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Is America a democracy or a republic? Yes, it is

Silhouettes of people are seen on an American flag as President Joe Biden speaks on July 6, 2022, in Cleveland.
Evan Vucci
Silhouettes of people are seen on an American flag as President Joe Biden speaks on July 6, 2022, in Cleveland.

What do we call the system of government in the U.S.? Are we a democracy or a republic?

The conundrum is, well, as the common expression goes, "as old as the republic itself."

But it's not just a question for scholars and semanticists any more.

Since the election of 2020, supporters of former President Donald Trump have become notably more willing to assert their belief that voting in America is suspect. That Trump won an election he lost. That "millions of ballots" were uncounted or miscounted. That voting by mail was fraught with abuse.

Despite the lack of evidence, and the judgments of election officials from both parties and judges appointed by presidents from both parties, election denialism has become not only a thing, but a movement. And when critics call this an attack on democracy, some election deniers respond by saying the U.S. is not a democracy, it is a republic.

Robert Draper of The New York Times published a piece on Republicans who say this in August. He cited a GOP candidate for the Arizona state legislature, Selina Bliss, saying: "We are not a democracy. Nowhere in the Constitution does it use the word 'democracy.' I think of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That's not us."

But a democratic republic is us. Exactly.

Throughout our history we have functioned as both. Put another way, we have utilized characteristics of both. The people decide, but they do so through elected representatives working in pre-established, rule-bound and intentionally balky institutions such as Congress and the courts.

The government seated in Washington, D.C., represents a democratic republic, which governs a federated union of states, each of which in turn has its own democratic-republican government for its jurisdiction.

The relationship between the democratic and republican elements of this equation has been a dynamic and essential part of our history. But it has not always been easy, and in our time the friction between them has become yet another flashpoint in our partisan wars.

Going to war over weaponized words

We regularly hear people on the left speak of conservatives destroying democracy, and just as regularly we hear conservatives say Democrats have no respect for the Constitution. To add to the confusion, the two camps often swap their lines of attack and defense. Republicans call Democrats enemies of democracy, Democrats rail against what they see as Republican disrespect for the Constitution.

And that also makes sense, in a way, as both sides want to be the champions of both democracy and the Constitution, and to advertise themselves as such to the voters.

Yes, as a polity, we think we are and can be both. We aspire to be both. But in practice that can prove difficult. And in our time, when so much of the public discourse happens on Twitter and cable TV news, the terms have become increasingly weaponized.

"Equality and democracy are under assault," said President Biden on the steps of Independence Hall last week. "We do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise."

Biden at Independence Hall used the word democracy 31 times, including three times in one sentence. He used the word republic just twice.

Republicans, by contrast, have seemed of late to be stressing the role of the republic and its restraint on democracy. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, an outspoken Republican but hardly an outlier, got considerable attention for saying bluntly on Twitter in October 2020: "We are not a democracy."

Lee then posted online an explanation of what he meant. It said, in part: "Our system is best described as a constitutional republic [where] power is not found in mere majorities, but in carefully balanced power."

Lee went on to catalog how difficult it was for majorities in Congress to pass legislation, get it signed by a president and watch it undergo judicial review. Lee's point was that he was OK with all that. It was the intent of the founders.

"In the absence of consensus," Lee wrote, "there isn't supposed to be federal law."

Writing in 2020 in The Atlantic, George Thomas, the Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions at Claremont McKenna College, found "some truth to this insistence" on calling the U.S. a republic but added: "It is mostly disingenuous. The Constitution was meant to foster a complex form of majority rule, not enable minority rule."

This is not just a quibble over terms. It is a fundamental battle over what American government aspires to be. Are we a democracy where the voice of the people is, like it says in Latin on some of our official buildings (Vox Populi, Vox Dei), the voice of God?

Or are we a republic? That is to say, a government of laws not of men, deriving its authority not by divine right of inheritance or strength of arms but by reason and by adherence to the mechanisms of the Constitution.

Calling things by their proper names

It's also not a coincidence that those names tend to suggest which end of the democratic-republican bargain they favor. Our current parties trace their roots to a common ancestor in a party begun by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the early decades of nationhood.

That party formed in opposition to the original party of George Washington and John Adams, known as the Federalists because they emphasized the central authority of the combined 13 states (the original 13 colonies that had rebelled against the crown of England).

Jefferson and others who rose in opposition were called, naturally enough, anti-Federalists. Jefferson liked the word republican and used it a lot, in part for the anti-monarchist emphasis.

Others thought the term had less meaning because so many different kinds of viewpoints claimed it. The party eventually took on the label of Democratic-Republicans. That moniker might have been too much of a mouthful to enunciate, and its coalition may have been too wide to sustain.

At the time, there were also voters and candidates who preferred calling themselves National Republicans, especially in New England. That element morphed into the Whigs, while the Democratic-Republicans dominated in the South and eventually became simply Democrats — the preference of President Andrew Jackson.

In the 1850s, exhausted by the North-South tensions that were leading to the Civil War, the Whigs gave way to a new party originating in the Great Lakes region. The new party's biggest issue was abolition, but they adopted (perhaps at the suggestion of journalist Horace Greeley) the previously orphaned half of the old Democratic-Republican Party name. They have since been known simply as Republicans.

But both terms have far deeper origins in the ancient world

The Athenian democracy in Greece around 500 BCE denoted the right of the people (demos) to personify power (kratos) and meant it to include an entire polity – or at least its males. Something like 5,000 citizens were enfranchised to participate, and when they chose to delegate some of the governing task to a smaller body they still had 500 members of that council (boule).

Thomas says "the founding generation" in the U.S. never considered the Greek model workable beyond a limited area (idealized perhaps by the New England town hall). Thomas says that generation was "deeply skeptical of what it called 'pure democracy' and defended the American experiment as 'wholly republican."

That is, it was a government of the people not of royalty. It also incorporated some of the inspiration referenced in the Latin word republic, a hearkening back to the Romans who established the first Senate around 750 BCE.

Thomas says the American experiment has been about harmonizing democratic and republican models, two "popular forms of government," each of which "drew its legitimacy from the people and depended on rule by the people."

The essential difference was the role of representatives to substitute for the gathering of all the people at one point in time and space.

"To take this as a rejection of democracy misses how the idea of government by the people, including both a democracy and a republic, was understood when the Constitution was drafted and ratified," Thomas said. "It misses, too, how we understand the idea of democracy today."

One way to understand that idea was articulated by Jefferson himself way back in 1816, when he wrote: "We may say with truth and meaning, that governments are more or less republican as they have more or less of the element of popular election and control in their composition." [emphasis added]

It is hard to imagine a better statement of the two concepts as they may be comingled and act in concert.

It falls to our generation to renew that understanding in the context of our own time, two full centuries later.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for