If We Can Keep it: Is the U.S. a Democracy or a Republic?

Illustration insert: despardes.com

Tim Sommers at 3 Quarks Daily: The website of the Connecticut General Assembly, for some obscure reason, stipulates that “By definition, a republic is a representative form of government that is ruled according to a charter, or constitution, and a democracy is a government that is ruled according to the will of the majority.” It’s a free country. They can use words how they want; I suppose. But this is confusing because (1) having or not having, a constitution is not widely recognized as the difference between democracies and republics. (2) None of the contemporary disputes about the distinction are disputes about whether to have a constitution or not. And (3) If a constitution is majoritarian all the way through, then the distinction collapses anyway.

Here’s a more revered source – James Madison – stipulating a different distinction. In Federalist #10, Madison says that “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person” is a democracy (and he is against it). Whereas a republic is “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place” (and he is for that).

To start with, I don’t think anyone would now claim that whether the vote takes place in person or not is a definitional difference between a democracy and a republic. Furthermore, it’s kind of ironic for a man who owned over a hundred slaves, and wrote a constitution that made them 3/5ths of a person, to object to a government run by small number slave-holding citizens. But here’s what’s most confusing. He’s comparing an Athenian system that only allowed 10-20% of the population to vote with a system where a much larger number of people participate, albeit more indirectly. The Athenians called their system a democracy, I grant that, but today I think we would describe what Madison is calling a republic as the more democratic alternative to what he is calling a democracy.

More here.