William P.
mendocino coast

America: Republic or Democracy?

by William P. Meyers

Lately, from politicians, radio-talk show hosts, and other commentators, we have heard that we should forget about democracy, because the U.S.A. is a republic. But some questions are being posed by democracy advocates: What is a republic? What is a democracy? Should the United States be a mere republic, or a genuine democracy?

Republicans and other democracy detractors point to the U.S. Constitution and bits of history, and say, "See, the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution gave us a Republic. They believed democracies were dangerous and unworkable."

On that, they are partly right, but they fail to mention that democracies and republics overlap. They are not opposites. And they fail to account for the history of American government since 1788, much less the debates that took place in America prior to 1788, when the U.S. Constitution was substituted for the Articles of Confederation.

Democracy means rule of the people. The two most common forms of democracy are direct democracy and representative democracy. In direct democracy everyone takes part in making a decision, as in a town meeting or a referendum. The specific rules may vary: perhaps everyone must agree, perhaps there must be consensus, perhaps a mere majority is required to make a decision. The other, better known form of democracy is a representative democracy. People elect representative to make decisions or laws. Again, specifics vary greatly.

And, surprise, a representative democracy is a kind of republic. What distinguishes a republic is that it has an elected government. Representative democracies are, therefore, a kind of republic. Self-appointed governments such as monarchies, dictatorships, oligarchies, theocracies and juntas are not republics. However, this still allows for a wide spectrum. The classic is the Roman Republic, in which only a tiny percentage of citizens, members of the nobility, were allowed to vote for the Senators, who made the laws and also acted as Rome's supreme court. Most people would say that Rome was a Republic, but not a democracy, since it was very close to being an oligarchy, rule by the few. Although the Roman Republic was not a dictatorship (until Augustus Caesar grabbed power), it did not allow for rule of the people. In both theory and practice the Soviet Union, that late evil empire, was a republic (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) because the lawmakers were elected, if only by the Communist Party members.

Beginning with the Constitution's adoption, America has been a Republic. But the dominant trend over the last two centuries has been to make it into a democracy as well, a representative democracy, also known as a democratic republic. True, the creation of the Constitution itself was partly a reaction against democracy. In states like Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, the situation was getting way too democratic for the monied aristocracy that had, since the American Revolution, refused to share power with ordinary men.

The causes of the American Revolution were many, but for the monied class there were three principal aims. They sought self-government: that is, they sought to rule the colonies themselves, to further their own interests. They sought to protect the institution of slavery, which had been endangered by Lord Mansfield's ruling against it in the Sommersett case of 1772. And land speculators like George Washington sought to seize more Native American Indian land, which the British had outlawed.

But to win the American Revolution this predatory elite needed help. Their own rhetoric about freedom and equality led to widespread demands for the right to vote: universal suffrage. In other words, the people began demanding democracy. Even the slaves (white and black alike) demanded to be freed and allowed to vote.

After the British were defeated a centralized, national government was seen by George Washington and company not as a method of extending freedom and the right to vote, but as a way of keeping control in the hands of rich. They wrote several anti-democratic provisions into the U.S. Constitution. Slavery was institutionalized. The Senate was not to be elected directly by the people; rather Senators were to be appointed by state legislatures. The President was not to be directly elected by the voters, but elected through an electoral college. The Supreme Court was to be appointed. Only the House of Representatives was elected directly.

More important to our democracy-versus-republic debate, the U.S. Constitution left the question of who could vote in elections to each individual state. In most states only white men who owned a certain amount of property could vote. So, on the whole, the first federal government that met in 1789 was a republic with only a fig-leaf of democratic representation. This is what today's commentators mean when they say America is a republic, not a democracy.

Fortunately (for the democrats), the early federal government was not very powerful. In state after state it became easier for white males to qualify to vote. And slowly, decade after decade, our republic became a democratic republic.

At the national level the major steps toward democracy can be marked by amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights guaranteed limits to the power of the federal government. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment effectively extended the vote to all adult male citizens, including ex-slaves, by penalizing states that did not allow for universal male suffrage. The Fifteenth Amendment explicitly gave the right to vote to former slaves. After the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments did not extend suffrage to women, a vigorous campaign for the vote was launched by women, who received the vote through the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

But the main Amendment that tipped the scales from the national government of the United States being a mere republic to being a true representative democracy was the often-overlooked Seventeenth Amendment, which took effect in 1913. Since 1913 the U.S. Senate has been elected directly by the voters, rather than being appointed by the state legislatures. That makes the national government democratic in form, as well as being a republic.

There will always be anti-democratic forces in any society. The most blatantly undemocratic feature of U.S. government in the 20th century was the unconstitutional but systematic disenfranchisement of African-American and other non-white citizens. This came to an end in the 1950's and 1960's with a series of Supreme Court decisions against segregation laws, the passage of Civil Rights Acts, and the passage of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment outlawing poll taxes. We even lowered the voting age to 18 with the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in 1971.

There are no longer any voter-qualification impediments to democracy in the United States. But many have noted that the will of the people has tended not to prevail, and that a majority of people eligible to vote are so discouraged that they do not vote. The main reason for this is the buying and selling of elections and politicians by the wealthier class of citizens and their special interest groups. A year or more before elections take place, the winner is decided by those who vote with dollars. But this is a defect in democracy, not a reason to abandon it. The answer is to cure the defect, not to attempt to destroy our representative democracy.

February 19, 2002
Please circulate freely.

See also: Democracy or Republic: selected essays