Thursday, February 17, 2011

Democracy vs. republic

Here is one of my favorite entries from my book What's the Difference?: How to Tell Things Apart that Are Confusingly Close, modified only slightly from its publication version:

What’s the difference between a DEMOCRACY and a REPUBLIC?

Of all the differences in this book, here is the one you’re probably most embarrassed to admit you can’t explain. It was covered practically every year in school, yet you still don’t remember. The difference comes down to who’s got the authority. (Doesn’t it always?) Here’s a teaser: America is not a democracy. Just as the Founding Fathers intended.

In 1787, James Madison wrote in the Federalist Paper 14, “The true distinction between these forms…is that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, must be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.”

In a democracy, majority rules. In a republic, the rights of the individual rule. In a democracy, the masses can outweigh the individual, whereas in a republic, no group can override the rights of any single citizen. Some even liken democracy to mob rule—whether the mob’s opinion is “right” or “wrong.” But a republic is rule by law as decided by the entire population.

A democratic government can become a tyranny—tyranny of the majority. A republican government doesn’t have power
over its citizens—it gets its power from its citizens. It says so in the Declaration of Independence, right after mentioning the pursuit of happiness. Democratic governments grant rights—and can take them away. Republican governments see rights as unalienable, and protect them.

Both democracies and republics can have elected leaders, but in democracies, those leaders can set law on their own—like a monarchy. While a democracy can have royalty, a republic has no hereditary rulers such as kings and queens. That doesn’t preclude a so-called republic being ruled by a dictator—sometimes a person who seizes control, but sometimes a person chosen by the people who then rules by force.

A true democracy would not be practical for the United States—or any body larger than a town hall meeting, really. Would you want to keep abreast of every matter of government and be expected to vote on something every day? We elect legislators to do that with our interests in mind, and all citizens, including government officials, are subject to the same laws. Therefore, the United States is not a direct democracy but a republic governed by a representative democracy.

If the United States’ classification still doesn’t sound familiar, here’s something that will: recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Ah—“…and to the
republic for which it stands…” Or sing the “Battle Hymn of the Democracy.” Wait, that’s “Battle Hymn of the republic.” Or just read the Declaration and the Constitution. Neither describes America as a “democracy”—neither even uses the word. Looks like the clues have been there all along.

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