I keep noticing a particular belief among a certain kind of rightwinger. What they say is that the US government isn’t a democracy but a republic. I’ve seen this stated thousands of times in blogs and comments around the web.
I wonder what is the source of this claim. The fact that it keeps being repeated by so many people makes me think it’s a talking point often heard in conservative media. There is one thing that is obvious to me about this phenomenon. These people didn’t learn this idea by looking up the term ‘democracy’ in a dictionary or an encyclopedia or even Wikipedia.
Half of the statement is correct and half of the statement is false. The US government is BOTH a democracy AND a republic. To be more specific, the US government is a representative democracy and a constitutional republic. What these rightwingers fail to understand is that there are multiple definitions of democracy and multiple definitions of republic.
Even going back to Greek society, there was vast difference between Spartan and Athenian democracy. Sparta was a representative democracy with a political system that was divided. Athens was more of a direct democracy where even the lowest citizen could participate. The US is a bit of both these. The US is like Sparta in the following ways: representation instead of direct democracy, divided government, and a professional military. The US is only like Athens in one way: any citizen can participate and potentially become elected into government.
The only place where direct democracy operates in the US very partially is on certain major issues of local governance that are decided by citizen vote. I suppose also that jury by peers could be thought of as a watered down or constrained version of direct democracy. Still, the vast majority of the government is representative and the ‘mob’ of the citizenry has little direct influence.
The rightwingers are arguing that democracy is solely defined as direct democracy or, as some call it, mobocracy. But they are simply wrong. Their ignorance amazes me. Let me demonstrate by considering a random definition from a mainstream dictionary. I did a search and this is the top result (after Wikipedia):
Merriam-Webster, definition 1, part b (emphasis mine)
a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections
Here is the confusion. Rightwingers are taking the following part of the definition as if it were the whole definition:
Merriam-Webster, definition 3
capitalized : the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the United States <from emancipation Republicanism to New Deal Democracy — C. M. Roberts>
Basically, it comes down to a simplistic play on words. These rightwingers are trying to make an argument that the Republican party is the party of real America, the party that represents the emancipation Republicanism of the founding fathers. The problem is that this argument is so simplistic as to be inane. There is absolutely no conflict between a constitutional republic and a representative democracy. US democracy is constrained by being indirect and by having the govt divided. Furthermore, US democracy is constrained by the constitution (and the constitution is responsive to the democratic process, i.e., amendments).
There are a few basic confusions.
The original meaning of ‘republic’ was simply a government that wasn’t a monarchy. The difference between a monarch and a president is that the former represents himself or represents the ruling elite and the latter theoretically represents the whole population and the country as a whole. As far as I know, this doesn’t require a constitution. The term ‘republic’ just basically means that the leader can’t simply act on whim and must be held accountable to the law like everyone else, but these laws aren’t necessarily the same as a constitution. A constitution is similar to laws, but the difference is that a constitution is what all other laws are based upon and that they must remain basically unchanged. Most republics probably tend towards declaring constitutions, but a strong legal system independent of the leader can serve the same purpose as a constitution. A constitution is just a safeguard in case the legal system fails. The constitution, of course, has no power in and of itself. Still, it’s powerful in being a symbolic mission statement of a society.
Let me now share part of the definition of ‘republic’:
Merriam-Webster, definition 1, part b(1)
a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law
That serves as an equally good definition of a representative democracy.
Two things come to my mind: 1) Henry Fairlie’s definition of a Tory; and 2) rightwing rhetoric about ‘mobocracy’ and ‘real Americans’.
So, how did Henry Fairlie define a Tory? The Tories support the British government… which includes the period of monarchy. The Tory has faith in government in general for the reason they mistrust capitalism controlled by the wealthy elite. The government represents the people or at least the country, but capitalists have no inherent loyalty to anything besides profit. I think this represents the basic distinction between conservatives and liberals in the US. Conservatives mistrust government and instead trust capitalism. Liberals have a basic faith in government while being wary of capitalism. This is demonstrated by how Democrats show stronger support for even Republican presidents than Republicans show for Democrat presidents. Liberals trust the government even when they don’t have one of their own in power because they see government as being greater than either party.
This brings me to the second point. Liberals also have more basic faith in the American people and human nature in general. Liberals believe humans are inherently good or at least have the inherent predisposition towards good. Conservatives believe that people need to be told what to do by traditional authorities (i.e., religious leaders) and by those who are seen as having earned authority (i.e., successful/wealthy capitalists). Conservatives talk about ‘real Americans’, but they don’t mean the average American. What they’re talking about is the specific group they belong to: fundamentalist Christians, ‘white culture’, etc. So, their notion of ‘real Americans’ is very narrow. The liberal notion of a real American is more broad and I doubt most liberals would even deny conservatives as being real Americans. Just look at the Democratic voters who evenly divide between identifying as liberals and conservatives (according to the 2005 Pew data: Beyond Red vs Blue).
I’d also point out that it’s because of conservatives mistrust of people and government that they emphasize the constitution so much. That is why they tend to think of the constitution as an unchanging document akin to a religious document such as the Ten Commandments. Conservatives trust principles and beliefs, traditional values and institutions; whatever they perceive as a living and unchanging tradition of their particular in-group. Democracy, even though ancient, isn’t a traditional part of Christianity and so not a traditional part of European culture. Greek ideas which inspired the Enlightenment Age were reintroduced to Europe from the Middle East and so Greek ideas are considered suspicious.
My main point in all this is just that it’s odd to see rightwing constitutionalists denying the very democracy that was created by the founding fathers. There are argument rests on the fact that when some of the founding fathers were using the term ‘democracy’ they were often referring to only direct democracy, although not always (Thomas Paine seemed to have meant something more broad when he wrote about ‘democracy’). Apparently, many of the founding fathers used the term ‘republic’ to mean representative democracy. However, in the modern world, the term ‘democracy’ is more commonly used for both direct and representative forms. The rightwingers using narrow definitions from a couple of centuries ago and dismissing modern meaning of words is rather pointless. The meanings of words change. That is just the way the world works.
Like it or not, the US government is a democracy. If (some) rightwingers for some strange reason wanted to get rid of democracy, they’d be forced to get rid of the republic itself which is built on the political process of democracy (voting, representation, etc). I’m assuming rightwingers don’t want to do this. So, why do they continue with the ignorant argument that America isn’t a democracy? Is it intentional ignorance in that there being ideoligically divisive in what they see as a battle that must be won at all costs, the battle of defeating liberals and Democrats? Or is it just passive ignorance of people who never read anything (including dictionaries and encyclopedias) outside of conservative media?
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