Saturday, December 1, 2012

Debunking the "democracy vs. republic" debate

Conservative claims over our "republican" style of government misses the point completely

“We’re not a democracy; we’re a republic.”

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that argument in the many debates I’ve had with others over the years. More often than not coming from the mouths (or keyboards) of conservatives, the line is meant to counter any argument made that the will of the people should be recognized, though usually only in times when liberals are in power.

I’ve heard the defense of this line as follows: as a republic, we’re meant to protect the rights of the minorities over the tyranny of the majority. In other words, despite winning a majority number of representatives in our government, or in winning the main seat of government (as the case is this year with President Barack Obama retaining the White House), the people’s will should be thwarted because our government is a republic, designed to restrict the ability of those who won from exercising the very platform they advocated during the campaign.

To some extent, there is truth in this argument; there have to be safeguards against the tyranny of the majority, against possible abuses of power by those who won contested elections, especially in these days when every election seems to be decided within five percentage points or less.

But arguing against representative government is a foolish ideal to promote. The very fact that these very people who make this argument rarely do so when their representatives are in power provides reason to be suspicious of this argument in the first place.

And then there’s the idea that republics inherently serve to promote the rights of minorities to consider. In fact, that’s not the case at all -- some people-unfriendly republics include very oppressive nations indeed, such as Cuba, China, and the former Soviet Union. And the promotion of minority rights was rarely seen in the post-Reconstruction south, when African Americans rarely had any rights protected at all.

What differentiates the current form of the United States from those other “republic” nations? The fact that our elections actually MEAN something. Within those republics, there’s little choice, and therefore little democracy. The single ruling party decides the outcome, determines the course the nation takes, not the people.

In America, though, elections have real consequences. That can be a dangerous thing, but it’s also a wonderful gift.

Our founding governing document reads “We the People.” That means that responsibility lies with us, not with a single party, not with our governing officials, but with those whose opinions and dictates eventually put our representatives into positions of power.

We’re not a full-fledged democracy; but neither are we a republic that is detached from the people’s wishes and desires. We’re a hybrid form of government, a representative democracy, that’s charged with two very important functions.

Firstly, we do have a responsibility to protect those that aren’t in power, those that could potentially see themselves tyrannized under other forms of governments. Our constitutional amendments, including the bill of rights, as well as other aspects of how our government was set up, ensure that such abuses don’t come to fruition.

But secondly, our representative democracy is also charged with promoting the policies and plans of those who rightfully won office, through the endorsement and the will of the people that put them in power. While respecting the rights of minorities is crucial, allowing those that aren’t in power to cripple the government is just as equally an unjust position to endorse.

Rule by minority obstruction restrains what makes America better than those other republics. The alternative -- allowing the majority in office to rule based on the people’s wants -- enables the people themselves to have a voice and make a difference in their own futures, to promote their own interests through the direct selection of representatives.

So yes, there’s a difference between a republic and a democracy. But what we have in America is neither of those two systems. We are neither a direct democracy, which has the unfortunate possibility of allowing the majority to rule the minority in tyranny. Yet, neither are we a simple republic, which would allow leaders to disregard the people’s needs and interests altogether.

We are a representative government, set up to simultaneously defend the rights and promote the wills of the people, both at the same time. It’s truly a glorious experiment, one that has stood the test of time as well as the tests of history.

Do not shun the democratic aspect of our great nation. To do so would disregard the government our founders set up for us, would shun the sacrifices of those who died defending our country. We are a country that defends others’ rights but promotes the democracy. And we should be proud of that duality.


  1. You missed the point. Our nation is moving towards a Democracy - mob rule - which is dangerous both socially and economically. In a Democracy, the individual's rights are not protected and neither is property. Elections have NOTHING to do with whether a state is a Democracy or a Republic. A democracy only means rule of the majority or the people as a whole. In a Republic, the individual is protected by a Constitution and has God given rights. In a Democracy, there are zero rights, there are only privileges given to the people by the mob. The more our society ignores our Constitution, the more we change from a Republic to a Democracy. The Constitution is there to limit the government (oligarchy, monarchy, or democracy) from interfering with the individual. In a Republic the rule of LAW is above all. In a Democracy the rule of the MAJORITY is above all.

  2. Conservatives love the idea of a Republic because it's so much easier to flip to an oligarchy.