In today’s vernacular, the terms democracy and republic are used so interchangeably many are shocked to learn there is a significant difference between the operations and outcomes of the two arrangements. I have wondered how these systems of government could be so confused and misunderstood. The Founding Fathers held a united front against democracy, yet we hail the American political system as the greatest form of democracy in the world.
Why do our schools, politicians, and political commentators consistently make the mistake of calling the United States a democracy when our Constitution guarantees a republican form of government (Article IV, Section 4) and our own Pledge of Allegiance says, “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,” clearly labeling the United States a republic?
And why would prominent Founders like Benjamin Rush say, “A simple democracy is the devil’s own government,” and make other seemingly inflammatory statements about the system we identify with our own government?
Definitions matter, so let’s dig into what these terms mean and how they compare to the United States government.
Democracy and Republic Defined
According to the U.S. Army’s Training Manual No. 2000-05, as cited in The 5,000 Year Leap, a democracy has the following characteristics:
- A government of the masses.
- Authority derived through mass meetings or any form of “direct” expression.
- Results in “Mobocracy.”
- Attitude toward law is that the will of the majority shall regulate, whether it be based on deliberation or government by passion, prejudice and impulse, without restraint to consequences.
- Results in demagoguery, license, agitation, discontent, anarchy.
Democracies maintain power with the people and conduct civil affairs through the direct involvement of the whole people. The US Army Training Manual recognized that democracies often neglect principles and the rule of law and spiral into unorganized, unprincipled chaos.
As W. Cleon Skousen explained in his book The 5,000 Year Leap, “A democracy becomes increasingly unwieldy and inefficient as the population grows. A republic, on the other hand, governs through elected representatives and can be expanded indefinitely.” Read Principle #12 in Dr. Skousen’s book for an explanation on what has caused our use of the word democracy to change over the past 100 years.
According to the same US military manual, the characteristics of a republic include:
- Attitude towards property is respect for laws and individual rights, and sensible economic procedures.
- Attitude toward law is the administration of justice in accordance with fixed principles and established evidence, with direct regard for consequences.
- A greater number of citizens and extent of territory may be brought within its compass.
- Avoids the dangerous extremes of either tyranny or mobocracy.
- Results in Statesmanship, liberty, reason, justice, contentment and progress.
As the population grows, more representatives may be added in a republic and the system is capable of scaling efficiently. In fact, republics seem to operate most effectively when representing very large groups of people. In contrast, democracies collapse as they grow in size.
In reality, if the Federal Government is composed entirely of employees and representatives, than there is no possible way for the Federal Government to be considered a democracy. “We The People” have absolutely no power to directly draft, vote on, or enforce federal laws. We have decided that all federal affairs need to be handled by representatives we either elect as politicians or hire as employees, which makes our Federal Government a republic.
The Founders Thoughts on Democracy
The Founders feared the emotionalism that so quickly overwhelms reason, good judgement, and the protection of unalienable rights. They were painfully aware of the tendency of emotional majorities to infringe on the legitimate rights of minorities. Benjamin Franklin said:
Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!
James Madison also recognized the propensity of unrestrained majorities to encroach on the rights of minorities:
Where a majority are united by a common sentiment, and have an opportunity, the rights of the minor party become insecure.
The Founders often spoke of the disposition of majorities to become emotional and reckless, constantly swayed by the tides of hot topics and cycles of news. James Madison reported:
Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
Elbridge Gerry spoke of the danger that arises from power held and exercised by the masses who can be easily swayed by rumors, news, and political commentators:
The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots.
George Washington also recognized the tendencies of democracies to be misled:
It is one of the evils of democratical governments, that the people, not always seeing and frequently misled, must often feel before they can act right; but then evil of this nature seldom fail to work their own cure.
Fisher Ames reflected on the explosiveness of democratic emotionalism when he said:
A democracy is a volcano which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction. These will produce an eruption and carry desolation in their way.
John Adams is one of many who recognize the anarchistic tendency of democratic government. He said:
Democracy, will soon degenerate into an anarchy, such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes, and no man’s life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure and every one of these will soon mold itself into a system of subordination of all the moral virtues, and intellectual abilities, all the powers of wealth, beauty, wit, and science, to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable cruelty of one or a very few.
John Adams also commented on the longevity of democratic governments:
Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.
The Founding Fathers, speaking from experience and a vivid recollection of their experience on both extremes of the political spectrum, preferred a more moderate route. Alexander Hamilton said:
Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.
Notice how Alexander Hamilton uses the word democracy as approaching anarchy. The Founding Fathers wanted a system where power rested in the people but one that restrained the vices and passions of men through legitimate representative government, using consistent standards identified by Natural Law.
The Natural Trend
It’s in the nature of man to become distracted and disinterested in the hard work of politics. It isn’t feasible to expect every citizen to be sufficiently informed and to vote on every law. The problems facing our nation and communities are too large and often too complicated for the common citizen to fully grasp unless he makes politics his full-time vocation. In that case, there would be nobody to farm, practice law, operate grocery stores, or provide any of the other necessities of life. In a direct democracy, especially in one of any significant size, dissatisfaction and disorder erupt and the people demand leadership. Alexander Hamilton, weary of the anarchistic trend of democracy, foresaw the demand of an apathetic and disorganized nation for easy solutions:
If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy.
In a direct democracy, the people tire of the their involvement in the mundane processes of legislation and legal administration. Over time they fail to remain properly educated as issues mount and become more complex. The people neglect governmental affairs when times are comfortable and erupt in a firestorm of uncontrolled emotions when times are uncomfortable. When this becomes exhausting or dangerous, the people look for a popular, charismatic leader who can bring order and direction to the failing government. And in that moment, tyranny is born.
The Common Element
Let’s give the schools, politicians, and political commentators the benefit of the doubt and say that their reference to America as a democracy is an honest mistake. In their defense, and consistent with our laughable commitment to preserving the English language, virtually all modern definitions of democracy now include a clause referencing representative government. It’s now treated as if a republic is simply one form of democracy and “direct democracy” is the other form.
It was early this morning as I was studying the Constitution using The Making of America that it occurred to me why the terms have become interchangeable. They have a common element that make them unique from all other forms of government. Republics and democracies are both founded upon popular sovereignty, the idea that all legitimate power rests in the people. This is in contrast with the concept of the “divine right of kings” which the colonists abandoned as they came to America (Remember Algernon Sidney who was beheaded for challenging the idea that God has chosen mortal elites to endow with absolute power and political authority?).
When people refer to the type of government we have in America, what they are seeking to reference is popular sovereignty, the idea that We The People exclusively hold the legitimate authority for the exercise of government power. In this sense, they are correct as they identify popular sovereignty as a revolutionary and fundamental principle worthy of applause and universal application.
But we must be more careful as we reference the government of the United States or we will apostatize from the brilliant republican system of government we have inherited from the Israelites and Anglo-Saxons and begin to defend the faulty and reckless pattern of purely democratic government. Careless use of the term democracy minimizes the brilliance of the republican system of electing good, wise, and honest representatives to conduct the affairs of government even betterthan the most honorable group of citizens ever could in a pure democracy.