General Question

pallen123's avatar

Why do conservatives use the term "Republic" so often?

Asked by pallen123 (1510 points ) January 12th, 2011

I hear Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh often using the term “Republic” when they’re talking about patriotism or risks to democracy. I rarely hear Democrats use the term. What is it about the word “Republic”?

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48 Answers

bkcunningham's avatar

The United States is a constitutional republic form of government. Do you know the Pledge of Allegiance? I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

America isn’t a democracy like so many say and try to make it, it is a federal constitutional republic.

WestRiverrat's avatar

The United States is a Republic. That is we elect people to make our laws for us. In a true democracy every law would have to be voted on by every citizen.

The Founding Fathers gave us a Republic because it better protects the minority than a true Democracy. True democracy is like 2 wolves and a sheep voting on what is for lunch, the minority always loses. A republic would put a shepherd in between the two parties.

bkcunningham's avatar

@WestRiverrat I like your example. I’m going to use it sometime. The critical difference lies in the fact that a constitutional republic has a constitution that limits the powers of the government. It also spells out how the government is structured, creating checks on its power and balancing power between the different branches.

The goal of a constitutional republic was to avoid the dangerous extreme of either tyranny or mobocracy but what exists in America today is a far cry from the Constitutional Republic our forefathers gave us.

pallen123's avatar

Interesting. Thank you both. I know more than I ever learned in school about the term. However… why do conservatives seem to use it more often? Assuming they actually do. I mean, are they intentionally underscoring the definition you both provide—that ours is not a democracy but a republic? If so, why are they doing this? Do they fear we are in danger of becoming a true democracy or something else? Is their motive that precise or is there some other connotation to the word—or does it just sound patriotic because it’s part of the pledge of allegiance? I mean, usually when I hear the term used, it could easily be replace with the word “country”. So it occurred to me that maybe they must be trying to make a point by saying “Republic”... Thoughts?

WestRiverrat's avatar

I think you are correct in why they are using it more now than they used to @pallen123. They are trying to remind or teach the people.

SavoirFaire's avatar

To repeat myself from here:

The word “democracy,” in its broadest sense, refers to any state in which sovereignty ultimately rests in the citizenry. The most common forms are direct democracy, in which governmental decisions are voted on by the citizenry as a whole, and representative democracy, in which the citizenry elects a subset of itself to make governmental decisions.

The word “republic,” in its broadest sense, refers to any non-monarchical state. The more common usage, however, refers to a non-monarchical government in which governmental decisions are made by a representative body. This representative body need not be elected by the people, and so it need not be a democracy.

A democratic republic is a form of representative democracy in which the head of state is elected by the citizenry. In this way, it satisfies the definitions of both a democracy and a republic (a rather unsurprising fact). The United States is quite definitively a democratic republic, and was always intended to be exactly that. Indeed, many of the Founders used the words “democracy” and “republic” interchangeably when referring to the United States in their letters because they understood the country to be both: a democratic republic.

bkcunningham's avatar

Just like you said, you now know more than you ever learned in school about the phrase. When you look at a republic as opposed to a democracy (which people have commonly and wrongly started calling America) you will see how important the difference really is to the people. Words are important. Yes, a reminder.

Nullo's avatar

Well, the United States that they inhabit is, in terms of structure, a republic. It sounds cooler than “democracy.” And last but not least, they’re trying to offset people who are referring to the U.S. as a democracy – the tendency when thinking of democracy, you see, is to think primarily in terms of majority rule – which has little regard for minority opinions, and so falls under the Naughty column in my ledger.

Word choice is almost as important as what it is you’re trying to say. These people, both the righties and the lefties, realize this. So they’re trying to shape the public lexicon.

SavoirFaire's avatar

As for why conservatives use the term “republic” more, the most obvious reason is propaganda. But this goes both ways. The Republicans emphasize the aspects of the US that make it a republic, just as the Democrats emphasize the aspects of the US that make it a democracy. In this way, each group tries to make itself look “more American” than the other. (“America’s a republic, and I’m a Republican” vs. “America’s a democracy, and I’m a Democrat.”)

Both of these claims are purely rhetorical, of course. Membership in a party is no guarantee of anything (just look at any of the RINOs, DINOs, or defectors). But it makes for good theater, and there’s nothing more central to the modern political environment of the United States than theater.

pallen123's avatar

Well this is all very helpful. Thank you all. But aside from the shared “rep” and “dem” parts of the words, it seems Democrats would have taken to using the term Republic more often during periods when both houses leaned Republican, no? I’m reasonably well-educated but apparently missed much of these terms in high school. Not that they’re unimportant but.. That’s why it perplexes me that even for theatrical reasons conservatives would take to using a fairly obscure term to make a point of underscoring something to the general public.

bkcunningham's avatar

You are welcome pallen123.

I love the story of Ben Franklin at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, after a long day of deliberation. Someone asked Franklin: “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”

“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
From the notes of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention.

McHenry’s notes were first published in The American Historical Review, vol. 11, 1906, and the anecdote on p. 618 reads: “A lady asked Dr. Franklin Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy. A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.” When McHenry’s notes were included in The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, ed. Max Farrand, vol. 3, appendix A, p. 85 (1911, reprinted 1934), a footnote stated that the date this anecdote was written is uncertain.
SUBJECTS: Republic
WORKS: Benjamin Franklin Collection

ETpro's avatar

I have had numerous (and pointless) arguments on with Con men who insist that the USA is not a democracy, it’s a republic. This they vehemently deny. to them, the US is a republic, pure and simple. It can’t have the word Democrat or anything close to it anywhere in its definition.

The US is in truth a democratic republic. I point out to them that North Korea and Communist China are both Republics, they just aren’t in any way shape or form Democratic Republics. I ask them if we aren’t a democratic republic, what kind are we. Are we like North Korea or Saddam’s Iraq? They never have a sensible answer for that. They just resort to more arm waving and repeating their mantra that the US is a Republic and not anything else.

bkcunningham's avatar

@ETpro we are a federal constitutional republic. Deomcracy and republic aren’t opposite ends of the spectrum. We use some democratic processes. But we are, most assuredly, not a democracy form of govenment.

pallen123's avatar

So @bkcunningham where does all this derive from? The Constitution? I mean the term “federal constitutional republic”—is that sort of a summation of what the framers intended or did they in fact term it that? And if the latter, where does the whole concept of democracy enter? Because we use a democratic process to elect representatives? For the record, the whole electoral college thing never seemed all that democratic to me, at least not in the one man, one vote sense…

bkcunningham's avatar

@pallen123 mainly from The Federalist Papers and other writings of the people we call our Founding Fathers including the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights and anti-Federalist Papers and others.

pallen123's avatar

I’m appalled at my lack of knowledge of much of this stuff at all. I mean it really was never the least bit interesting to me. And I’ve always been interested in “politics”. In fact I was a political science undergrad before switching degrees. I guess this is as much history as political science. Still I feel like a moron. That said, the older I get, the more disillusioned I feel I am becoming with the U.S. political system, and I think politics in general. Maybe I’m becoming an anarchist?

bkcunningham's avatar

@pallen123 naw, don’t get down on yourself. I know many people who didn’t get interested in history or government issues until mid-life and even more who don’t know and have no interest now. Doesn’t make you bad. If you are interested, there are plenty of original documents you can find and read online. Cornell has a really great library online for the US Constitution. The Federalist Papers can be read at

The University of Virgiia has archived all the writings of Thomas Jefferson to view and read online. You can even see the original manuscripts.

JLeslie's avatar

True we are a Republic. Maybe they like using Republic because it sounds like Republican. And Democracy kind of sounds like Democrat.

bkcunningham's avatar

@pallen123 you are welcome.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@bkcunningham Please read my first comment here. The United States is most certainly a democracy, and you are mistaking how the terms relate to one another. You are also misunderstanding the context of Franklin’s comment. The United States is both a democracy and a republic: a democratic republic. It is also a constitutional republic, a constitutional democracy, and a federation. None of these preclude the others.

Ron_C's avatar

I think that is to remind you that they don;t believe that everybody has an equal say as to how the government is run. It is a subtle reminder that there are government leaders and “it ain’t you”.

JLeslie's avatar

@Ron_C Interesting.

bkcunningham's avatar

@SavoirFaire I read your first comment. Read Federalist Paper #10. Tell me what you think. I am done for the night and look forward to reading your thoughts later. Good night.

ETpro's avatar

@bkcunningham The Federalist Papers are an interesting set of arguments, but they are the woprk of just 3 of the Founding Fathers and almost exclusively just 1. They have no legal standing of any kind in establishing what form of government the US adopted. I say again, we are a democratic constitutional republic. North Korea satisfies the definition of a Federal Constitutional Republic but it is NOT democratic as there is only one party and elections are strictly controlled by the dictator.

We were less democratic in our early days as a nation than we are now. Originally, senators were appointed by their state’s legislatures. We changed that with the Seventeenth Amendment. Now, The President and Vice President, House and Senate members are now all eoected democratically. We do not require that they belong to the state sanctioned party, as China does. We are a democratic republic. North Korea and China are not.

I find it puzzling that right wingers are all for exporting democracy around the world at the barrel of a gun, but insist it has no place here.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@bkcunningham Federalist Paper #10 supports my contentions quite strongly. First, the authors are clear that when they compare a republic to a democracy, they have particular definitions of each term in mind. Specifically, the form of democracy being considered is a pure democracy (which is a term for direct democracy, such as was practiced in Athens). My original comment covers this, since I make no claims to the United States being that sort of democracy. But democracies, like republics, come in different forms.

Here is just one comment that confirms my interpretation:

“A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.”

Here the authors are concerned to distinguish their republican government from a different form of democracy. This is why the qualifying term “pure” appears here. The Founders were concerned with the tyranny of the majority, and representative government was the check they put on the people. Thus they could have their democracy and keep it, too.

Were the contention that the United States is a republic and not a particular kind of democracy (i.e., a direct democracy like Athens), there would be no dispute from anyone. And in that case, there would be no contradiction with my noting that the United States is a democratic republic (which is a particular kind of republic and a particular kind of democracy). But when the contention becomes that the United States is not a democracy at all, this is simply a failure to understand definitions. The Founders were not prone to such simple mistakes, and I certainly hope no one wishes to use the Federalist Papers to imply otherwise.

Ron_C's avatar

@SavoirFaire That was a very good answer. Though the authors of the constitution understood that the people had inalienable rights, they also understood that the uneducated needed to have their view tempered. I believe that, I think, Thomas Jefferson, also believed that the only way to keep the republic was to have an educated electorate, thus his support of public education.

Unfortunately that lesson seems to have been lost, especially by the right that attacks public education and cuts education funding before funding for new weapons programs.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Ron_C As is often remarked, Jefferson’s three proudest achievements were the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (which formed part of the basis for the First Amendment to the United States Constitution), and the founding of the University of Virginia. He invested all of these, in increasing order of obviousness, with his fundamental ideal: a free and educated mind.

As a teacher, I do find it unfortunate that education has become a political football. If any political party thinks that an educated populace would be a threat to its agenda, that agenda needs retooling. But perhaps the bigger political irony here is that the Federalists were the big government types of their era, and the Anti-Federalists were the small government types. Yet many Republicans embrace the Federalist Founders, while many Democrats embrace the Anti-Federalist Founders. This is not a universal tendency, to be sure, but it is enough to reinforce the notion that politics makes strange bedfellows.

ETpro's avatar

@SavoirFaire siad, “If any political party thinks that an educated populace would be a threat to its agenda, that agenda needs retooling.” Hear, hear!

Jaxk's avatar

Let me give a slight twist on this. Republic is rather vague and merely means government by the people. As opposed to a Monarchy or divine right. A democracy requires more involvement by the people. Voting by the people on issues as has been discussed previously.

At the federal level we fit the definition for a Republic but not really for a Democracy. We do not vote on any issue, legislation, or regulation. In fact we use elected or appointed officials to do that for us. And generally we don’t even vote for federal representatives but rather state representatives that represent us at the federal level. Even the president is not directly elected by the people but rather we vote on state electors that will elect the president. In other words we have limited involvement with the federal government but more direct involvement at the State level. States such as California could easily be called a democratic republic since there is involvement with issues and legislation. Also direct elections for government (governor, house and senate, judges, etc.) But at the federal level it’s hard to see where the democratic part comes in.

And since it has been brought up, let me clarify the education issue. The federal government is not where the education system was designed to reside. It is the role of the Sates. Federal involvement has forced a ‘one size fits all’ solution holding back the brightest while doing little for those less gifted. In fact the deterioration of our education system can be traced back to the late 70s or early 80s. Not surprisingly the Department of education was created in 1980. You may argue that the DoE did not cause the deterioration but it would be hard to argue that it has helped. There is no conflict between the defense spending (a federal responsibility) and the education spending (a State responsibility). They were designed to be supported by different entities.

bkcunningham's avatar

@ETpro forgive me, but I don’t really follow your logic when you say that we are less democratic than in our earlier days when senators were appointed by their state’s legislators, before the 17the Amendment, and now the POTUS and VP are now elected democratically.

The Progressives thought that the founders’ Constitution was fatally flawed. Among other things, they wanted federalism smashed. And to do this, they needed a graduated income tax (the 16th Amendment) to increase federal revenue, and the direct election of senators (the 17th Amendment) to expand federal power. These were two radical changes to the Founders’ constitutional text, despite George Washington’s ancient plea that we “resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts.”

North Korea is a communist state one-man dictatorship. China a communist state. Perhaps you meant South Korea? Speaking for myself, I never argued the legal standings of the Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers are one of the most important works on political theory ever written and greatly influenced the foundation of American’s government. The 85 essays outlined how this new government would operate and why this type of government was the best choice for the United States of America.

ETpro's avatar

@Jaxk Your definition of democracy doesn’t agree with the dictionary’s, and in all such cases where a partisan redefines words to make their ideology right, I go with the dictionary and not the individual pet meaning. Merriam-Webster says:

Definition of DEMOCRACY

a : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority
b : 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
: a political unit that has a democratic government
capitalized : the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the United States <from emancipation Republicanism to New Deal Democracy — C. M. Roberts>
: the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority
: the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges

The 1st definition is the one we are applying when we say America is a Democratic Republic. And the definition fits. Nobody with a right mind thinks the US democracy is a direct democracy like Athens had. No such government has existed in a major nation state in 2,500 years

@bkcunningham Go back and reread what I wrote. You have me quoted backwards. I said “We were less democratic in our early days…” not [We] are less democratic than in our earlier days. You are welcome to define the 16th and 17th Amendments as radical if you wish. I vehemently disagree, and I am sure the majority of Americans do as well. If you wish to push your point, though, you are free to push for further Amendment.

The Founding Fathers were people, not Gods or Demigods. They recognized that fact. They knew that despite their best efforts to provide a sound framework for government, they could not possibly foresee what needs government would face hundreds of years in the future. Therefore, they put in place a system to amend the constitution. That plan was followed to the letter of the law in passing the 16th and 17th Amendments. That truth stands whether you individually like or hate those Amendments.

bkcunningham's avatar

@ETpro sorry in the mix up in reading your statement. I read it until I was cross-eyed. Slight midlife hormonal visual dyslexia here. I wasn’t intentional. I enjoyed your thoughts.

Jaxk's avatar


A little common sense is in order here. I have no problem with the dictionary definition nor does it conflict with my views. Everything becomes a matter of degrees. First of all we don not have a majority rules type of government. The construct of the house and senate provides a shift in the representation to insure smaller states are not overrun by the majority. Also the definition above would include such countries as N.Korea since they held elections (if I recall Kim Jon Il got 99% of the votes, the 1% were either dead or imprisoned).

Whether supreme power is vested in the people is debatable. A very small portion of our federal government is actually elected by the people. Most are appointed. And those appointed are not accountable to the people whether they be judges or regulators. So how much control and how much of the government is required to make the statement that it is a democracy? Where we draw those lines will affect our interpretation.

My main point here was that we have much more direct control at the state level than we do at the federal level. The constitution limited the federal powers and vested most power in the states. That has gradually changed over the years with more and more power going to the federal government where we have less control.

One of the significant differences between Conservatives (or Republicans) and liberals (or Democrats), is this distinction between federal and state control. Democrats typically want more power at the federal level, while Republicans want more power at the state level. The whole ‘States Rights’ issue. And the lack of control by the population at the federal level, plays into that argument.

submariner's avatar

There are lots of interesting ideas on this thread. Let me respectfully suggest that the least interesting one is the semantic issue.

Language does not sit still. It changes over time. What James Madison meant by the word democracy is not what that word has come to mean in our current political discourse. Madison uses the phrase “popular government” as an umbrella term that includes both republic and “pure” democracy.

The term republic, and small-r republicanism, has a history that goes back to classical Greece and Rome (even though the Greeks didn’t have a specific word for this form of government). Again, the word meant somewhat different things to Polybius, Cicero, Machiavelli, Milton, Montesquieu, Madison, and your political science professor.

Rather than arguing over a word, perhaps we could focus on the substantive issue that the OP raised. What is the rhetorical purpose of these conservative commentators when they invoke the Republic?

This thread interests me because I don’t listen to those guys, and I was unaware that they were making this move. There has actually been a revival of classical republican ideas within certain progressive circles over the last 50 years, but these ideas haven’t really caught on among the left at large. I’m curious to know what people on the right might be doing with small-r republicanism (which is very different from the oligarchic ideology of the current GOP).

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Jaxk I wonder if you read my initial comment? It seems you are requiring all democracies to be direct democracies, which is simply incorrect. You also seem to be committing a fallacy of division by suggesting that because something is (supposedly) true about a part, we can draw a conclusion about the whole. It is the entire system, and not just any particular level, that must be considered when making judgments about the United States government itself.

I do not agree with your contention about Representatives and Senators in the first place, however. They are, in fact, our federal representatives. There is no meaningful difference between “federal representatives” and “state representatives that represent us at the federal level.” My Senators and Representative represent me, and they do so at the federal level. Thus they are my federal representatives. It’s really quite simple. (And note that they could be my federal representatives even if we lived in the sort of republic where we did not vote for them. A representative government in which the representatives are appointed still meets the definition of a republic, even if most republics are in fact democracies as well.)

Then there is your assertion that “republic” means “government by the people.” But in fact, that is the etymology of the word “democracy” (from the Greek “demos” meaning “people” and “kratia” meaning “rule”). The etymology of “republic” is different. It comes from the phrase res pubica, meaning “public thing.” While republics do put sovereignty in the hands of a subset of the citizenry by definition, this is not usually what we mean when we say “government by the people.”

Finally, I am confused by your claim that the government does not run on the principle of “majority rules.” It is true that we do not always allow simple majorities to rule (though we often do), but there is no case where a vote at the federal level is won by the side receiving fewer votes. Could you please clarify this point, then?

Jaxk's avatar


I think we may be getting into a discussion of semantics here. Most definitions of republic will have variations of ‘Not a Monarchy or ‘of the public’. It is derived from the Latin phrase res publica, which can be translated as “a public affair”. This allows countries like N.Korea to use the term even though they have little in common with democracies or even ‘power by the people’. Most definitions of democracy will include phrases such as ‘supreme power lies in the body of the citizenry’. At the federal level, I don’t believe that to be true. Too much of the government is not under the control of the citizenry but is appointed (such as judges, cabinet posts, federal reserve, and so on).

The point about majority rule is related to the majority of the citizenry. In Congress there are two houses. One to represent the citizenry and one to represent the states. Alaska and Hawaii both have two senators. California also has two senators. Yet the two California senators represent 37 million people while Alaska and Hawaii combined only about 2 million. The senate was designed specifically to insure the more populous states would not overrule the less populous states (in other words to insure it was not a pure majority rules).. The majority of the people do not have control in the Senate.

Finally my point about state vs federal representation is that the states control the representation in a number of ways. District boundaries are drawn by the states, electoral votes can be skewed by the states. One state may divide the electoral votes by candidates, others are a winner take all. The point being that at the federal level our voice is filtered yet again.

Most people I know feel they have more input into state affairs than they do into federal affairs. Their voice is heard louder at a state level than it is at a federal level. In fact there are those that would argue that a democracy or even a republic is not the best form of government for a large and populous independent country. That a monarchy or even a dictatorship would be more effective. That is why a system where federal power is restricted and most power is driven down to state and local government, provides more control and responsibility for the citizenry. The difference between a democracy and a republic is subtle. Likewise the difference between federal and local government is subtle. You may not agree with me on several points but if you recall I said initially that this was just another twist on this argument.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Jaxk I did not object to your characterization of a republic as being “not a monarchy” or “of the public.” If you read my initial comment, you’ll see that I noted exactly those elements. I also noted the derivation of the term from the Latin phrase res publica. In fact, most of your first paragraph is just a repeat of comments I made yesterday.

As for supreme power not resting in the citizenry at the federal level, there are two issues. First, I will again note that it looks like you are committing the fallacy of division: when determining whether or not the United States is a democracy, it is a mistake to consider any given level in isolation. You might like or dislike how any particular level of government was designed by the Founders, but personal feelings such as those are irrelevant to the topic at hand. Second, “supreme power” is a term of art in political philosophy that has never required direct control. It is sufficient for democracy that the final say belongs to the people. And we are the ultimate sovereign in that we can elect those who make appointments, throw them out in favor of people who promise to make different appointments and impeach the previous appointees if we are dissatisfied, and subject many things to a public vote if we can get enough support for a referendum.

As for the two houses of Congress, both represent the people. This is basic civics. One represents us proportionally, the other does not. Yes, the distribution is state-based. That does not mean, however, that the people we elect represent the states themselves. They represent us.

Now, this system does combat the “tyranny of the majority,” and in that sense I agree that we are not purely ruled by the majority. Again, I had already said this quite explicitly in a previous comment. But also again, it is only a pure democracy that involves such a coarse notion of majority rule. There are other forms of democracy, and so the lack of this type of majority rule in no way means that our government is not a democracy.

I did not contest your point about state versus federal representation, so I’m not sure why you decided to reiterate it. Regardless, democracies and republics are not mutually exclusive forms of government. This seems to be the basic point you are missing. So when you say that “the difference between a democracy and a republic is subtle,” you are talking nonsense. While there can be democracies that are not republics and republics that are not democracies, there can also be democratic republics. So while there is a difference in the conditions required for each name to apply, there need not always be some fact that rules one or the other out.

Ron_C's avatar

@SavoirFaire it seems like the republicans and democrats are refighting the civil war. This time the Republicans represent the Confederacy and the Democrats are the Union.

What I don’t understand is how can a party that says it is dedicated to closing down the government but spends all its time growing government programs (mostly for warfare and big Oil).

All of the big increases in the size of government and associated big increases in th budget were caused by Republican administrations. While they are increasing the debt they decrease the revenue. I think that all congressmen should be issued a calculator.

The first thing the new house is trying to do is eliminate a program that saves 143 billion and will cost over 200 billion dollars to eliiminate. Where are the jobs they intend to create?

ETpro's avatar

@bkcunningham I would stone you for it, but since the thing about “Let him who is without guilt cast the first stone/” is on the books, the stoning has been postponed indefinitely. :-)

@Jaxk If using the primary dictionary definition of a word defies your notion of common sense, there is no point in our discussing anything. You will always be right, because words that you use mean whatever you want them to mean to make you right and others wrong. I have never said or even intimated that we have a direct democracy. I have never even seen anyone suggest such. We have a democratically elected government in our Legislative and Executive Branches and appointed officers in the Executive Branch and judges in the Judicial Branch. All major appointments are made by individuals or bodies elected by the people, and are approved by the Legislative Branch which is elected by the people. All appointees are subject to impeachment by the Legislative Branch, which is elected by the people. Call that whatever you want, it fits exactly the dictionary’s primary meaning for the word Democracy. Our form of government also fits the definition of a Republic, and one that is governed by a Constitution. So we are a Democratic Constitutional Republic.

I am glad you and @SavoirFaire took up the further discussion of both democracy and republic as your response to @SavoirFaire here gets to the heart of why you don’t like to call the US form of government a democracy. I am not nearly as much a state’s righter as you. I think the Federalists were right then and far more right today, and if we were to go far at pushing power down to states and local communities in today’s world of globalization and threats such as nuclear Armageddon and man made global catastrophes, we would assure the US soon being a third-world level nation. But I understand and respect your opinion regarding anti-Federalism and can see how it colors your preferred choice of definitions for our government.

Jaxk's avatar


Most of your post seems to be complaining that we are saying the same thing. Yet somehow I am wrong. OK, I’ll bite. But first, there is no national referendum process and you can’t impeach anyone other than for high crimes and misdemeanors.

So here’s the problem as I see it. You can call us a Democracy, a Republic, a Federation, a Constitutional government, or any combination of some or all of them. They all fit. There’s even a few others that fit to a more or less degree. The CIA seems to define our government this way:

“Constitution-based federal republic; strong democratic tradition”

I don’t have a problem with that definition. If you want to add additional modifiers, go ahead, I’m really not that restrictive. The whole question here was why it would described one way by some and another way by others. I tried to address that question. You may want to send off a quick note to the CIA so that they can get thier definition in line with yours.

As for your point about Republics and Democracies not being mutually exclusive, you made that up. Cause I never said it.


You may want to send a note as well. It seems the CIA doesn’t have a copy of your dictionary and you may want to enlighten them.

The bottom line for all this, is that the distinctions between the many types of governments can be subtle. They may fit into one or many of the categories but are defined by their most appropriate characteristics. If you are unable to see the subtle distinctions it would explain why we’re having this discussion.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Jaxk The problem is not in the places we agree. The problem is in the places where we disagree. Where I noted our agreement, it was for two reasons. First, you repeated many of my own words back to me as if that constituted an objection. It does not. Second, and more importantly, I thought it useful to clarify where the actual points of disagreement between us are before proceeding. Perhaps you are simply here to argue and don’t care about such petty things as facts and what someone actually said. On the assumption that this is not the case, however, I gave the response above.

Now, there is again much on which we agree. As I already said here, I am also not restrictive about how we describe our government. Thus I have no need to contact the CIA at all. My main point on this thread has been to show that the United States is a democracy, despite some claims to the contrary. I left your initial comment alone at first because you did not seem to be one of those denying this. After your response to @ETpro, however, the matter was unclear. Thus my campaign of clarification. You have now explicitly admitted that the United States is a democracy, so I suspect our disagreement is over.

All that remains, then, is some final clarification. First, I am well aware that there is no national referendum process. Nor did I say we can personally impeach anyone. But we could elect people to impeach judges were it important enough to us, and we could elect people who would create a national referendum option. Like I said, it’s a lot of effort—but it is possible. Our system becomes more and more flexible the greater the support for something becomes.

Second, I did not claim that you said republics and democracies are mutually exclusive. I said that it seemed to be implied by some of the comments that you made. Talking about subtle differences between the two, for instance, suggests that you might think a country must be one or the other. I was careful about using the word “seems,” however, since your language was unclear and what point you were trying to make was obscure. Thus, again, my campaign of clarification.

JLeslie's avatar

I was just watching parts of Palin’s recent speech again, and I think Republic is the vernacular of the right wingers who love her. It has simply become common usage among that group. I realized where she used the word Republic I would not replace wih Democracy necessarily, but with our country, or United States of America, or as Americans. I am sure there are instances of Democrats using the word Republic, because after all we are a Republic and when discussing the electoral college, and other political topics, it would seem natural for the word to be utilized. But, when I listened to her, and thought about this question, it just felt like when I move to another part of the country and they use different terms and phrases. Pop in MI, Soda in NY; might could in NC; etc.

Jaxk's avatar


First let me admit that I should probably let this go. I have had little success in getting anyone to think about the differences. But I have not agreed that we have a democracy but rather that we have democratic processes. You probably think I’m drawing a distinction without a difference but I think it is the whole point of this question. Virtually every country has some democratic processes and virtually none have all democratic processes. And I believe it goes back to how much direct control the population has over it’s federal government.

The federal government is divided into three parts. Judges are appointed and we have little direct control over that process. In fact Supreme Court judges are appointed for life and once there we have no control. The president is not really elected by popular vote. In fact we know of at least three cases where the popular vote was not reflected in the electoral vote. This is all a result of both the electoral college and the direct manipulation by the states. The winner take all approach is designed to skew the vote to give the states advantages. In fact in in 1892 Michigan changed it’s apportionment methodology specifically to insure Grover Cleveland would get some of the votes. And in the early days many of the states appointed thier electors in the state congress, no popular vote was even taken. So the will of the people for president is not totally within the population but is rather filtered and prone to manipulation. That’s the second of the three bodies.

Even if I forget about gerrymandering and and such that leaves us with 1 of the three branches that are truly controlled by the people. And that branch is divided so that half of it is disproportionate to the population. So how much supreme power does the electorate need to be called a democracy? And that is the question I’ve been trying to answer.

Before you rail against my comments, be aware that I like our system of government. I still believe it is the best in the world. More democratic processes don’t necessarily make it better or worse, just different. The labels that are applied to the different forms of government are designed to capture the major processes and functionality of that government. You may feel we’re close enough to call it a Democratic Republic, others may disagree. At this point there’s not much more I can say about it.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Jaxk You said: “You can call us a Democracy, a Republic, a Federation, a Constitutional government, or any combination of some or all of them. They all fit.” You also said “If you want to add additional modifiers, go ahead, I’m really not that restrictive.”

I cannot see how this does not constitute agreement. But if you aren’t agreeing, then it seems to me again that you have overly high standards for considering something a democracy. Representative democracy is still democracy even if direct democracy is more “purely” democratic, just like milk chocolate is still chocolate even if dark chocolate is more “purely” chocolate. It’s not that I am unaware of or refuse to think about the differences between different kinds of democracy or different levels of public control, it’s that they are completely irrelevant to the question of whether or not the United States is any kind of democracy at all (the definitional question).

The point about judges speaks only to the fact that the United States is not a pure democracy. Lifetime appointments are another check on the people and on politicians (to diminish their ability to undo the work of previous generations on a whim). Similarly, the comments about Congress being divided so that one half represents us disproportionally are again only about pure democracy. Both houses of Congress are still representing us, even in different ways.

Your points about how the system has been abused are good ones, and they are points with which I do not disagree. But the more relevant issue seems to be what the system is as written (that is, what it is when operating properly). Manipulations are threats to our democracy rather than proofs that the United States is not, and was never meant to be, a democracy. People tend to have very strange (perhaps idealistic?) notions of what it takes to be a democracy. In reality, however, it does not take that much. Thus I do not have to say that the United States is “close enough” to democracy to be called a democratic republic. It simply is, by definition, a democracy. It is also a republic, a federation, and a constitutional state. Any mix of these terms is fine. I use the term “democratic republic” whenever the question “is the United States a democracy or a republic?” comes up (which it has surprisingly often in my life) to emphasize the fact that the United States is both. If the question “is the United States a federation or a republic?” was coming up around me, I’d be insisting that the United States is a federal republic (which it also is). Because, as it seems we agree, none of these labels are mutually exclusive. Thus I pick the one relevant to the false dichotomy implied by the question.

ETpro's avatar

@Jaxk I’m perfectly happy with the definition the CIA is using/ They seem to have included wording to cover the most salient features of how our government was designed by our Founding Fathers.

We have one strong point of agreement. I like our system of government too. It isn’t the only one that works well, but it is one of a very few. And I further agree that making it a direct democracy—something that was highly impractical before the information age but now could be done—would be a terrible idea. The founders were amazingly insightful in devising the system of checks and balances they did, and in ensuring that the judiciary would be the least democratically influenced branch.

Jaxk's avatar


This is the sentence I reacted to:

“You have now explicitly admitted that the United States is a democracy, so I suspect our disagreement is over.”

I think that twisted my words a little further than I wanted to go. I don’t see any false dichotomy in the question either. I think @ETpro has said it better than I have in all my ramblings.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Jaxk The false dichotomy is in the question “is the United States a democracy or a republic.” It is a false dichotomy because such a question implies that the United States could not be both, which is untrue. Insofar as you acknowledge that the word “democracy” fits the United States, I cannot see why you would object to my reading you as also acknowledging that the United States is a democracy (among other things). I could understand why you would object to me saying that you admitted that the United States is a direct democracy, but I have not read anyone as making such a claim. Regardless, I am also in agreement with @ETpro, so it again seems to me that our disagreement is over.

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