January 5th, 2013


Is the US a democracy or a republic? Both.

Originally published at Quantum Matrix Scribe. Please leave any comments there.

Woman looking pensive at floating words.

You talk like they’re mutually exclusive.

There are some things that just annoy me in American politics. Well, everything annoys me, but there are some things that are relatively minor, small details, that just infuriate the crap out of me. Perhaps one of the largest of these minor things is the continuing notion of many on the right that we live in a republic, not a democracy, and how they loudly proclaim in places that America is not a democracy, as if that’s a good thing.

For some reason, they think that A) this is correct and B) it is good marketing. Why, I have no idea, as I’m about to lay out.

For starters, let’s go to the dictionary, and get the definition of some terms:

government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

This has two interpretations here, which are usually defined as “direct democracy” and “representative democracy”:

Direct Democracy
a form of democracy in which the people as a whole make direct decisions, rather than have those decisions made for them by elected representatives
Representative Democracy
a type of democracy in which the citizens delegate authority to elected representatives

Clearly, the United States has a representative democracy, because we elect representatives to whom we give authority to craft laws. Might not be the best solution, but that’s what we have. Now, let’s look at the final piece of this puzzle:

a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them.

Now, I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty much like a representative democracy.

The problem comes from some of the words of the Founding Fathers. I’m not saying that the Founders were wrong, but rather that the English language has changed and adapted since 1775. Back then, “democracy” meant “direct democracy,” and the Founders were wise to inveigh against it. Today, though, “democracy” means “representative democracy”….which basically means “republic.”

The real thrust of conservatives here is that, supposedly, under a republic, the rights of the minority are protected through a constitution against depradation by the majority. But this really isn’t the case. For example, take Israel. It is a republic, since the government is elected by the people. But, it has no constitution. While there are several “Basic Laws,” the consitution has never been agreed upon, and thus remains unwritten, and drastic changes can be made at any time by the Knesset, Israel’s legislature.

But the whole thing is just stupid. First off, nobody really cares. The vast majority of Americans do not pay attention to constitutional law or political theory, and are simply uninterested in what is little more than a game of creative semantics. Second, it makes you look foolish. I mean, when you talk to the average American, and tell them that the “United States isn’t a democracy,” and say it positively, they’re going to think you’re a fascist. And do you really think that looking like a fascist will help you to win voters over to your side?

I’ve been told by some older conservatives that the failure to recognize the difference between a republic and a democracy is a terrible thing for the younger generation. This somehow shows, they argue, how we have lost sight of what is important and this will be our country’s doom. Except…that’s not at all what it is. It is little more than a semantic word game. And I’m sorry, but no game of semantics is going to be the downfall of a civilization, no matter what Orwell wrote in 1984Is language powerful? Oh lordy yes. But is something like this going to be doom? Of course not. It’s so silly I would laugh, except I weep instead.

This is what it has come down to, then. The left has such a horrid grasp of economics that it hurts precisely the people it purports to save, and such ignorance of basic liberties that it creates more horrors in its pursuit of sweet dreams. Meanwhile, the right is still plagued by bigotry, intolerance, and being hopelessly stuck in a nonexistent past while abjectly refusing to deal with the future that’s on its doorstep. While I am optimistic for the long-term–more and more people are becoming libertarians, and something will give soon–when I see stupid arguments over “democracy vs. republic,” I’m not hopeful for the short term. There needs to be a change of direction from silliness like this, and soon.