Monday, June 6, 2011

Democracy = Republic

For all practical purposes, the words "democracy" and "republic" are synonyms, and should be used as synonyms. That's demonstrated nicely in a fine new post by Steven Taylor, who focuses on explaining how James Madison used those words in the Federalist Papers. Taylor and I are both listening to democratic theorist Robert Dahl. As I've said before, the difference between the two is that one is from Greece and the other from Rome, but since no modern nation really bases anything they do on Roman or Athenian institutions, there's no point in maintaining some sort of separation between them.

The best practice, as far as I'm concerned, is to simply refer to different forms of democracy: direct democracy, representative democracy, majoritarian democracy, etc. Moreover, there's nothing inherently "pure" about one or another form -- none of them, that is, are "pure" democracy.

At any rate, I completely agree with Taylor: "In terms of contemporary usage, especially from a political science point of view, the formulation 'we have a republic, not a democracy' is almost nonsense."


  1. "The U.S. is a republic, not a democracy" has long been one of the most tiresome cliches of politics (up there with "I believe in freedom of speech, but...."). It's a distinction we all learned in third grade that pedantic know-it-alls like to invoke, usually as a non sequitur, as when it is used to argue against abolishing the Electoral College. (Memo to pedants: A national popular vote would bring us closer to the classical definition of a republic, not a democracy.) People who invoke it are uninterested in scholarly discussions or the fact that "direct democracy" is more a theoretical construct (like perfect competition) than a workable system. All they're doing is just finding a lazy, mindless way to defend the status quo.

  2. Simple test for quibblers: Is (mainland) China a republic? In an archaic sense of the word it surely is. Like medieval Venice it has a collective leadership that perpetuates itself by appointing new members, while the General Secretary has become more a doge than a dictator.

    But hardly anyone - certainly among the sort of US righties who like this formulation - would call the PRC a republic, or admit to holding a conception of 'republic' that includes it.

  3. Except there's tons of republics that aren't democracies. (Egypt under Mubarak for instance). All the word means nowadays is that there isn't a king.

  4. I like "republic" for a different reason: it's derivation from res publica, "the public thing(s)," implies all publicly constructed or overseen institutions: roads, schools, museums, the military, parks, national lands, etc. It's ironic that the party so wont to invoke the term "republic" is so little interested in maintaining these public goods.


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