America: Democracy or Republic?

I have been bemused by the ongoing debate in the social media whether America is a “Democracy” or a “Republic”?

Image result for america democracy republic pics

Naturally, “Democrats” argue for a “Democracy,” and “Republicans” argue for a “Republic.”  “I pledge allegiance … to the Republic for which is stands.”

Both sides are right, and both sides are wrong.

America is neither a direct democracy nor a classic republic. America is a “DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC,” a “REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY.”

Madison’s Brilliant Creation of Checks and Balances

Throughout the spring and summer of 1786, James Madison “barricaded” himself in his second story library in Montpellier. There, he devoted thousands of hours to an exhaustive study of government and political philosophy, ancient and modern.

He devoured hundreds of books. He wedded his theoretical scholarship with his practical experience.

He reached several brilliant conclusions. First and foremost, is that governmental power must be limited and kept in check.  “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  

Therefore, the government must be based on a series of “checks and balances.” For instance, the three branches of government are separate and co-equal, forming checks and balances. For example, the federal government and the states “check” each other via the Supremacy Clause and the Tenth Amendment.

America is not a democracy like ancient Greece

Madison was worried about a direct democracy, like ancient Greece. There, everything was decided by the vote of the majority. Madison called this “excessive democracy.”

The electorate is often uninformed.  Public opinion is easily swayed. Public opinion is also fickle. Plus, the majority sometimes tramples on the rights of the minority. “Majority rule” can turn into “mob rule.”

Therefore, the new nation should not be democracy.

America is not a republic like ancient Rome

Madison was also concerned about a republic, like ancient Rome. There, the representatives were appointed or elected, sometimes for life, by the wealthy and powerful.

The common folk had no input and no influence. They had no representation or say. Their rights were often ignored. The plebes were “lorded over,” and the peons were “enslaved.”

Therefore, the new nation should not be a republic.

Madison’s proposed a “democratic republic” or “representative democracy”

In order to avoid the abuses of either a democracy or a republic, Madison decided to create the check and balance of a “democratic republic” or “representative democracy.”

Like a republic, the leaders would be representatives. They had the time and resources to better educate themselves on the issues. This also prevented “mob rule,” and it avoided the hysteria of fickle public opinion.

However, unlike a classic republic, representatives would be democratically elected by the general public. This “checked” the representatives from “lording over” or “enslaving” the common folk. The people could vote their representatives out of office.

Thus, America is a “democratic republic” or a “representative democracy.”

The easy way to remember what type of government Madison and the Framers established is by combining the names of both major political parties.

Democrat” points to a “Democracy,” and “Republican” points to a “Republic.”  Together, they point to a “Democratic Republic” or “Representative Democracy.” Those are the best two-word descriptions of the American government.


6 thoughts on “America: Democracy or Republic?

  1. Worth considering is that Madison wasn’t starting from scratch. The United States had been operating under the Articles of Confederation for five years. The separation of powers concept dated back to the Magna Carta in 1215, nearly 600 years prior to Madison. He was able to look at the dual houses of England and their parliamentary system as it meshed with monarchy, and that was where he really identified the flaws. The major flaw that led Madison to the system established in 1787 was a function of the failure of no centralized federal government of the Articles of Confederation (lack of federalism in the philosophical sense – the separation of powers not just horizontally at national levels, but vertically – from national to state to local), and the failures of a powerful monarch that was unaccountable to the people matched with parliament that held the real power in England. What Madison came up with was the “Goldilocks” point in between the two systems.

    While I enjoy the note that to remember that we are a representative democracy, or democratic republic is a combination of the two parties, it is worthy to note that neither party existed at the time Madison framed things. That came later. And when it did, it was framed as federalists and the party that Madison and Jefferson eventually led, the “Democratic Republicans.”

    Love the posts!


    1. Thanks for the comment. You are right on target. It is amazing and inspiring to see how well the Framers “experiment” has lasted.
      A few of my ancestors signed the 1215 Magna Carta as “Baron Sureties” and “Bishop Witnesses.”
      As you know the baron “sureties” or “guarantors” swore to enforce the Great Charter, with arms, if King John violated the agreement.


  2. Yes, I like the fact that our founding framers learned of and used other views. It points to their humility. Brother John Locke was another source sought. Ho Chi Minh had access to knowledge about our marvelous system of government, and even sought to borrow some language from our constitution, but failed to see its broad brilliance.


    1. And I remember Philippine President Cory Aquino’s address to our Congress following her stunning successes in her own country, where she referred to our nation as “Democracy’s most famous home.” That utterance brought the “House” down. And it melted me into the sofa.


    2. Both the Soviet Union and Communist China are “Constitutional Republics” with constitutions. They grant more civil rights than the U.S. Constitution. But there is the fine print. “All of these rights must be exercised in the best interest of the State.” This “exception” swallows the “rules.”

      History is a great tutor, if we just pay attention.


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