America: Republic or Democracy?


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When discussing our system of government, many people use the words “democracy,” “republic,” “republican,” and “liberal” in confusing ways. Clarity of definitions is essential for understanding the U.S. form of government – but also for understanding how our form of government is precious and worth protecting and improving. This short course will help you sort things out.

Abraham Lincoln put citizens at the heart of our government.  In his famous Gettysburg Address during the civil war in 1863, he referred to “… government of the people, by the people, for the people … .”   Lincoln’s phrase captured a good part of the spirit of democracy, but there is more to it than that.

Let’s get started by exploring three key concepts: direct democracy, representative democracy, and republics.

1. Direct Democracy

Some people prefer to restrict democracy to mean majority rule by the people, without using elected representatives. That is the definition of direct democracy.[1] In a direct democracy, everyone is entitled to propose policy options and vote on those proposals.  The proposals with the most votes become law.

The reference to direct democracy is often used by those who fear the unchecked tyranny of any majority of people.  Unconstrained majority rule could indeed create problems for those in any minority – and the founders knew it.  Alexander Hamilton said

It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.”

Direct democracy is a straw-man, easily knocked down, because it is difficult to coordinate across large numbers of citizens, even with modern technology. On top of that, most of us are too busy working and raising families to follow all the issues closely enough to make informed votes on policy options.

There are no countries governed by direct democracies.[2] Outside the U.S., the closest example of direct democracy is Switzerland, which has some limited aspects of direct democracy.  The closest example to direct democracy in the U.S. were the town hall meetings held in some parts of Colonial New England. 

U.S. citizens today have some opportunities to experience limited elements of direct democracy in 26 states and the District of Columbia through initiatives, referendums, or recall. (See the Ballotpedia pages on the history of initiatives and referendums and limited direct democracy in the U.S..) Citizens may propose bills through initiatives, change or repeal laws made by legislatures by referendum, and remove elected officials with recall petitions validated and submitted for a vote to the people at large.

In summary, fear of tyranny, and a need for practicality drives most people away from pure direct democracy towards another solution, representative democracy, our next topic.

2. Representative Democracy

The following features define a typical form of representative democracy.[3] 

Most modern, mature representative democracies have features that look like these, with some deviations or innovations here and there.[4] 

3. Republics

Some people prefer to say the U.S.A. is a republic.  They are correct.  According to James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.[5]   

In the late 1700s, when the U.S. Constitution was written, a republic was thought of as a system in which the government of the country is considered a “public matter.” This idea stands in contrast to the many absolute (or near absolute) monarchs of their day who saw countries as their private concern or property.[6] 

According to the Oxford Dictionary,[7] the modern concept of a republic is a state in which the people and their elected representatives hold supreme power, and which has an elected president, or a president or prime minister nominated by an elected parliament, rather than an active monarch. 

Thus, the concept of representative democracy and the concept of a republic are virtually identical. The U.S.A can accurately be portrayed as a republic, a republican democracy, or a representative democracy. 

Not only is the U.S. government a republic, but so are our state governments: Article IV of the United States Constitution says, “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government…”  Thus, all state governments have an executive branch (the Office of the Governor), a legislative branch, and a judicial branch, each checking and balancing the others.

Republican democracy has three main advantages of over non-democracies:

  • The use of elections substitutes for coups, assassinations, and wars as methods of changing leaders or policies;
  • Autocratic decision making by absolute monarchs or dictators is replaced by collective decision making by elected representatives; and
  • Elected representatives and leaders can be held accountable to the voters through elections.

Notes:

The use of the small r-word “republican” in this context has nothing to do with the big-R Republican party. It is all about representative democracy as distinct from direct democracy.

Several countries calling themselves republics do not meet all the criteria for true republics. Most often, this is because the leadership is not accountable in practice to the full citizenry. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is one of several examples.

Many scholars include constitutional monarchies and republics in a broader concept of “electoral democracies,” so long as the monarchs have no substantial power to rule. The United Kingdom is an example.  According to data from Freedom House (2019), out of 195 countries in 2018, there were 114 electoral democracies. Of those, 83 were republics of various kinds, and 31 were constitutional monarchies with inactive monarchs.[8]

4. Liberal, Republican Democracy

Thus far, we have explored the concepts of direct and representative democracy, republics, and republican government. Next, we’ll look at how the difference between republics and liberal republics affects our trust in the system.  (Note: the word “liberal” in this case refers to 18th century thinking about liberty popularized during the Enlightenment. Some people refer to this as “classical liberalism” to distinguish it from today’s different usage.)

Why have generations of Americans kept our system going? Why did people who were enslaved or persecuted choose to fight for their rights rather than give up?  Why have many people all over the world wanted to become American citizens generation after generation?  What is it about the system that motivated our leaders to keep it going, improve it, and protect it?

A big part of the answer comes down to incentives and results. Creating the electoral and legislative machinery of republican democracy is not enough. 

Citizens and political leaders need to trust that the system will guarantee their rights to participate in government, and guarantee their liberties to live their lives as they please, even if they are on the losing side of a vote. These guarantees are at the core of the distinction between liberal republics and the bare-bones version of republics.

Political and civil rights protect people from tyranny by leaders and by political majorities.[9]  Without this protection, those in power could entrench themselves by reducing the political and civil liberties of those out of power, to the point where they could no longer expect to compete effectively in future elections. Those excluded would face a choice between fighting for their rights, sabotaging those in power, or abandoning the system and the territory it governs.

This fear of entrenched tyranny and loss of liberties is what motivated many of the founders to insist on the Bill of Rights, the first ten Amendments to the Constitution. The same fears are often on display all around the world, whenever and wherever people are considering new ways to govern themselves.

Political systems can be defined as liberal, or ensuring liberty, when political and civil rights are well protected for everyone,[10] equally, by the law and by the citizens themselves.  Political rights guarantee your liberty to participate in the political process. Civil rights guarantee your personal liberties. Both are guaranteed in the U.S.A. by the Constitution, its amendments, and the law, including protections against discriminatory practices.

Table 1 below lists eleven criteria that proponents of liberal, republican democracy aspire to meet.[11]  

        Table 1: Criteria for Liberal, Republican Democracy         

1. Elected legislators make all law:  there are no law-making roles for the military, police, executive officeholders, judges, bureaucrats, religious leaders, warlords, crime bosses, or mobs. 

2. Government power is constrained and distributed across institutions. In the U.S.A., power is constitutionally constrained only to those powers expressly delegated. Power is distributed across the federal, state, and local governments; across the executive, legislative, and judicial functions; and even within the federal and state legislatures, each of which is divided into a house and a senate.* See also these two pages on the separation of powers from Ballotpedia and the U.S. Congress.

3. Elections are free –anyone of age may vote or run for office – and fair – there are no attempts to bias the results through dirty tricks, use of force, corruption, or abuse of government resources or laws.

4. People may freely organize themselves into political organizations, caucuses, and parties.

5. People have freedom of assembly, free speech, and the right to petition their government.

6. The media are free to publish what they wish (“freedom of the press”), and everyone has unfettered access to multiple sources of information.

7. Everyone is equal under the law, and all are subject to the same laws.

8. Political and civil rights are guaranteed for everyone, always. No groups may be excluded from the political process, nor denied the liberty to live their lives as they please.

9. Laws protect against unjustified state repression.

10. A supreme Constitution guarantees all of the above.

11. An independent and objective judiciary or supreme court upholds the Constitution and protects political and civil rights.                         

* Excluding Nebraska which has a unicameral (single house) legislature.

Over time, and with struggle, the U.S.A. has moved towards substantially meeting most of the criteria in Table 1. The U.S.A. can, therefore, be classified as a liberal republican democracy.[13] 

Government systems that do not meet most of the criteria in Table 1 are classified as illiberal.    Ambitious people in illiberal regimes can rig some or all parts of the system in favor of one political leader, group, or party because there are few protected political and civil rights.  Power becomes concentrated in the hands of just a few people or groups and good ideas from those out of power are often never heard or quickly rejected.[14]

Note:  Many political scientists refer to liberal and illiberal republics by using the broader concepts of liberal and illiberal democracies.

Well-functioning, liberal, republican democracies have four significant advantages relative to illiberal regimes:

  • Sufficient guaranteed political and civil rights give people confidence that the leaders currently in office cannot entrench themselves or tyrannize their opposition. These guarantees, in turn, make it more likely that elections are inclusive and competitive.
  • Political corruption and injustice are both reduced when equality under the law and freedom of the press backstop accountability through elections.
  • It is difficult to exclude any group from political participation permanently – those excluded will see a direct path to empowerment through voting rights, while some in power will see an opportunity for new allies. In the U.S., over time, with struggle, the right to vote has been extended to include people without property and wealth, women, young adults, and people of all colors, ethnicity, and religion.
  • There is constant pressure to improve policies, a pressure that comes from competitive elections, and from competitive policy making. This pressure, together with good ideas coming from all corners of society, may be a good part of the reason why most liberal, republican democracies tend to have much higher standards of living (amenities, wealth, happiness) than most other countries.

5. Liberal, Republican Democracy in the World

According to data from Freedom House (2019), out of 195 countries in 2018, 86 systems of government could be regarded as liberal democracies, and the remaining 109 considered as illiberal systems.  (Note:  Freedom House defines liberal regimes as “Free” while illiberal regimes are defined as “Partially Free” and “Not Free.”)  The 86 liberal democracies accounted for 39 percent of the world’s population in 2018. Of the 86 liberal democracies, 58 are republics, including the U.S.A. The remaining 28 are constitutional monarchies with largely ceremonial monarchs.

The situation has been changing.  The year 2007 saw the highest count of liberal democracies, 90 in all. Between 2007 and 2018, four countries gained liberal regimes, and eight countries saw their liberal systems fall into illiberal status.  There has been much more movement within categories:

  • A total of 59 countries improved their Freedom House (2018) scores between 2008 and 2018. 
  • Another 117 countries moved their scores lower. The United States is among these, with slippages starting in 2011 and continuing in most years since then.

6. Summary

Congratulations! You reached the end of this short course.  Here is a quick review of what was covered.

There are no pure, direct democracies governing any nations today.  It is impractical and risks a tyranny of the majority over minorities of any kind. Instead, the pragmatic solution used in many countries has been to utilize republican democracy where:

  • the people and their elected representatives hold supreme power;
  • elected representatives are the only people empowered to make laws, and they do so through competition and collaboration to attract a majority of votes from their fellow legislators;
  • and where the president is elected, or a parliament nominates a prime minister.

Three of the main advantages of republican democracy over non-democracies include:

  • The use of elections substitutes for coups, assassinations, and wars as methods of changing leaders or policies.
  • Autocratic decision making is replaced by collective decision making by elected representatives
  • Elected representatives and leaders can be held accountable to the voters through elections.

In spite of these advantages, merely establishing the electoral and legislative mechanisms was not enough to earn the trust of many of the founders. They wanted to know their liberties would be guaranteed at all times, even if they were on the losing side of an election. That same worry can be found all over the world, whenever and wherever people are considering new ways to govern themselves. 

The solution is to introduce guaranteed rights to political and civil liberties. When these exist, a republic is said to be “liberal” in the 18th century meaning of the word.  Political rights are guarantees about your liberty to participate in government while civil rights are guarantees about your liberty to live your life and raise your family as you think best – without taking away anyone else’s political and civil rights. 

Well-functioning, liberal, republican democracies have four major advantages relative to illiberal regimes:

  • Sufficient guaranteed political and civil rights give people confidence that the leaders currently in office cannot entrench themselves or tyrannize their opposition. These guarantees, in turn, make it more likely that elections are inclusive and competitive.
  • Political corruption and injustice are both reduced when equality under the law and freedom of the press backstop accountability through elections.
  • It is difficult to exclude any group from political participation permanently – those excluded will see a direct path to empowerment through voting rights, while some in power will see an opportunity for new allies.
  • There is constant pressure to improve policies, a pressure that comes from competitive elections, and competitive policy making.

Over time, and with struggle, the U.S.A. has moved towards substantially meeting most of the criteria for liberal republican democracy, and it can, therefore, be classified as such. This classification applies not only to the country as a whole but also to each of its state governments, as mandated by the Constitution (Article IV) and its amendments.  

Unfortunately, the quality of our republic has been slipping since 2011.  Going forward, it will be important for all citizens to help improve and protect both the republican and the liberal aspects of our democracy.

Want to learn more? In our short course entitled Democracy is Precious, you can explore non-democratic and illiberal systems of government and compare them with liberal, republican democracies. Doing so will help further illustrate why our system is worth protecting and improving.

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© Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy
August 2020

This material is meant to be used only for civic education.
It may be copied and distributed only for non-profit, non-partisan, educational purposes, and only with proper credit to the
Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

Written by Douglas Addison for the
Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

CFFAD is a non-profit organization providing non-partisan civic education.

Cover photo: Lawrence Jackson, whitehouse.gov/public domain

SOURCES

Acemoglu, D., and Robinson, J. (2012) Why Nations Fail.

Ballotpedia.com

Constitution of the United States of America.

Dahl, R. (1971). Polyarchy.

Diamond, L. (2003). Defining and Developing Democracy. In R. Dahl, I. Shapiro, and J. Cheibub (Eds.), The Democracy Sourcebook.

Freedom House (2019). Freedom in the World.

History.com

LeDuc, L., Niemi, R., and Norris, P. (2014) Comparing Democracies.

Oxford Dictionary.

Semipresidentialism.com

The American Historical Review (1906), Vol. 11.

Wikipedia.org


END NOTES

[1] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_democracy.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Descriptive elements are from Diamond, L. (2003). Defining and developing democracy. In R. Dahl, I. Shapiro, and J. Cheibub (Eds.), The democracy sourcebook (pp. 29-39).

[4] Other forms of democracy not covered here include parliamentary systems, semi-presidential systems, and semi-parliamentary systems.  Or see LeDuc, Niemi, and Norris (2014) Comparing Democracies.

[5] From The American Historical Review, vol. 11, 1906, and the anecdote on p. 618 as recorded in https://www.bartleby.com/73/1593.html

[6] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absolute_monarchy

[7] From https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/republic. See also: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/republic.

[8] Regime typology comes from Wikipedia, supplemented by data from http://www.semipresidentialism.com

[9] Diamond (2003) cites Locke, Montesquieu, and the American Federalists (p. 29).

[10] Diamond (2003), page 29.

[11] Based on Diamond (2003), pages 35-36.

[12] Excluding Nebraska which has a unicameral (single house) legislature.

[13] A more accurate description is that the U.S.A. is a constitutional, federal, presidential, liberal, republican democracy.

[14] Many historical illustrations of this point can be found in Chapter 8 of Acemoglu and Robinson (2012) Why nations fail.