America isn't a Democrat, it's a Republican! Er, yeah.
January 17, 2011 1:38 PM   Subscribe

Where did the "America is a republic, not a democracy" argument come from, and how much truth is there to it?

The manifesto put out by these kooks is just the latest example of an idea I've been encountering more and more often: that the United States is not actually a democracy, but a republic.

It's something I've heard before -- usually put forward in a smugly superior/nitpicking sort of way, the same way one might correct someone who uses the phrase "I could care less."

Lately, though, I've been seeing this bit of semantics trotted out in an explicitly political context, almost always by hardcore Tea Party types. Here's just one example, from 2002. It draws a pretty clear semantic distinction between Democrats and Republicans, by contrasting the "mob rule" of small-d democracy unfavorably with the "constitutional conservatism" of small-r republicanism.

My question: where did this idea come from? Was there a pundit or an op-ed that first put forward the politicized version of this argument? Also, in a historical context, how accurate is it? Is the U.S. really not technically a democracy, or is that just a bunch of sophistry?
posted by Rhaomi to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The two terms are not comparable. "Republic" refers to the nature of the relationship between administrative units, while democracy indicates that decision-making is at least ostensibly delegated to the governed themselves. So saying that the US is a republic and not a democracy, presumably because it can't be two things at once or whatever, is incoherent.
posted by clockzero at 1:42 PM on January 17, 2011 [6 favorites]

It's really not an argument, it's a historical technicality. "Democracy" means the Demos (people) ruling, eg, directly passing laws - that is, the government of Athens, in ancient Greece. We don't do that; we instead vote to elect representatives who pass laws on our behalf. You could describe the country as a "democratic republic" or something, but no, it's not a "democracy" in the historical sense that derives the definition of that word from the way Athens was run. A perfectly legitimate response to "This isn't a democracy" is to say "The exact meaning of the word 'democracy' is not exactly the same as it was back in the 1700s, and today we use it to mean any government which is accountable to the People by voting, including those that are representative democracies as well as direct democracies a la Ancient Athens. Language changes."
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:43 PM on January 17, 2011 [16 favorites]

Also, it seems obvious that asserting this distinction privileges GOP republicanism over Democratic party identity in terms of political legitimacy in a way that's entirely sophistic and insubstantial.
posted by clockzero at 1:44 PM on January 17, 2011

The USA is a democratic republic - also known as a representative democracy.

A democracy is rule by citizens. A representative democracy is rule by people the citizens elect.

In the purest sense, no, America is not a democracy - not as it's usually meant.

When Tea Party types harp on this point they are making the mistake of thinking that the labels "Republican" and "Democrat" have a damn thing to do with forms of government - they haven't for a long time, at least not in an amount that matters.


It's something I've heard before -- usually put forward in a smugly superior/nitpicking sort of way, the same way one might correct someone who uses the phrase "I could care less."

Yes, that's pretty much it.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 1:46 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, it seems obvious that asserting this distinction privileges GOP republicanism over Democratic party identity in terms of political legitimacy in a way that's entirely sophistic and insubstantial.

I've heard the "republic, not a democracy" line said many times and I've never heard it used to imply such a point. People generally repeat it for the reasons that Tomorrowful said and not in support of a particular ideology; it's commonly said (often with no real relevance) in response to any any argument from popular support.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 1:47 PM on January 17, 2011

I think the people who make this comparison are comparing America to a Platonic democracy, in which voters vote driectly for laws. Compare this to our idea of a Republic in which voters elect representatives to write laws for us.

I could be wrong, though. It's been a while since I've read Plato.
posted by chicago2penn at 1:49 PM on January 17, 2011

Jefferson's party was the "Democratic Republicans" - both terms apply. The simplest form of democracy is indeed what Plato calls mob-rule, or the tyranny of the majority - that would be if we decided every law based on ballot initiatives. But since we hold certain rights as fundamental, they can't be taken or given away on the basis of majority rule.

So a straight democracy can get too messy if there are no guidelines. But a republic can be ruled by only a certain portion of the population - an aristocratic republic, for instance. So a democratic republic is a good description of what we have.
posted by mdn at 1:50 PM on January 17, 2011

And if you want to get really technical the referendum process in many state and local governments is basically direct democracy.
posted by jedicus at 1:50 PM on January 17, 2011

That argument always grates on me. The two are not mutually exclusive. Although there are multiple definitions for both terms, here's how I see them:

The term democracy describes states that ultimately derive their legitimacy from the will of the people. This can be a direct democracy, as in ancient Athens, or it can be indirect democracy.

The term republic describes states that are not ruled by a monarch, especially if they're democratic.

The notion that democracy means direct rule of the people and republic means indirect rule of the people doesn't match the way those terms are used around the world. Canadians, for example, would certainly be surprised to learn that they live in a republic.
posted by neal at 1:55 PM on January 17, 2011

Best answer: Check the Wikipedia entry on republicanism, especially its section on democracy. It says:
In contemporary usage, the term democracy refers to a government chosen by the people, whether it is direct or representative.[16] The term republic has many different meanings, but today often refers to a representative democracy with an elected head of state, such as a president, serving for a limited term, in contrast to states with a hereditary monarch as a head of state, even if these states also are representative democracies with an elected or appointed head of government such as a prime minister.[17]

The Founding Fathers of the United States rarely praised and often criticized democracy, which in their time tended to specifically mean direct democracy...
Wikipedia cites James Madison in Federalist No. 10 (1787). Here's what Madison said (note that he starts out talking about "pure democracy" and then seems to use "democracy" as a shorthand for "pure democracy"):
a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

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.

The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people. The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter by two obvious considerations:

In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.

In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.

It must be confessed that in this, as in most other cases, there is a mean, on both sides of which inconveniences will be found to lie. By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representatives too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests; as by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects. The federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.

The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic, -- is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it. Does the advantage consist in the substitution of representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice? It will not be denied that the representation of the Union will be most likely to possess these requisite endowments. Does it consist in the greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties, against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest? In an equal degree does the increased variety of parties comprised within the Union, increase this security. Does it, in fine, consist in the greater obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority? Here, again, the extent of the Union gives it the most palpable advantage.

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.
posted by John Cohen at 1:56 PM on January 17, 2011 [6 favorites]

I've seen it also as reference to the defeat of the Republic of Rome (with con favourite Cato at its head) by the populist, but corrupt, Julius Caesar, turning the old Republic into an Empire. In this story, the Republic was a just institution, controlled by the "people" (or at least, the right kind of people) while the Empire became a dictatorship run to appease the mob of the populace, while reserving privilidge and power for the few elect.

It's easy to see how this could be mapped onto the Clinton presidency, for example, as well as the Obama one. It wasn't nearly as popular as story line during Bush II, for some strange reason.
posted by bonehead at 2:10 PM on January 17, 2011

"I pledge allegiance to the flag, and to the republic for which it stands."

The soft definition of a democracy is a govenrment in which majority rules - ie, when a piece of legislation came up, we'd all vote each time. In a republic, we instead vote on people to represent us.

People are often outraged and affronted by the idea that the US is not a democracy. A republic is perfectly fine form of government, however. It isn't inferior to a democracy or anything.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:30 PM on January 17, 2011

Currently, we are a de facto democracy... but technically, we are a hybrid republic.

The House of Representatives was meant to be the only elected body in Congress, and if we still had proportional representation, it would have 10,000 members. The numbers of legislators in the House was frozen at it's current level in 1911. This was the only intended Democracy in the Federal government.

The Senate was originally appointed by the State legislatures, but this was changed by the odious 17th amendment in 1917.

The President was originally selected by electors, which could be chosen via whatever method the individual States chose.

So there you have it - a Democracy, an Oligarchy, and a monarchy, all underpinned by inalienable rights, each insulated against the corrosive effects of the other by checks and balances. Since we have undermined the original plan by making the Senate elected and capping the House at 435 members, at best we have a Democracy and at worst we have an elected Democratic Empire. YMMV. (not a Republican, by the way).
posted by brownrd at 2:36 PM on January 17, 2011

In a republic, we instead vote on people to represent us.

I don't think that's what makes a country a republic. In the United Kingdom, we vote for people to represent us, and we're not a republic. At least, not a republic in modern usage of the term.
posted by plonkee at 2:42 PM on January 17, 2011

Under the Constitution, the U.S. was not intended to be a pure democracy. However, it evolved into more of a democracy over time, as more and more states loosened or abolished property restrictions on voting during the first half of the 19th century. And, as others have pointed out, the presidency was originally meant to be chosen by electors who exercised independent judgment. This, too, evolved into more of a directly democratic process during the first half of the 19th century.

Two good books on this are The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon Wood and The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, by Sean Wilentz.
posted by Tin Man at 2:53 PM on January 17, 2011

where did this idea come from? Was there a pundit or an op-ed that first put forward the politicized version of this argument?


Also, in a historical context, how accurate is it? Is the U.S. really not technically a democracy, or is that just a bunch of sophistry?

It's not a question of historical accuracy. It's just a word whose meaning has shifted. It's not too different from reading the King James Version and thinking that the bit about the Lord taking away people's "round tires like the moon" refers to El Queso Grande coming down to Earth and putting everyone's cars up on blocks.

In 1787, you could say "democracy" and mean "Only that system of government in which all governmental decisions are made directly by the people through voting" and not have people point and laugh.

This is no longer true. In modern English, "democracy" means any system of government where the government is responsive to or accountable to the people through free and fair elections.

If you're speaking modern English, and youare, then the US is a democracy. People in 1787 didn't say that because they spoke an archaic English, not modern English.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:01 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think that's what makes a country a republic. In the United Kingdom, we vote for people to represent us, and we're not a republic. At least, not a republic in modern usage of the term.

One could, quite seriously, argue that the UK is a de facto Republic with largely ceremonial nods to a past Monarchy; certainly it's much more Republican than it is monarchal.
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:02 PM on January 17, 2011

Another thing that's important to note is that "Democracy" and "Republic" are important things to define, for Political Scientists. I have a degree in that stuff, so I care a bit. But it's not like there's a legal difference between them, where if the US is a Democracy then X Y and Z are legal, but if it's a Republic then they're magically forbidden. Republic, democracy, monarchy - these are all words we use to describe actual, real-world political systems, which have their own quirks and properties and traditions and laws. The US is mostly a Democratic Republic except the California initiative system is pure Democracy in the oldest sense. The UK is 95% a Democratic Republic except there's a bit of Monarchy floating around in it still, which is not terribly important to the mechanisms of government but is hugely important for various ceremonial and traditional purposes. Et Cetera. People who nitpick about labels like "democracy" and "republic" are missing the point, which is "how does this system of governing actually work?"
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:33 PM on January 17, 2011 [6 favorites]

I seem to recall someone saying it on Politically Incorrect (perhaps even Bill Maher himself), which would date it to 2002 at the latest.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:45 PM on January 17, 2011

No Tomorrowful, you can't be that loose in your language. The United Kingdom is not a republic.

Nor is Australia. We're pretty obviously a democracy, and we had a huge debate about becoming a republic, and referendum on the matter in 1999, which was defeated. That is an obvious working case demonstrating that a democracy and a republic are two different concepts, and a country can be both, or neither, or one and not the other. Australia remains a federal commonwealth with a constitutional monarchy.
posted by wilful at 4:26 PM on January 17, 2011

No Tomorrowful, you can't be that loose in your language. The United Kingdom is not a republic.

I would still emphatically argue that, while the form of the UK is heavily Monarchial, it functions, in practice, pretty much identically to a democratic republic. In a real monarchy, the monarch exercises actual decision-making and has meaningful non-symbolic/ceremonial powers. I, for one, don't really care about whether it has the word "Kingdom" in its name; I'm looking at day-to-day governing, and I think it's extremely misleading to treat monarchy as a binary value - either is-a-monarchy or is-not. Yes, the UK has some monarchy left in it, but not very much, and it seems ridiculous to me to classify the government of the UK as the same type as in Bhutan.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:27 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

wilful: You can't read too much into a country's name. Conversely it's entirely possible to have a "democratic people's republic" ruled by a hereditary god-king.
posted by hattifattener at 6:43 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Another perspective: I don't think it's so much that the meanings of words have changed (at least not when someone is using them technically rather than colloquially). It's more about what you're defining it in opposition to.

When people say America is a democracy, they generally mean that it's not a monarchy, or autocracy, or whatever--a reminder that "the people" are ultimately the sovereign, and not a commentary on the mechanics of our particular Constitution. Likewise, when someone says America is a republic (especially with "and not a democracy" appended), they mean, as Madison meant, that we have representative government as opposed to referenda on everything (as the notes about Athens, etc., above indicate). Notably, we have some very UNdemocratic institutions, like the Senate and the Electoral College, and people often get miffed about various things because they "always thought" America was a "democracy" when it's not, at least not in that particular way. "Republic, not a democracy" is absolutely true when used to draw this distinction, even if we certainly have a "democracy" in the sense that most people mean it.

Of course, in many cases, people are just being pedantic (to remind you that they took fourth grade civics, I guess).

And while you do get a few, ahem, clever wordsmiths who think they've found some great truth in linguistic coincidence ("Democrats want a democracy! Republicans want a republic! See! Logic!"), I don't think most people who say this phrase intend to "prove" this particular point, which doesn't really make much historical sense anyway. It's not as if either party really wants to change our form of government--when was the last time anybody seriously talked about, say, abolishing the Electoral College or repealing the 17th Amendment? OK, so some people do. But it's not exactly a front-page issue, or even a back-page issue.
posted by SuperNova at 6:45 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tomorrowful, you're being humpty dumpty, declaring that the United Kingdom is a Republic. The UK is as like Bhutan in government as it is the USA!
posted by wilful at 6:50 PM on January 17, 2011

Best answer: I first heard the phrase "America is a republic, not a democracy" from the John Birch Society in the 60s.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:17 PM on January 17, 2011

The UK is as like Bhutan in government as it is the USA!

I think the sheer absurdity of this statement proves Tomorrowful's point. The monarch in the United Kingdom as vast reserve powers, but cannot, and will not, use them. It is, in fact, quite similar to the United States government, in which laws and institutions of government are answerable, but not subject to, the people. Basic rights cannot be voted away, and while office holders are swept aside quite often, there is a very high bar set to actually alter the institutions themselves.

Ireland, which very much is a republic, as a President who performs the exact same functions as the British monarch: a ceremonial head of state with no power. In both nations, the executive power is vested in a Prime Minister, who resembles the American president in powers and duties.

It draws a pretty clear semantic distinction between Democrats and Republicans, by contrasting the "mob rule" of small-d democracy unfavorably with the "constitutional conservatism" of small-r republicanism.

There is absolutely no significance of the party names as far as the political difference between a "Democracy" and a "Republic". None. The Democratic Party grew out of Jefferson's "Democratic Republicans". After the Era of Good Feelings, people from or influenced by Jefferson's faction flocked under Jackson's banner and used the term Democrats to imply they were for the common man. Being a mainly rural coalition, suspicious of the economic power of the more cosmopolitan and industrial cities, it was in many ways a conservative movement. They were quite against expanding the franchise to blacks, women and people who did not own property. Though the Republicans may have taken some inspiration from the Federalists that opposed the original Democratic Republicans, they were really just a reorganization of the moribund Whigs (the more liberal ones, at least). In the early 20th century, Progressive Republicans, after nearly winning over full control of the party, found themselves locked out. Their ideas, and some of their people, would ultimately find a home in the Democratic Party; the modern Democratic Party owes much more to Teddy Roosevelt than the 19th century Democrats.

With a muddled history such as that, you can't draw a straight line connecting the current parties to their precursors, let alone some consistent belief on a rather arcane argument. With the question of how wide the franchise should be settled (all adult citizens), there is no difference between the parties on how "democratic" versus how "republican" the nation should be.
posted by spaltavian at 7:47 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Obscure Reference: "I first heard the phrase "America is a republic, not a democracy" from the John Birch Society in the 60s."

I was thinking this was mainly a Tea Party thing despite that 2002 article I linked to, but this convinced me to trawl through Google News for a bit to see if I could find something even earlier.

From the April 5th, 1961 edition of the Middlesboro Daily News:
Society founder Robert Welch has put the society on the spot by his charge that Dwight D. Eisenhower and others nationally known for their public service are Communists. A supporter of the society might choose to ignore that embarrassing factor, however, to defend the society as a hard-knuckled battler against the Communist conspiracy in the United States.

The society has other appealing aspects. Society mail, for example, usually bears stickers with this legend: "this is a republic, not a democracy— let's keep it that way."
Yikes. So comforting to know that the modern-day Tea Party is cribbing liner notes from the friggin' John Birch Society. I knew they were sort of their spiritual successors, but come on, they're not even trying to differentiate here. I just wish I could open a paper today and see a line like "Glenn Beck has put the Tea Party on the spot by his embarrassing charge that President Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim Communist Hitler."

Anyway, a little more searching shows the sticker mentioned in the article is based on the speech "Republics and Democracies" by JBS founder Robert Welch, which engages in a lot of the Poli Sci 101 fallacies called out here. It looks like it spread from there through the group's mailing stickers to become a perennial fringe-right meme that's only recently been adopted for use in a more partisan way.

Thanks for the thoughts and the leads, everybody!
posted by Rhaomi at 8:35 PM on January 17, 2011

It strikes me that it is also a simple linguistic way to establish legitimacy. If the country is a Republic and not a Democracy then it makes sense for Republicans to be in charge rather than Democrats. Maybe I'm oversimplifying though.
posted by jontyjago at 4:30 AM on January 18, 2011

Response by poster: You were definitely right about that, jontyjago:

Legislature passes bill to teach U.S. is republic
A bill that would ensure Utah students learn the U.S. is a compound constitutional republic — not a democracy — has passed both Houses of the Legislature and is now headed to the governor for his signature.

HB220 would require schools to teach students that the U.S. is a compound constitutional republic and about other forms of government such as pure democracy, monarchy and oligarchy along with political philosophies and economic systems such as socialism, individualism and free-market capitalism. The Senate passed the bill with no dissenting votes Monday.

And on Tuesday, the House agreed to wording changes made in the Senate.

The bill passed after weeks of debate over the differences between democracies and republics and whether socialism is a form of government or a philosophy.

Opponents of the bill argued that the concepts within it are already being taught and that the Legislature shouldn’t get involved in curriculum matters.

But on Monday, Senate floor sponsor Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, said in some states children are being indoctrinated in socialism via some curriculum.
It seems intended to inculcate the idea that democracy is an extra-constitutional socialist violation of the Founding Fathers' values, or something. Flimsy as heck, but now it's Utah law.
posted by Rhaomi at 9:05 AM on March 9, 2011

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