Is the United States a democracy or a republic? The answer is that the U.S. is both a democracy and a republic.
The democracy vs. republic debates can get pretty intense, but the fact is that the U.S. isn't a "pure democracy" in which every decision is put to a popular vote. But today, scholars use the terms "democracy" and "republic" interchangeably to mean any government where the power rests with the people, whether the people or their elected representatives exercise said power.
We spoke with Del Dickson, a political science professor at the University of San Diego and author of "The People's Government: An Introduction to Democracy," to learn more about the first democracies and republics, and how the framers of the United States Constitution debated how best to keep the "spirit" of democracy while avoiding the perils of "mob rule."
It's equally fair to call the U.S. a "democratic country," a "constitutional democracy," a "democratic republic," or to get really technical, a "constitutional federal representative democracy."
While the United States was the first modern democracy, the world is now full of democratic and republican governments of various flavors: presidential republics, parliamentary republics, constitutional monarchies and more. Each type of democracy has its advantages and disadvantages, but they all share founding principles like free and fair elections, guaranteed human rights and the rule of law.
Democracy vs. Republic: It All Started with the Greeks and Romans
The English word "democracy" comes from the Greek demokratia, meaning "the people" (demos) have "the power" (kratos). The ancient Greek city-state of Athens is considered the world's first and only "pure" democracy, established in 507 B.C.E.
"Democracy means the people rule and the Athenians took that very literally," Dickson says. "There were no representatives and they didn't like experts. When there was an issue, everyone would gather in assembly, and they'd discuss and decide."
But even in the Athenian democracy, there were limits. Only male Athenian citizens were eligible citizens — not women, foreigners or enslaved people. While a 5,000-man assembly or ekklesia decided on some issues via a popular vote, the boule — made up of 500 members who earned a seat through a random lottery called a "sortition" — did the day-to-day governing. While not elected, members of the boule functioned as representatives of their local tribes.
Our word "republic" comes from the Latin res publica, which literally means "public thing" but is commonly translated as "commonwealth" or "state." The earliest republic was in ancient Rome around the same time as the Athenian republic, and Dickson says that in the classical world, democracy and republic meant the same thing: a government run by the people.
In the early Roman republic, only the wealthiest citizens (the patrician class) could hold seats in the Senate, the ruling assembly, but over time there were additional governing bodies created for the plebeians (the commoners) and other classes of Roman citizens.
Dickson says that the Roman republican government grew more and more representative until Rome became an empire, at which point dictators like Julius Caesar seized power and the republic fell. "The Roman republic worked on a small scale, but the political system couldn't keep up when it expanded to become an empire," Dickson says.
The U.S. Founding Fathers on Direct Democracy
Fast forward to the 18th century, when Founding Fathers like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson debated the ideal form of government for the fledgling United States. These men were well-schooled in the ancient histories of Athens and Rome and inspired by Enlightenment political philosophers like Montesquieu, Rousseau and Locke.
"Most of the framers of the Constitution loved the words 'democracy' and 'republic,' but they didn't like the meaning," Dickson says. "They were pretty suspicious of direct democracy because people are passionate and selfish, and if you're not in the majority, you're in big trouble."
John Adams voiced some of the strongest opposition to letting ordinary people make important political decisions. Adams believed there needed to be "adults in the room," Dickson says, who were better educated and better qualified than the "great unwashed."
To the framers of the Constitution, "democracy" and "republic" soon became synonymous with "representative democracy," in which the people exercised political power through elected representatives.
On the federal level, though, the Constitution originally only allowed direct election of the House of Representatives. Senators were not elected but appointed by state legislatures until 1913 with the passing of the 17th Amendment. And the president was — and still is — elected by the electoral college, not by a popular vote.
Elements of direct democracy persist, though, in state ballot referendums and initiatives, which pass through a majority popular vote. And even the old-school Athenian idea of the sortition survives in the modern American system of jury duty, in which citizens randomly serve on a jury.
Different Types of Democracies and Republics
The U.S. Constitution intended to create a balance of power across three branches of government: the legislative (Congress), the judicial (the court system) and the executive (the president, vice president and cabinet).
That division of power came from, in part, the parliamentary model that existed in the United Kingdom in the 18th century when the founders drafted the Constitution. The U.K. wasn't a democracy at the time, but in addition to a monarch (king or queen), it had a powerful Parliament (legislative assembly) composed of representatives at least nominally elected by the aristocracy.
"The U.K. divided power into the one (the monarch), the few (the House of Lords) and the many (the House of Commons)," Dickson says. "The U.S. took that and modified it."
Instead of a monarch as the chief executive, the U.S. has a president. And instead of a House of Lords and House of Commons, America has a Senate and House of Representatives. (The U.K. didn't have a Supreme Court until 2009. Until then, judicial power was held by Parliament.)
This American style of democracy is called the "presidential model," since the president is the chief executive and is not elected at the same time as members of Congress. As the head of the executive branch, the president also exercises certain powers, like the ability to veto bills that Congress passes, to appoint members to the Supreme Court, and to serve as commander in chief of the military.
There are nearly 80 democracies in the world that follow the exact same presidential model as the United States, including Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines. An additional 23 countries have both a president and a prime minister, with the president acting as the chief executive. France, Russia and South Africa are examples of these "semi-presidential" democracies.
The second major type of modern democracy is the "parliamentary model," in which the people don't vote directly for the chief executive. Instead, they vote for the members of Parliament, and whichever political party wins a majority of seats in Parliament gets to choose the chief executive, who is called the prime minister. The prime minister is usually the head of the political party in power.
There are 36 parliamentary republics in the world, plus an additional 36 constitutional monarchies, where there's both a prime minister and a monarch, who acts as a figurehead with no real power. Ireland, Fiji and Bangladesh are examples of countries whose government derives from the parliamentary model. The modern U.K. is a constitutional monarchy.
One major difference between presidential and parliamentary democracies is that parliamentary systems have fewer checks on power since the same party controls the executive and legislative branches. That means there's generally less gridlock in parliamentary politics, which is great for the party in power, but less so for the minority opposition.
"The presidential system is set up to move slowly," Dickson says. "Nobody could just ram things through and overwhelm minority rights."
Whether it's a presidential or parliamentary system, what makes a modern democracy a true democracy is faithful adherence to a set of democratic principles: the rule of law (constitutionalism), representation based on free and fair elections, and guaranteed rights, including freedom of speech, press and religion. By that measure, some countries are democracies in name but not in practice.
Thomas Jefferson was a fan of Athenian-style democracy and wanted to organize the U.S. into "wards" of 100 people, where local matters would still be decided by popular vote. "Let the national government be entrusted with the defense of the nation and its foreign and federal relations; the state governments with the civil rights, laws, police and administration of what concerns the state generally; the counties with the local concerns; and each ward directs the interests within itself," wrote Jefferson in 1816.
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