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Not A Democracy, ‘A Republic, If You Can Keep It’ | Understanding America’s Government

Introduction

The United States is fundamentally a republic, and not a democracy. Though in recent decades many have started characterizing America as a democracy, the founders of the nation intentionally established a republic to avoid the dangers of unchecked majority rule. The critical difference between a republic and a democracy lies in who holds the power – the people at large or elected representatives. This article will examine what constitutes a republic versus a democracy, look at how the Constitution establishes America as a republic, and share key perspectives from the founding fathers themselves on why they favored a republic.

Definition of a Democracy

A democracy is a system of government in which power and civic responsibility are exercised by all citizens, directly or through their freely elected representatives. The term originates from the Greek roots “demos” meaning “the people” and “kratia” meaning “rule.”

In a pure or direct democracy, laws and policies are created through a consensus or majority vote by all citizens. All citizens are expected to participate actively in debates and decision making for matters of state. This can be challenging for nations with large populations.

In a representative democracy, citizens elect officials to make political decisions, form laws, and govern on behalf of the people. Representatives are held accountable to the electorate via scheduled elections. The United States and most modern nations have a representative democracy.

Definition of a Republic

A republic is a form of government in which the people hold power, but elect representatives to exercise that power. The term comes from the Latin words “res publica” meaning “public affair.”

In a republic, citizens elect government officials and representatives through a democratic voting process. These elected officials represent the people’s interests and exercise power according to the rule of law rather than their own private interests.

Power is derived from the citizens, not a monarch. Elected representatives are accountable to the people. The people have the supreme power and sovereignty. And the public has civic duties and input on governmental decisions and policy matters.

Essentially in a republic, elected officials are delegated power from the citizens to act on their behalf in government. The people elect leaders to represent them, and retain power over those leaders through elections, the rule of law, and civic participation.

The U.S. is a Republic

The United States is founded on republican principles, not direct democracy. A republic is a form of government in which the people elect representatives to make decisions and pass laws on their behalf. Unlike in a direct democracy, where citizens vote directly on laws and policies, in a republic the power is held by the elected representatives.

The U.S. Constitution establishes a republican form of government for the nation. The founders intentionally avoided creating a direct democracy, fearing that it would allow for tyranny of the majority. James Madison warned against factions joining together to oppress other citizens. In Federalist No. 10, he argued that a republic could better protect minority rights and curb the “violence of faction.”

By establishing a representative democracy, the founders sought to avoid the pitfalls of both pure democracy and totalitarianism. Citizens elect leaders to represent their interests and make decisions on their behalf. This republican system provides stability while still ensuring the consent of the governed through regular elections.

So while U.S. citizens vote for their representatives, the nation is not governed by direct majority rule. The Constitution puts limits on what elected officials can do and protects certain rights from infringement. The hallmark of the American system is that the people do not directly make policies or pass laws, but instead elect representatives to do this in a deliberative way.

Republic vs Democracy

A republic and a democracy are two different systems of government that differ primarily in where the power lies.

In a pure democracy, the people vote directly on laws and select officials to represent them. The majority has unlimited power over the minority. This system can lead to mob rule, where the masses oppress those with less popular views.

In a republic, citizens elect representatives to make laws and govern on their behalf. Checks and balances, like filibusters and presidential vetoes, limit what the majority can do. The rights of the minority are protected from the will of the majority.

The framers of the Constitution designed the United States as a republic to limit the power of the majority. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

The complete Federalist Papers are below and James Madison’s Federalst No.10 – The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection can be found beginning on page 52:

The Constitution puts checks on democratic impulses. For example, the Bill of Rights protects individuals from the majority imposing their will in ways that restrict freedom of speech, freedom of religion, due process, etc. The republican system guards against democratic tyranny and runaway populism.

Elections in a Republic

In a republic, citizens elect leaders to represent them and make decisions on their behalf. Unlike in a direct democracy where citizens vote directly on policy matters, republics have a system of elected officials who handle the country’s governance.

Some key points regarding elections in a republic:

So in summary, republican elections involve citizens voting for representatives to handle governance on their behalf. The people elect leaders, who then make decisions in the people’s interest.

Founders’ Intent

The Founding Fathers supported establishing the United States as a republic and warned against allowing it to become a democracy. They believed a republic would best protect the rights of citizens, especially those in the minority. Here are several insightful quotes on the matter:

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” – John Adams

“Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” – James Madison

“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.” – Alexander Hamilton

The Founders believed that by establishing a republic, with elected representatives and built-in checks and balances, the rights of citizens would be protected from the potential tyranny of the majority under a direct democracy. They saw the republican form of government as the best means of promoting liberty and limiting government power.

Amending the Constitution

The Framers of the Constitution made the amendment process difficult in order to limit frivolous changes to the foundation of the country’s government. Article V requires that an amendment be proposed either by two-thirds of both houses of Congress or by a national convention called for by two-thirds of state legislatures. Such a proposed amendment does not become part of the Constitution unless it is then ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures, or three-fourths of state conventions specially called for ratification.

The arduous process serves as a safeguard against passionate impulses or partisan motivations to alter the Constitution for reasons that may seem compelling in the moment but lack enduring importance. It forces proponents of change to convince society of the wisdom and necessity of amendments before they can be adopted. The exacting procedure also reduces the chances that amendments will be inconsistent with the principles of the original document and existing provisions.

Protecting Minorities

The Founding Fathers were concerned about protecting minority groups from the tyranny of the majority under a pure democracy. That is why they established the United States as a republic.

In a pure democracy, there are few limits on what the majority can decide. The majority could easily vote to infringe upon the rights and liberties of minority groups if they wished.

Under a republic however, the Constitution protects certain inalienable rights that cannot be taken away even if the majority votes for it. Things like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to due process, are constitutionally protected.

The Bill of Rights enumerates specific rights and liberties that government cannot violate. This sets limits on what the majority can impose upon minority groups. No matter how large the majority, they cannot violate the protected rights outlined in the Constitution.

Federalism also provides a system of checks and balances, dispersing power between national, state, and local governments. This prevents a single majority group from dominating the entire country. Federalism allows for local autonomy, giving minority groups self-government over local affairs.

Republics aim to strike a balance–protecting the rights of minorities while still allowing the majority to decide most issues through a democratic process. The Founders feared both the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of the minority, so they crafted a republic that had elements of democracy but within a constitutional framework that protected unalienable liberties. This system was intended to safeguard minority rights from infringement by an unchecked majority.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the United States is not a pure democracy, but rather a constitutional republic that incorporates certain democratic procedures. The key differences between a republic and a democracy are that in a republic, citizens elect representatives who then vote on policy and legislation, whereas in a democracy, citizens vote directly on laws and policies.

The Founding Fathers wanted to avoid the dangers of pure democracy and mob rule, which is why they established a republic with separation of powers, checks and balances, and protections for individual rights. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, a republic helps “break and control the violence of faction.” The Constitution and Bill of Rights outline the powers of government and protect the rights of all citizens, including minority groups, from being violated by the majority.

While citizens in the U.S. do vote directly on some matters, like state ballot measures or for mayors and city council members, overall the U.S. system is representative. The Constitution cannot be changed without a demanding process of amendment, underscoring that the U.S. is first and foremost a republic governed by the rule of law. As Benjamin Franklin famously stated when asked what form of government the Constitutional Convention had created, he replied “A Republic, if you can keep it.”