And To The Republic

I’ve heard many Americans tell me that “America is a Republic not a Democracy”.

I still don’t understand this, in truth. It seems like semantics and playing with words more than any kind of real useful distinction. Like someone saying “cheese is a dairy product not a foodstuff”, it seems a completely absurd thing to say.

I’m sure I’m missing something. Maybe – no, probably – we’re not defining our terms in the same way. But I honestly don’t see how America can be a republic in any meaningful sense without being a democracy, or indeed, how the USA can possibly be defined as “not a democracy” by any right-thinking individual.

Of course the USA is a democracy. The people have a say in how their nation is governed and run. The will of the people is the ultimate sovereign. How can it not be a democracy?

It’s in many ways a purer democracy than Britain is. You Americans vote on your Head of State as well as your Head of Government (they’re the same position to you, after all), you elect your judges and city administrators and school boards and some of your law enforcement officers. You have fixed term lengths ensuring that no one President can serve longer than 8 years consecutively. Your whole system of governance is organised around the principle of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

This is, to my mind, pretty much the essence of what democracy is. The people having a real say in what their government does.

America is a Republic, too, I’ll readily agree. But “Republic” covers a vast amount of ground. On the one hand, the USA and France are republics. Germany is a Federal Republic. Taiwan is the Republic of China. But on the other hand, mainland China is a republic, too, the People’s Republic of China. North Korea is a Republic, and the USSR was a union or federation of republics.

And America is apparently one of these and not a democracy.

All “republic” really means to me in practical terms is “not a monarchy”. It usually means having an elected Head of State like a President or Chancellor, though in the case of North Korea and some other parts of the world these “elections” can be a sham designed to confer legitimacy on what is closer to being rule by naked power lust than anything else. But North Korea is a republic at least in that their leader isn’t a titled monarch.

America is a republic in that it has an elected Head of State rather than a titled monarch. And it’s a democracy in that the elections actually mean something. It’s both, not one or the other.

What I think Americans mean when they say that the USA is “not a democracy” is “not a direct democracy”. Laws are not passed by national plebiscite or referendum, but by debate and voting by a body chosen as representatives of the people. What I would call “representative democracy”. But according to the “America is a republic not a democracy” folks, representative democracy does not constitute democracy.

By this measure, there are no democratic nations anywhere in the world, and all our rhetoric about “spreading democracy around the world” is a pack of lies, or at least wishful thinking.

I’m sure this would be news to France, Germany and the UK. Americans don’t consider us to be democracies. Apparently they don’t consider themselves one, either. What about Parliament? What about the free and fair elections in every one of these nations? What about our efforts to encourage more free and fair elections in parts of the world where such are not guaranteed? This is democracy as we try and encourage it across the world.

A direct democracy is one form of democracy; one that no nation is currently attempting as a governmental form. A representative democracy such as we see in the democratic nations of the world is the other main one. Both are democracies, and similarly, there are representative democracies that are republican, like the USA and France and Germany, and there are representative democracies that are constitutionally monarchical, like the UK and the Netherlands and Sweden.

So tell me why the USA is “not a democracy”?

As I said, it’s either semantics or I’m missing the point.


2 thoughts on “And To The Republic

  1. It really is semantics, as you say. The comment that America is a republic not a democracy is simply a case of pointing out that the US is a representative democracy as opposed to a direct democracy. The term “democratic republic” is often used as a synonym for representative democracy, which is where the common practice of calling it a republic comes in (mash up of a government run by elected officials — democracy — who are given power by the public — republic).

    Sometimes we’re just not all that great with our terms. I gave up trying to explain to other Americans the difference between socialism and social democracy a long time ago because of that. :p

  2. Pingback: Left Right | The Word Forge

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