular to me… to criticize something undemocratic for being undemocratic and then using the fact that we are democratic against the argument that our system is in places deliberately undemocratic.

    So we are a democracy. Except where we aren’t. In which case we are failing democracy. But to point out the intended limits to our democracy is to deny that we are a democracy, which is absurd. We are a democracy. Except where we aren’t. In which case…

    Keep in mind, I am not arguing the semantics with you. You are quite right on that. But you’re seeming to use the semantics to advance a larger position. I think you know what people mean when they use the incorrect words. Indeed, the second part of your argument is dedicated to the notion Madison was a majoritarian. Which maybe he was. But our system is not democratic-majoritarian, nor was it intended to be. That is not changed by the fact that people use the wrong words in trying to express this sentiment.

  16. @Trumwill:

    But you’re seeming to use the semantics to advance a larger position

    Actually, no. The issue about word usage is based in my fundamental belief that we (in a generic sense) can never have a real conversation if we don’t understand what we are talking about.

    I do have, ultimately, larger issues that I would like to discuss, yes, but the argument over concepts is an end in and of itself.

    And I do believe that a lot of people are not just using the wrong word, but also poorly understand what they think they are expressing (like the typical conflation of federalism into republicanism, which is simply incorrect).

  17. mantis says:

    dr “obviously” – 09:50 am:

    @Ben Wolf: you are an idiot

    dr “obviously” – 09:08 pm:

    @Steven L. Taylor: My basic point is that you posted something just to say ‘nyah, nyah, I’m smarter than you are!’

  18. Trumwill says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: to me, it’s the focus on the semantics that is far more distracting than the incorrect use of terminology.

    It is rather difficult, to me, to separate the issue of terminology from the larger discussion because the vast majority of the time I hear that phrase uttered, it’s in a specific conversation about the will of the majority being ignored or scuttled.

    With rare exception, the phrase means “We don’t live in the sort of democracy where the majority gets what they want, we live in a federal republic (when the discussion is the Senate, the EC, and related issues) or an indirect democracy that purposefully put barriers between the citizenry and policy (when discussing the filibuster*, or congress failing to pass popular legislation or passing unpopular legislation**).”

    * – Which, of course, the Founding Fathers had nothing to do with. Someone holding up the founding fathers in defense of the filibuster does need a history lesson, for sure.

    ** – The last time I heard this phrase, actually, was when a conservative posted on Facebook “So much for democracy” when PPACA passed, and a liberal said it in response. This is not to suggest that both sides use the phrase in anything approaching parity, but it is a convenient argument when defending unpopular actions by legislators and/or the President. For various reasons, the argument occurs to conservatives more easily (albeit not exclusively).

  19. @Trumwill: Part of the fundamental problem is a lack of understanding of basic terms and concepts, including federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, bicameralism, and the rules of the chambers (not to mention confusion over whether the Founder’s were of one mind on much of anything, save the very basics as well as the fact that practice and court cases have changed a great deal about our institutions over time).

    It is my experience that the dispute (that, again, I would argue goes well beyond simple semantics) over republic/democracy is reflective of a host of misunderstandings and I think that dis-aggregating the conceptual knot that the debate creates is a useful goal.