Resolute Square

Are We “A Republic, NOT A Democracy”?

The False Dichotomy Being Weaponized to Undermine Democracy
Published:July 17, 2023

*Published with the generous permission of David Pepper. Read and watch his excellent work at Pepperspectives.

By David Pepper

About once a day, an angry lecture comes my way via tweet: “we are a Republic, not a democracy!!! Know your history!”

But these lectures now go beyond tweets. GOP politicians at all levels are getting in on the act, repeating this dichotomy emphatically.

Be sure others know our REAL history:

These self-righteous history lectures often emerge to justify current tactics that are undermining democracy, such as voter suppression, gerrymandering, legal decisions that uphold them, and other attacks on democracy. Because, you know, “we’re a Republic, and not a democracy,” so all those things must be OK.

The truth is that this fierce effort to set the terms Republic” and “democracy” in conflict is . . . ahistorical. Worse, it’s propaganda being wielded to erode our fidelity to being a robust democracy, and to give cover to those nonstop assaults on our democracy.

What is the actual history?

Let’s ask my former law professor, Akhil Amar. No one today dives deeper into the history of our founding than Professor Amar. And Amar is not an ideologue—he goes wherever the history takes him.

In the excellent new book “Myth America,” here’s what Amar says about this debate:
When it comes to “republics” vs “democracy,” “these two words were more synonyms than oppositional in general 1780s discourse….”

While Madison drew more of a distinction in one of the Federalist Papers, “many other Americans at the time tended to treat the words republic and democracy as broadly synonymous. A democracy could be either direct or indirect….”

Commentators at the time “casually referred to England’s House of Commons and state lower houses—all of which rested on principles of representation—as particularly ‘democratic’ or ‘democratical’ elements of their respective institutions. Conversely, late eighteenth-century ‘republics’ could indeed make use of certain forms of direct political participation….Ancient Greek governments, which had practiced various forms of direct democracy, were also commonly described as ‘republics.’”

Many federalists proclaimed a “‘republican’ government could be either directly or indirectly democratic.”

James Wilson “equated a ‘republic’ with a ‘democracy.”

And at the heart of either term was one principle: “the people at large retain the supreme power.”

Another: “a Republican government [is] one in which ‘the people at large, either collectively or by representation, form the legislature.’….

“When the word democracy appeared in the Founding era, it was often associated with, rather than defined against, republicanism…”

Heck, as Amar points out, the party that Madison and Jefferson created was often described as the “Democratic-Republican” party. Yes, that would be a really odd name if the two terms were in conflict!

So, bottom line, the history on this is very clear.

Which means the non-stop effort to run down the term “democracy” by putting it in conflict with “republic” is yet another effort to distort history to serve modern-day purposes. And someone is putting a heck of a lot of time and money into getting that false history out there, at all levels.

But since, as the Founders and Amar make so clear, the heart of both “democracy” and “republics” was that the people were sovereign—that they hold the “supreme power”— modern-day efforts to cut the people out of their own government runs directly counter to EITHER term. And, I contend, extremely gerrymandered legislatures where the people no longer have a say on the makeup or direction of those governing bodies are neither democracies nor republics.

So…don’t let anyone lecture you that we are not a democracy.

And keep fighting for our democratic republic!