Is America a democracy or a republic? BothPublished 10:05am Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom
There has been an interesting debate in the letters to the editor lately about whether the United States is a democracy or a republic.
For some, the debate is a matter of left or right, as though the terms are connected to the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
Let’s clear this debate up.
It’s not an either-or situation. It’s not a debate of republic versus democracy. The United States is both a democracy and a republic, and the two political science terms do not directly equate with two political parties that dominate American politics. Besides, we all ought to remember that in the 19th century, the Republicans were liberal and the Democrats were conservative, at least according to any college-educated historian and political scientist who doesn’t believe in revisionist history.
I always imagined the two parties had those names because they invoke belief in this great experiment called America.
There pretty much are two types of democracies: direct democracies and representational democracies.
In direct democracies, all eligible voters get to vote on whether to pass laws, politics, budgets, resolutions and other matters. The majority rules.
In representational democracies, eligible voters elect people to go do that stuff for them. The United States is a representational democracy in that we elect politicians to gather and decide matters. Sometimes, on the state level, we become a direct democracy, where voters directly decide on a law. We typically call it a referendum.
But we also are a republic. The term republic is an entirely different concept from democracy. It means the government belongs to the public, not to a family (monarchy), a religious organization, a dictator, a military or a small group of elites. The U.S. Constitution ensures that the states also are republics, in the way the federal government is.
Here is a good example to help express the concepts. The United Kingdom is a democracy, because its laws and other matters are decided by elected representatives in the House of Commons, but it is not considered a republic because the government belongs to Queen Elizabeth II and her heirs. This gives you insight to why the Irish Republican Army had the term in its name: The terms republic and republican invoke a desire to remove the British monarchy from rule. In the IRA’s case, from rule in northern Ireland.
Ireland’s official name is the Republic of Ireland, clearly a name meant to show it is free from monarchy rule, after gaining independence in 1922.
The only time England was a Republic was in the 17th century under the Rump Parliament and Oliver Cromwell, a span from 1649 to 1660, when the monarchy was restored. In the 19th century, people who advocated republicanism were shipped off to Australia. The United Kingdom remains a constitutional monarchy.
There are many countries with the term republic in the name. You might recall the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Or you surely know the People’s Republic of China. Technically, these are republics, because their forms of communist government supposedly belong to the people, at least on paper and in their communist ideals. Of course, most do not believe them to be republics in the true sense of term. A government belonging to a single political party is not really in the hands of its people.
I suppose the term republic is not a black and white thing. It has a sliding scale.
Look at the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is North Korea. Its name claims to be a republic, but in practice it is a kingdom.
Here is what the Republican Party says is the origin of its name: “The name ‘Republican’ was chosen because it alluded to equality and reminded individuals of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party.”
The Democratic Party was formed in the 1830s out of the remains of the divided Democratic-Republican Party. You’ve probably heard the term Jacksonian Democrats. The other side of the divided Democratic-Republican Party became the Whig Party.
So both parties of the modern era get their name from Thomas Jefferson’s party, the Democratic-Republican Party. Neat, huh?
So what about that party? Party names in Jefferson’s early American era didn’t have formal names, as parties were new. The big debate was between having a strong federal government or strong states, and history tells us the side for strong states was called by the people, politicians and the press the Democratic-Republicans (commonly shortened to Republicans) and the other side the Federalists. The names just arose from labels, rather than any formal creation.
Sometimes, the explanations are more simple than we might think.
Sometimes, in the fog of political debate, we often forget just how special our country is. We are the world’s oldest democracy and third oldest republic. San Marino and Switzerland have us on that one, unfortunately.
Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.