US: Republic & Democracy

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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US: Republic & Democracy (pt 2)

14 thoughts on “US: Republic & Democracy

    • I’ve seen it less recently. It really got bad a while back, maybe some during the Bush administration but even more with the rise of the Tea Party movement. I think some pundits were pushing that meme hard.

      I wrote this series of posts so that I could simply link to them every time a right-winger makes this false claim. It saves me time. I’m all for lessening the amount of time I waste interacting with those who don’t care about truth. I only confront such people because I don’t want their lies to stand unchallenged.

  1. I think there are one or two explanations for the phenomenon. First, it allows them to throw the person their arguing with off the topic at hand and instead get mired in a pedantic debate about a false statement of mutual exclusivity. If one has not encountered this before, it can be a very time consuming argument. It’s also a way of asserting their dominance over their opponent, because they imply that they are more knowledgeable about American civics and are thus more qualified to speak on the topic. It can create a sense of doubt or crisis in the opponent.

    More worryingly, it seems to be a line of argument developed by Sovereign Citizens (extreme right wingers who think they have the right to refuse obedience to any law any government creates — usually as it relates to taxes). In defining the United States as something other than a democracy and solely as a constitutional republic, their logical conclusion is that each citizen is a sovereign entity and is therefore entitled to the sovereign rights usually afforded to states. They feel they can reject the application of governmental laws on the basis that they violate their personal sovereignty.

    I got into an argument with these people once on PolicyMic. Dozens of them suddenly responded to a comment of mine on a thread that had been dead for a few weeks. All of their accounts had been created brand new the day of their comments. I got the sense that someone either sent them to comment (perhaps by linking the article on a website a lot of right wingers frequent and urging his followers on) or that a single person had created all of the accounts.

    • I confront these people because they represent a very dangerous phenomenon.

      They are a minority. But because they are so vocal and persistent and seemingly so organized in their efforts, they can appear a larger movement than they are. I suspect with the media echosphere these right-wingers end up fooling themselves into believing they represent the average American and therefore that they are the ‘real’ Americans.

      They mindlessly repeat what they hear repeated in the right-wing media echo chamber. They are so disconnected that they don’t realize they are disconnected. They don’t know how little they know. It is worse than that even. They suffer from the smart idiot effect, as research has shown. They ‘know’ a lot, but they are unable to discern what things they ‘know’ are true and what is false.

      This makes them an easily manipulated group by any demagogue that comes along (see social dominance orientation types—SDOs). Their disconnection makes them fearful. It isn’t America slipping away from them. They are slipping away from America and from most Americans. Their being so misinformed just makes them more afraid and more dangerous. They honestly are confused and overwhelmed, which causes them to lash out at scapegoats.

      It is very sad. These are the people who need to hear the truth more than anyone. Yet there is almost no way to reach many of them. They are in such a state of fear that they close ranks and barricade themselves further in their groupthink.

      But I wouldn’t give up on all of them. The truth is slowly beginning to trickle through the entire population. Every time one of these not-a-democracy trolls is confronted with a basic civics lesson, some of them begin to have doubts about what they’ve been told. It only takes one niggling doubt to undermine the whole edifice of their faith.

      We who wish to defend and promote democracy must be as persistent and vocal as our opponents. No opportunity for speaking the truth should ever be ignored.

      • Keep fighting the good fight. I quoted the Constitution back at one of them when it happened to me, figuring that’s the only thing he could understand (I cited the articles dealing with electing representatives, senators, etc. and their powers over the executive, and then the amendments expanding the franchise). He never responded after that.

    • Your point about Sovereign Citizens is important. These not-a-democracy trolls aren’t necessarily even your average right-winger. They are the extreme fringe of right-wing extremists.

      I interact with various right-wingers. Most of them don’t dismiss American democracy, as far as I can tell. I have family members who to varying degrees lean to the right, and none of them argue against all democracy in this way that lacks all nuance.

      I don’t mind right-wingers who make intelligent and informed arguments based on principle and logic. I even sometimes find common ground of agreement or at least mutual understanding with some right-wingers. Even out right disagreement doesn’t bother me when it is fair and reasonable. But there first has to be a minimal agreement on basic facts.

      I’ll debate what kind of democracy is best. I’ll debate what kind of democratic tradition(s) exists in American society and politics. And I’ll debate to what degree American democracy functions well or functions at all. But categorical dismissals of democracy are simpleminded and pointless, especially considering the very fact we are free to publicly debate democracy itself is a democratic value and a demoratic process. Using democratic free speech to deny that dqoemocracy even exists seems counterproductive at best.

      All this does, as you point out, is to distract from the real issues.

      • I posted the article about the democracy study to my facebook page:

        Interestingly, the only person who commented in response was my cousin twice removed. He is some variety of right-winger or something like that, maybe more libertarian than anything else. He agreed that the lack of democracy was a bad thing. There was no bullshit about the US not being a democracy.

        I have some of my best discussions with him, even when we disagree. And he can be pretty extreme with his right-wing views. For example, he is the opposite of an environmentalist. He thinks we should stop worrying about the earth and instead just colonize space. He has great faith in capitalism and technology saving humanity. But he also cares greatly about freedom and our views come together very closely on those issues.

        What I want is meaningful discussion and worthy opponents to challenge my views.

        • Well this kind of hits on a deeper problem — that Republicans and the right in general have fully sold out to appealing to the lowest common denominator among them. I’m glad you’ve found in your cousin someone who can serve as a rational sparring partner for your debates.

          Unfortunately the right for too long promoted the likes of Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter and in the process sidelined anyone with a modicum of intellect. There are plenty of rational arguments for conservative positions, especially in when it comes to liberty and economics, but instead the cultural demagogues spewing hateful opinions on social issues get pushed to the fore. It’s turning off a lot of young conservatives — they hold conservative fiscal attitudes but don’t see anything in the GOP today that resonates with them and feel embarrassed to associate themselves with the GOP because of the prejudice so many of its public figures so casually toss around.

          • I think a lot of changes are happening in American society, especially in terms of demographics and across generations. The right side of the spectrum is being altered as much as the rest of society. Young conservatives (and young right-wingers) are, generally speaking, a new breed.

            That might partly explain my cousin. He is on the younger end of GenX. He is a Tea Party activist, which is less common among the young, but his views are much more open-minded and thoughtful than the average Tea Partier who is a fan of Beck and Palin.

            It is refreshing to see these changes, including on the left side of the spectrum. People are waking up and the tired old rhetoric is getting less effective.

  2. I was reminded of an important perspective. In Christian terms, it is often stated as hate the sin but not the sinner. But I prefer to frame it in a more psychological understanding.

    I strongly disagree with the not-a-democacy argument. I disagree so strongly that I don’t even see the argument as valid. That is the logical response. The psychological response, however, is to empathize with what motivates the argument, what experience is behind the words.

    Obviously, such people don’t genuinely understand democracy, either in terms of technical meaning or real world application. When they argue against ‘democracy’, they aren’t referring to actual democracy. Instead, they are using the word ‘democracy’ as a symbol.

    This symbol represents any number of things, but maybe most important is the experiential level. It ultimately comes down to fear. Dismissing the misinformed argument against ‘democracy’ is one thing. But dismissing the experiece behind the words is something else entirely. Fear shouldn’t be dismissed. Fear is always irrational, which is all the more reason we should respect it, rather than mock it.

    We should look past the words. If we want to reach people in a state of fear, we need to meet them on the level of their experience. That is a challenging thing to do. I’m not even sure I’m capable of doing that, but it seems like a worthy thing to try to do, even if only partly and imperfectly.

    I’m not sure that makes sense to others. It is just a thought I had.

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