Question: Is the United States a Democracy or a Republic?

Question: Is the United States a Democracy or a Republic? July 1, 2013

Answer: Yes.


"If I am only now scaring you, I need to bring my A game. :-)"

Holding Hands During the Our Father: ..."
"I've lived through this in another direction: a pastor who hectored his congregation to join ..."

Holding Hands During the Our Father: ..."
"Given what some of the Father of the Church said (I am thinking it was ..."

Holding Hands During the Our Father: ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • kurt

    For me, it is neither.

    • Can you say more about that, Kurt?

      • kurt

        I don’t live under the criteria doc fox cites. I am not in jail and don’t think I am mentally impaired (others can give their opinions) yet I do not elect those who make my laws in Congress.

  • Doc Fox

    The United States is a Democratic Republic, by which we mean that

    1) the elections occur with popular voting in theory by all the adult people not civilly impaired by mental problems or being in jail — therein the Democratic; and

    2) the members of Congress are representatives of the people who voted in the election by which they were chosen — therein the Republic.

    Were we a democracy, per se, then all issue would be resolved by direct vote of all the people.

    Were we a Republic, but not a Democratic one, the members of Congress might be directly appointed each to speak for a designated state or district, either by the Executive (welcome to Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia), or by the designated choosers, such as what campaign finance almost means, directly by the heavy contributors (formal Fascism).

    • Floridian

      Actually, the direct election of senators was a huge mistake that destroyed the whole “architecture” of federalism and checks-and-balances,

      • How did the direct election of Senators destroy the architecture of federalism and checks and balances, in your view?

        • Floridian

          The whole point of the Senate was to give States qua States a voice in the Federal government. That’s why each State has equal representation there. The House of Representatives belongs to the People, and as such is apportioned by population, but the Senate was to belong to the States as such.

          Now as things stand, the State governments as such have no voice in the federal government. That sort of “vertical” integration is destroyed. There is no more “vertical” integration in the structure of the US government. This has led to State governments becoming more irrelevant, largely just administrative units beneath the Federal government.

          Furthermore, by not having state legislatures appoint Senators, the House and Senate have essentially the same constituencies. Besides making bicameralism thus redundant, it also opens Senators to the same sort of special interests that House members are subject to. When you add the “extra step” of state legislators between the people and the Senators, the Senators wouldn’t need to compete in big elections (because they’d be competing for ~200 votes instead of hundreds of thousands; such a small constituency doesn’t require campaign funding, etc). Sure, State legislatures are corrupt, but the fear then, at least, would be Senators trying to buy a seat, not special interests trying to buy the Senators.

          And State legislators could appoint Senators somewhat against the will of the people (for the better) without fearing loss of their own seat (since it is only one vote and people are unlikely to make their decision for state representatives based on that one thing), and likewise Senators wouldn’t have to worry about losing their seat as easily. This would insulate them from the pressure of zeitgeists, which is also why the senators have 6 instead of 2 year terms.

          But the biggest thing is that there is no longer a voice for the State governments within the federal government and the loss of vertical integration now in federalism. Along with the income tax and the downright ignoring of the 10th Amendment (which Supreme Court interpretations have rendered apparently meaningless), the Constitution’s genius has essential been set off kilter.

  • In the strict sense, the U.S. is certainly not a democracy of any sort: our federal structure is oligarchical and monarchical and our method of choosing leaders, elections, is oligarchical (the way of choosing leaders associated with actual democracies is lottery, not elections, because one only has a democratic method of choosing one’s leaders if all citizens in good standing are equally eligible, which an election system makes impossible). As Plato and Aristotle both pointed out, electoral systems are ways of limiting, not extending, democracy, because they guarantee that the people in power will be people who are wealthy, or people who have connections to people who are wealthy. Republics historically are supposed to be mixed governments, preserving gradations of rank while holding the ranks accountable to the common weal, which is why they are also called commonwealths; the U.S. government was constructed to be such a government, and the only ‘democratic’ feature is that it officially recognizes the common good as being that of all citizens. The only way I think one can argue otherwise is by a sort of Jeffersonian view in which the primary form of government is self-government, and the U.S. government is itself just a supplementary structure; but we don’t currently live in a very Jeffersonian version of the United States.

    If we’re using the words in other senses, I think we’d need to be much more clear about what the senses were.

    • Brandon – aren’t elections an expression of Democracy, at least in theory?

      I agree that the way our system operates has (especially currently) oligarchical features. It is deeply (perhaps fatally) corrupt.

      I hope I’m wrong about that “fatal” part; if I’m right, history suggests that we are one or two crises away from (literal) blood running in the streets.

      I would say that our system is de jure a representative democracy, and de facto a deeply corrupt oligarchy. Democracy (that is, people informing themselves and being actively engaged in voting for leaders who will represent their interests) is the only non-violent antidote to elitism and oligarchy.

      One tool used by oligarchies everywhere to maintain their power is despair – constantly reinforce the notion that, while it’s unfair that Wall Street and Torture-regime-establishers go un-prosecuted, well, that’s just how the world is and what are ya gonna do?

      There is nothing so subversive of tyranny as hope.

      • Hi, Matt,

        Certainly it’s the running line now that elections themselves are democratic. It’s a very recent idea, though. Throughout most of history elections have been regarded as anti-democratic (in part because both Plato and Aristotle insist upon it, and they are historically the most influential political philosophers), and there is excellent reason for this: in an electoral system, some groups of citizens rise as the Elect-able classes. If either you or I run for President, for instance, it is guaranteed that we will fail. We simply don’t have the backing to be elect-able at that level: we are not in the right political class.Not all citizens are equal when it comes to major political offices; and that is because of elections, which depend on leverage. And since money is the most extensive form of leverage in most societies, historically electoral systems create plutocracies unless major steps are taken to prevent it. Elections as the source of an oligarchy’s legitimacy can also be a way of restraining the oligarchy, of course; and in that sense they can have democratic effects. That’s a reason why republics have historically tended to have them, because the republic is an attempt to create a mixed government that has the advantages of monarchies, oligarchies or aristocracies, and democracies.But they get the democratic effect by leveraging popular participation in creating the rule of the few.

        On oligarchies, I think oligarchies don’t, in fact, run on despair, but by preventing it; oligarchies run on bribery and purely symbolic gestures. It is crucial to their existence that plenty of people think that they are genuinely beneficial, or at least have no way to pinpoint how they are not. The reason is given by Plato: oligarchies are split polities, a superior polity and an inferior one, in which the superior polity is heavily constrained by the fact that the inferior one could in principle overturn it. Thus the superior polity is constantly working to pay off the inferior polity with bread and circuses, and by engaging in elaborate symbolic gestures to make the inferior polity feel like they have real power. No regime uses the symbols of democracy so much as a corrupt oligarchy; it has to do so, because popular discontent is the one thing oligarchs fear. For the same reason, oligarchies also go out of their way to do highly visible projects purportedly for the poor; it never actually remedies the fundamental problems, but oligarchies are all about doing highly visible things that look like they benefit the people, so that the people won’t throw them out of power. That was Plato’s diagnosis, anyway, and it seems borne out by being a common pattern in history, despite many variations.

        • Yup. Elections create a “Political Class.”

          I’ve always said this about electoral democracy: this idea people have that a black president or female senators “mean” anything significant is stupid. They are mere tokens. (The same principal would be true about the “female papal electors” idea).

          The idea that somehow it achieves anything to have a Congress that mirrors the electorate demographically according to proportions of various “special” classes (race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, etc) is a distraction from the fact that 100% of congress-members are, by definition, POLITICIANS, whereas almost 0% of the population is.

          Which is more significant? That a female senator is a female? Or that she’s a senator?? Clearly the latter vastly outweighs the former, because 50% of the population is female, whereas only 0.0001% of the population are senators, and the more “elite” a class, the greater “weight” it tends to have in ones own personal identity and interests.

          Same thing with Race! Do you think Barry O has more in common with the single-mother on the South Side of Chicago struggling to work two jobs to raise her kids, merely on account of them both being Black? Or does he have more in common with, say, John Boehner (his alleged rival) on account of them both being powerful politicians?? Clearly the affinity is much greater in the latter case than the former.

          But at that point, you might as well have them all be straight white Christian males, basically. Because of course, in such a small group (a few hundred people) you can find a few women or a few blacks to serve the purposes of tokenism. But they won’t be “representative” of disenfranchised people because the much more salient fact is their membership in the political class. Heck, you could probably fill the Senate ENTIRELY with black women, for that matter, and it wouldn’t make a whit of difference because surely we can find a measly 100 black women who are elite.

          But then they’d be there AS elites, and as such no different than if they were white men, because they’d have much more in common, socially, with their white male counterparts than with the disenfranchised group they’re “supposed to” represent as a token.

  • A Sinner,

    That it makes no difference whether a political representative is black, female, gay or whatever, simply because they will all be more loyal to the elite class of “politician” is perhaps an unduly cynical reading? Isn’t that to begin with presumption that they have no integrity whatsoever? I think your point is taken, that they don’t bring to the table the interests of their minority status in any facile way, and are always compromised to some extent, but that they are always “mere tokens” seems like a brush off…

    For my part I am wondering these days, with no conclusive opinion, whether or not elitism is really such a bad thing. If it proves to be the case that the majority of people can not be exhorted into becoming self-motivated, engaged, free-thinking responsible and political minded citizens, then the question might emerge, why is having an elite a bad thing per se? Could not the question also be asked, how might we create a motivated and responsible elite, responsible to the crowd, yet also knowing better than them, and with the courage to impose where possible for the best interests of all, those who have the means to rule and to rule well? Can there be a “responsible elite”?

    • Well, I believe 95% of politicians have no integrity whatsoever. Not even because they are malicious, but because the kind of people who get elected are the kind of people who are already beholden to values, to a narrative, that is itself corrupt. They are already tainted, already corrupted, already compromised.

      I don’t doubt that Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, John McCain, John Boehner, etc etc…think of themselves as regular people tasked with extraordinary responsibility, just doing their best. I also don’t doubt that they really do buy into the “naive” vision of how politics works and see their greatest rivals in each other rather than in them versus the masses.

      Nevertheless, why are they all so utterly unwilling to change the status quo? I think there is a great scene from the movie Nixon (based on real events apparently) where he goes to talk to hippy protesters early one morning at the Lincoln Memorial. It shows Nixon in both a very sympathetic but also very “cynical” light, inasmuch as it recognizes him as individually a pretty good guy just trying to do his best, but also utterly subject to “The Beast,” to structures of power that are exploitative and which the individual politicians, in their very squabbles about “distraction issues” (and everything except a massive restructuring of power and economics is), are serving, even in all their good intentions:

    • I’d also add in response to, “If it proves to be the case that the majority of people can not be exhorted into becoming self-motivated, engaged, free-thinking responsible and political minded citizens, then the question might emerge, why is having an elite a bad thing per se?” that I think it is far from proven that the majority of people cannot do this, because it is very possible that the current apathetic venal vulgarity of the idiot masses is based on their condition of alienation and servility, not on some sort of inherent contemptibility on their part.