What’s a Republic?
What meanings might the Founders have had? How should we understand the term?
Maybe a way to approach the “a republic, not a democracy” issue to stop talking about democracy for the moment, and shift to defining a republic. While I have done so in passing on multiple occasions I don’t think I have ever dedicated a full post to it.
Part of the fundamental problem of the formulation, “a republic, not a democracy” as deployed in American discourse is the assumption that the term “republic” or “constitutional republic” has a very specific meaning that is uniquely American and detached from the notion of democracy. Those who deploy the term appear to think that it somehow reflects a unique, and near-perfect, American polity than transcends other governmental types.
In truth, I think most people who use the term are really conflating federalism and its influences on institutional design (such as the Senate and the Electoral College) with the term “republic.” I think, too, the vast majority of people who use the phrase have almost no operative knowledge of governments outside the US, at least not in any detail.
Even more broadly, as an interaction in a previous post’s comment section demonstrates, the word has a colloquial connotation that may not really take into account its actual meaning.
An irony is that in the minds of most people, I would suspect that “republic” and “democracy” are largely equivalent terms (despite the stridency of the phrase that inspires this whole discussion).
The oldest usage of significance of which I am aware (and I would not suggest that I have ever fully studied the origins of the term in a systematic way) would be by Plato in his work, The Republic.
In that work, Socrates examines what constitutes justice and, by extension, a just regime. He discusses, as I have noted in other posts, the tension between governing in the private interest of the ruler versus governing in the public interest of the ruled. In simple terms, the republic is governing in the res publica or the common interest.
In The Republic, Plato outlines five regime types, in order from best to worst, with each a degeneration of the one prior.
- Aristocracy: rule by the best, i.e., the rational (selectively bred philosopher class)
- Timocracy: rule by the spirited (the warrior class)
- Oligarchy: rule by the wealthy
- Democracy: rule by the poor
- Tyranny: rule by a despot
It is extremely important to understand that these terms are linked to very specific meanings that do not fully reflect modern usage. The entire discussion is one that revolves around the three parts of the soul: the rational, the spirited/passionate, and the appetite. It makes assumptions about how some humans are dominated by different parts of the soul, and that that dictates their place in society.
The best regime in this typology was the one in which the rulers were those whose souls were dominated by the rational, i.e., philosophers (lovers of truth). The philosopher-kings were identified young and trained up to govern and bred by matching the rationally dominated citizens to each other to produce rational children. It was not to be a set of families, but an ever-rotating task of identification, breeding, and training.
When this system failed, the wrong people might make it into the governing class, those dominated not by reason, but by passion. This would lead to a lot of war to seek further glory. This cycle would lead to more degeneration as appetite crept in.
As such, when the spirited rulers started to be outnumbered by those with appetites for riches (oligarchs) the regime would degenerate from timocracy to oligarchy. Then, the jealousy of the poor masses would lead to the tearing down of the wealthy, and hence democracy (as they hungered for the material wealth of the oligarchs). The chaos of democracy would lead to the need for a despot to enforce order.
Basically: a focus in the rational would be replcaed by passion, then by varying appetites, before birthing a tyranny.
When Americans of the founding era decry “democracy” they are decrying mob rule by the poor as described by Plato (as well as by Aristotle and the Roman Polybius, who borrowed heavily from Aristotle).
But, I would note, Plato’s republic, a regime governed by a philosopher-king in the public interest, is by no means anything like what contemporary Americans think of when they hear the term “republic.” Nor does it bear any resemblance to modern constitutionalism (as defined by the late 18th-century onward).
Indeed, Plato’s republic is clearly authoritarian. It places power in the hands of the few. Its purpose is bringing a just regime that would allow for human flourishing and the good life, but through selective breeding, coercion, and the propagation of an official story to convince everyone to participate. It has a rigid class structure that is enforced by sometimes taking the children of one class and moving them into another. Indeed, the children of the upper class are raised in common so that no one knows whose child is theirs. And the ruling class is not allowed to accumulate wealth.
The Greeks and Romans influenced the founders to see “democracy” as either direct democracy (as the Athenians described it) or as mob rule by the poor (and both Plato and Aristotle described it). Neither has much to do with what developed as democratic governance in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The part that the Founders appear to have taken away from Plato regarding a “republic” was the notion of governing in the common good. They also took away some of the elitism wherein the wealthy and educated had a duty to govern, and should volunteer to do so.
I would note that trying to make one-to-one connections between the way the ancients used these terms and the way they are used now is problematic.
It is also worth noting that the US founding generation were living at a time of crossroads between older ways of thinking and new ways, especially about politics.
A more direct place the Founders would have understood the term “republic” would have been within the realm of a regime without a king or hereditary nobility.
This was the meaning in the Roman Republic, which began after the Romans did away with their monarchy and peristed until the time it became an Empire with an Emperor.
Note, for example, that after the French Revolution, the French went through a series of republics (it is currently in the Fifth Republic, which started with the 1958 constitution).
Both the United States of America and France adopted a lot of Roman symbology after their respective revolutions in the 1700s as a call back to what was seen as the last great republic. After all, the Americans had managed unilateral independence from their king, and the French beheaded theirs.
Keep in mind that almost all governments at the time were based on some sort of hereditary rule and so the distinction were pretty dramatic (hence, Franklin’s famous quip about “a republic, if you can keep it”–as the threat of being takne over by one of the monarchies of Europe was a real one in 1789).
Hence, in Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution, we see the following: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government”–this is a guarantee of no monarchy and no aristocracy to go along with Article I, Section 9:
No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.
Indeed, part of the reason the president has to be a “natural born citizen” is to stop the possibility of someone of European aristocratic descent migrating to the US and then seeking the presidency.
I would note that the main way the system was “republican” was that all officies in government had some connection to popular elections, even the ones that were appointed. The Senate, for example, were appointed by state legislatures which were elected by the people of the states. (See Madison and Federalist 39 for example).
Some other passing examples. Why is the independent country the Republic of Ireland called that? Upon gaining its independence from the United Kingdom, it was able to rule itself without a monarchy. The Irish separatist group, the IRA, stands for Irish Republican Army. They called themselves that because that wanted a republic, i.e., a government without a king.
Likewise, when the Spanish colonies of Latin America fought for independence in the early 1800s, they all became republics as soon as they stopped being under Spanish rule. I would note that while some tried to apply some of the trappings of democratic governance, they really were mostly oligarchies as best, but still republics. Some became pretty significantly authoritarian, but were still republics.
Brazil, for those scoring at home, did not become a republic at independence but eventually ousted its monarchy in 1889.
It is worth noting that the United Kingdom is a monarchy, as its head of state is a hereditary ruler. However, it is also a democracy, since its government is elected by the people. Other examples include Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Spain. For that matter, Queen Elizabeth II is also the Queen of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
One last thought, a republic need not been an especially liberal regime. I know that those of us who grew up in the Cold War likely heard people mock the fact that the USSR stood for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or that the PRC is the People’s Republic of China. Surely that was just propaganda aimed at making those regimes sound better than they were, yes?
In simple terms, let’s note the following: the USSR was founded as the result of a revolution that overthrew a hereditary ruler. The PRC was established as the result of a revolution that overthrew a hereditary ruler. Further, the Islamic Republic of Iran overthrew a hereditary monarch to establish a theocratic regime. Note that all held firm to ideologies that claim to derive their power from the people. Indeed, since all three are examples of popular revolutions, they had an objective reason to make that claim at their origins.
In terms of the basic definition of a republic as a form of government that does not rely on a hereditary nobility to govern, but derives its power from the people, calling these countries republics is appropriate.
Now, can we criticize these regimes for how they treat their own people? Yes. Can we call into question the degree to which the governments establised by their respective revolutions still take into account the consent of the governed? Yes.
But, of course, even if their origins are republican, they are not democracies.
Indeed, part of my political sciences doesn’t talk about “republics” all that much is because “republic” is not a regime type. It is a descriptor that tells us whether a country has hereditary rulers or not. But it tells us nothing about how that country is governed. It tells us nothing about the power of those hereditary rulers nor about how much input the people actually have.
Rather, political science focuses on whether regimes are democratic or non-democratic (i.e., authoritarian). Now there are a number of institutional variations in democracies (e.g., Is the head of state an elected president, an appointed president, or a monarch? How is the head of government chosen?) and of authoritarian regimes (e.g., single-party rule, personalistic dictator, military regime, theocracy, etc.).
Indeed, of the various reasons “a republic, not a democracy” drives political scientists crazy, is because the dichotomy makes no sense. First, this is comparing an element of a regime type (republicanism) with a regime type (democracy). Second, they are not mutually exclusive categories.
But, to be clear, the main objection is that the formulation is ultimately nonsensical. (And if people want to defend things like the Electoral College, then do so, and cease this hand-waving).
Aside from the laudable goal (I think at least) of linguistic clarity, the real issue should be what is that if calling America a “republic, and not a democracy” is an excuse for minority rule, then that’s a problem (and is a rejection of democracy, broadly defined)?
From both a theoretical point-of-view and a normative one (i.e., a values based assessment), I find that problematic.
And to be clear, as some seem to be missing this point: minority rule means a governmental system wherein the numeric minority has more power than the majority. The fact that Donald Trump is president, and able to appoint members to the Supreme Court is an example of minority rule because he came to office with less support than his competitor. Stating that it is that way because the US is “a republic, not a democracy” doesn’t change that fact, nor does it provide an argument in defense.
The fact that Senate seats are allocated in a way that a minority of citizens control a majority of votes is an example of minority rule.
The fact it is possible for the national vote for the House to go to one party, but for the majority of seats to go to the other, is an example of minority rule.
The fact that Wisconsin is so gerrymandered that the state legislature is dominated by the party that got fewer votes is an example of minority rule.
In all of these cases, the power to make binding governmental decisions is made by individuals or groups that have less support than the individual or group out of power. That is problematic, especially since it seems to be a growing phenomenon.
Stating that all of that is ok, because “we have a republic, not a democracy” is a dodge at best.
And, to conclude: allowing for minority rights (free speech, freedom to worship, etc) is not minority rule. It is an acknowledgment that some rights transcend majority preferences. It is both separate from the question of who governs at a specific moment in time as well as being an essential part of democratic governance.