Is America a Democracy or a Republic?
Do you think America is a democracy?
by The Cross-Partisan Action Network | 1.28.19
In Rob Stein's recent conversation on the American ideals of E Pluribus Unum and cross-partisanship, you—the readers—shared provocative questions and opinions. Now, we're continuing the conversation with some of the top themes that emerged. Check out the original piece here, and click above to take action!
Is America a Democracy or a Republic?
By Rob Stein
First, thanks to each of you who commented that I used the word “democracy” throughout the essay to describe America's form of government. In doing so, I was imprecise. In order to adequately consider the virtues and values of cross-partisanship, we need consensus about constitutional intent regarding our form of government.
In discussing this topic, I would caution that semantics can get in the way of intelligent resolution and agreement. The words “democracy” and “republic” are frequently interchanged and confused and we need to be careful not to micro-analyze these terms.
Here are the Miriam-Webster definitions:
- “A republic is a government in which the extreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law.”
- “A “democracy” is a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and is exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections”
When asked what sort of government the constitutional convention had created, Benjamin Franklin famously said, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Some dream of a “direct democracy” – a form of government in which citizens vote not just for “representatives”, but vote directly on policies and governing matters (e.g., budgets, revenue, expenditures, etc.). While many states have ballot initiatives and referenda which empower citizens to vote on substantive issues, this is not the Constitutional role of citizens in the operations of the federal government.
Therefore, I agree with those of you who made the correct observation that we are closest to the Founder’s intent when we refer to the form of federal government envisioned and embedded in our Constitution as a “representative republic”. This clarifies two critical elements of our federal system – it emphasizes that (1) the role of citizens is to vote for representatives and hold them accountable; and (2) the roles of our elected representatives – Congress and the Executive - are to legislate and govern.
Thanks again for helping to clarify this vitally important distinction between a democracy and a republic. Henceforth, I generally will use “representative republic”, or “representative form of government”, when referring to our federal system. And occasionally, when I need a synonym, I may refer to the federal government as a “representative democracy”.
Rob Stein is a former Senior Strategist, Democratic National Committee (1989-1992); Founder, Democracy Alliance (2005); Co-founder, Committee On States (2007); and currently committed to building an enduring cross-partisan constituency to chart the track back to the ideals of E Pluribus Unum.
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