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Friday, September 4, 2009

Republic, Not a Democracy: So What?

The folks to my right often seem to make great fuss and feathers over declaring that America is a republic, not a democracy. They puff up with professorial pedantry (hey, I thought that was my gig!) as if this simple observation is the cornerstone of all political wisdom. They recite their Adams, Hamilton, and Madison, and fulminate as if praise of democracy is blasphemy against the Pledge of Allegiance and other sacred American texts.

America is a republic, not a democracy. Sure. So what?

How does "republic, not a democracy!" change our approach to any practical question of policy? How does it help us frame our discourse about health insurance reform, taxes, or education? Whether the Senate is elected by state legislatures or we let the darn 17th Amendment contravene our Founding Fathers' intent and elect Senators ourselves, we still have to build roads and schools and fighter jets. Whoever is making the decisions, the great unwashed masses, the Senators, the philosopher kings, does "republic, not a democracy!" help anyone make a practical decision?

The only takeaway I get from the "republic, not a democracy!" chanters is that the chanters are elitists. Aren't they really saying that they, like the Founding Fathers, didn't trust the common citizen to make decisions of great import, and that we thus had to insulate the leaders from popular pressure? Aren't they saying that expecting our ruling elites to mingle with the masses at town hall meetings and take their cues for governing from the hysterical shouts of the mob is absurd, farce at best, tyranny at worst? Aren't they really saying that our leaders should be further removed from and less responsive to the momentary passions of the citizens? That's not what I was hearing at the Glenn Beck Madison picnic on Saturday... but that's what "republic, not a democracy!" appears to mean.

Constitutional scholarship is great. But esoteric points about political philosophy don't really help us solve problems... and if you aren't careful, they can knock the legs out from under your everyday citizen activism.


  1. I believe the core reason why it is a big deal is that “Republic” is, as John Adams put it “We are nation of laws, not of men.” In a “Democracy” you could have a situation where the majority vote would be wrong or a mistake based on the emotions tied to the current situation. For example after 9-11 hit people were scared lawmakers felt like they need to do something so the created the Patriot Act. Now if we were a “Republic” they would have followed the LAW and realized the constitution does not allow this type of action.

    As far as being an elitist, that doesn’t quite fit with a Republic. Just ask Charlie Rengal who thought he was above the law and tried to cheat on his taxes.

    “Aren't they really saying that our leaders should be further removed from and less responsive to the momentary passions of the citizens?” That’s exactly what we are saying just like un-constitutional health care reform and many other un-constitutional things they do. If we were a “Republic” we would follow the constitution and not the “momentary passions of the citizens”

    Aaron Heidelberger
    Sioux Falls SD

  2. So Aaron, where does it say that a democracy cannot be governed by a Constitution with protection of minority rights? Whether we have representative democracy (republic, right?) or direct democracy (initiative and referendum aren't so bad, are they?), can't we operate either system equally under a properly established Constitution? And isn't there as much risk that a handful of elites might decide to abuse some minority as there is that an enflamed mob will do so?

  3. If a democracy is governed by a constitution isn’t that a republic? The Webster dictionary states:

    REPBULIC: a government in which supreme 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.

    DEMOCRACY: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.

    So to me it looks like if a Democracy has a constitution then it is not a Democracy it is a Republic.

    As far as your minority question, that’s why we have laws and it’s also why the constitution says “all men are created equal.” But recently with the new Hate Crime law all men are not created equal, certain minorities have more protection under the law then others. There will always be a risk of a handful of elites trying to take control, but they should beware because they are not above the law.

    Aaron Heidelberger
    Sioux Falls SD

  4. Cory,

    I hope you don't mind another old professor plopping his pedantic ass down at your seminar table, but this matter of making a "republic" and a "democracy" two discrete entities is more than a bit maddening. A republic is a form of democracy and was regarded so in the discussion around our Constitution.

    The principal discussant who framed the distinction between a direct democracy and representative democracy was Madison, who framed the distinction for the purpose of argument in The Federalist Papers. Nowhere is the distinction codified as a controlling Constitutional definition, except for requiring a republican form of government for all the states.

    Madison is the principal definer of what distinguishes a republic. He cites a republic as a way of preventing control by factions when he states in No. 10: "A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union."

    He refines the definition in No. 14: "The error which limits republican government to a narrow district has been unfolded and refuted in preceding papers. I remark here only that it seems to owe its rise and prevalence chiefly to the confounding of a republic with a democracy, applying to the former reasonings drawn from the nature of the latter. The true distinction between these forms was also adverted to on a former occasion. It is, that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region." He leaves the possibility of direct democracy open for some of the lesser governmental units.

    And in No. 48, he acknowledges Jefferson's caveat on representative democracy: "All the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judiciary, result to the legislative body. The concentrating these in the same hands, is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation, that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one."

    The silly contention that Obama in any way violates the Constitution is sophistic silliness. As long as Congress is brought into full play in proposing the federal agenda, he is following the Constitution precisely. The charges that he is not are perversely pretentious and astoundingly ignorant.

    If people think the Constitution is being violated, they should make their case before the Supreme Court, not before tea parties of the ignorant rabble. The Constitution provides that such questions be answered through procedures that involve knowledge the brains to apply it.

  5. Dave, your post says:
    "As long as Congress is brought into full play in proposing the federal agenda, he is following the Constitution precisely."

    So does that mean the Patriot Act is not a violation of the constitution?

    Aaron Heidelberger

  6. Thank you so much, David, for so lucidly explaining that a republic is a democracy. Your pedantic posterior is always welcome at my table.

    Aaron, I agree wholeheartedly with my hero Dennis Kucinich that the Patriot Act is unconstitutional and should be repealed. That has nothing to do with this (as the good Dr. Newquist demonstrates) "pretentious" and "ignorant" sophistry about "RNAD".

  7. OK....so I should have led my comment with something like this:
    Yeah your right, Its like an apple, its fruit but its also an apple. OK, got it.
    But if the “good Dr. Newquist” makes statements like this:

    “The silly contention that Obama in any way violates the Constitution is sophistic silliness. As long as Congress is brought into full play in proposing the federal agenda, he is following the Constitution precisely. The charges that he is not are perversely pretentious and astoundingly ignorant.”

    I believe president Bush brought Congress “into full play in proposing the federal agenda” for the Patriot Act.

    Therefore the Patriot Act question is totally relevant and I would like his answer.

    Aaron Heidelberger
    (not a doctor, or professor)

  8. Careful, Aaron: you're proving my point by drifting away from the original point that RNAD is irrelevant to most policy discussions. I agree the Patriot Act is bad policy. It came about in the context of the republican government our Founding Fathers chose as our flavor of democracy. How does saying "RNAD" have any impact on a discussion of the merits of the Patriot Act?

  9. “How does saying "RNAD" (Republic Not A Democracy) have any impact on a discussion of the merits of the Patriot Act?”

    Well if you look at Webster’s description of a Republic the last line of the definition states “and governing according to law.” What is the difference between a Republic and a Democracy? Well I don’t see that line about governing according to the law in the definition of a democracy. If we were governing according to the law (a Republic) then the Supreme Court should have vetoed the Patriot Act, because it was un-constitutional. Yes, we are a Democracy but we have a supreme court that is suppose to verify each law that is passed to determine its constitutionality. Therefore if you believe the Patriot Act is un-constitutional then you should be chanting "republic, not a democracy!" right along side of us.

    If you want an apple (republic) and you get a banana, then you are right chant “apple, not banana.”

    What you’re saying in your article is that it doesn’t matter if you get an apple or a banana because they are both fruit.


  10. Or maybe apple versus Granny Smith apple.

    So have we solved a problem yet?

  11. I guess if the defining characteristic you are looking for in apple aligns with the characteristics of a granny smith, then I guess you ask for a granny smith. Just like I believe the defining characteristic of Republic is something I want.

    So have we solved a problem yet?

    Yes, the question of the Patriot act would have been solved, if we had only held to our constitution and our country ACTED like Republic. When some new bill comes along like the Patriot act let us follow the constitution, the law of the land, and we will not have an un-constitutional law passed.

    The RNAD argument is not really about what we should call our country. The argument is about how our country should be following a great set of rules written long ago.



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