“We’re a republic, not a democracy”

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How many times have you heard someone say this?  As Ed Burmilia, a political science professor a Bradley University writes at The Baffler, it is a loaded political phrase.  Here is a taste of his piece:

It is a cheap rhetorical sleight-of-hand, then, to justify outcomes or processes on the basis that America is “not a democracy,” not that such a statement is ever made as a legitimate argument in good faith. In practice, its use is to one of three ends.

First, as a non-sequitur defense of institutions that distribute political power unequally like the Electoral College or the Senate. The country is not a pure democracy with them and would not be a pure democracy were both abolished tomorrow and replaced. The “logic” here is that the existence of undemocratic or simply unfair institutions is justified by the fact that the country is not . . . an entirely different and unrelated kind of democracy. If that sounds stupid, it is.

Second, it is an argument against any vaguely majoritarian institution or idea. This is done with the utmost selectivity, as I am old enough to remember when “The majority of people oppose it” was considered a mic-drop argument against same-sex marriage. Invoke the will of the people one minute; the next—say, when large majorities want basic gun control legislation—smugly chuckle and say, “Sorry, buddy, read the Constitution: this here’s not a democracy.” Appeals to the will of the masses are often a last-ditch argument of convenience.

Third, and most troubling, is resorting to this phrase in defense of discretionary actions taken by political actors—like the president or Supreme Court. Every time the current president declares some breathtakingly dumb decision he makes after his six neurons fire simultaneously during Fox & Friends, defenders are quick to trot out the phrase as if anyone honestly thinks that presidential decision-making might be subject to a national plebiscite. In this usage, the argument is little more than a red herring, using the absence of mob-rule democracy as a justification of whatever lamentable actions are taken by the people elected or appointed to act on our behalf in accordance with Madison’s republicanism. Whether elected directly by voters or appointed through other processes, people in power make bad decisions—to which the nature of our system of government is not relevant.

Read the entire piece here.

6 thoughts on ““We’re a republic, not a democracy”

  1. Republic is a much more evocative and technically and historically accurate word.
    It is richer in that more adjectives apply: democratic, federal, liberal, illiberal, Hebrew, socialist, people’s, etc.
    (Odd that the surest route to a western “liberal democracy” is to “republicanize” a western monarchy!)
    Regarding sleight-of-hand, it’s problematic to relabel old and venerable ideas with alternative (and anachronistic) names.

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  2. I read the linked article and appreciated some of the nuance (not too big a fan of the smug tone). The big problem I had with this think-piece was that it pretends only “right wingers” use the phrase to selectively justify their collective hypocrisies, while neglecting the possibility that the “not a democracy” explanation is valid among anyone who has reservations about ruling solely through the majority will of the people, not just on the right.

    I also read one if it’s hyperlinked articles that boiled the issue down (falsely) to a rightwing distinction between the premise that either one supports the republican institution of the electoral college or that one supports “mob rule.” That’s just silliness, and makes me think these particular pundits are so focused on the bad use of one particular argument that they’ve lost sight of some important bigger pictures. Yes, the phrase is abused by people rationalizing bad actors and practices, to shield them from widespread criticism and derision, but it seems like that wouldn’t meant that’s the only context in which the observation is used.

    In fact if one reads the hyperlinked article, the Burmilia piece reads a lot like a fancied-up rehash of someone else’s earlier talking points, right down to the identical Madison citations. https://mises.org/wire/stop-saying-were-republic-not-democracy

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  3. John, I totally get the three points that Burmila makes, but I have a fourth, more pedestrian point. I’ve seen that “We’re a constitutional republic, not a democracy” comment many times over the past couple of years. I think what many who use this meme are thinking, quite intuitively, is that somehow “republic” supports the idea of the Republican Party, where as “democracy” somehow supports the Democratic Party. Thus, the use of “republic” over “democracy” is simply one more tribal reference from those on the right who wish to discredit the Democratic Party/the left. And almost certainly coming from prompts from within the far-right blogosphere and Fox.

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  4. “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.”

    – Federalist 10 (James Madison)

    Plato argued against Athenian (pure) democracy – and given his aristocractic ancestry, upbringing and later place in society, this is probably not surprising. This anti-democratic argument seems to have struck a chord with Aquinas in the 12th century (more of a monarchist). Ever since, there has been confusion, intentional and otherwise. At least some of the founders made the distinction.

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    • Thanks for that citation Jim–it’s interesting to me that people making the opposite argument (against “not a democracy” rhetoric when it comes from the political right) cited Madison but left out the fact that the “pure democracy” vs ‘representative government’ distinction comes directly from Madison.

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  5. What I find ironic about what is often a semantic argument (I characterize it this way because “democracy” is often being used more as descriptive of the democratic process, e.g. free and fair elections, even within the context of republican structures) is that the current administration and much of the GOP is in fact not even operating like we are a republic. They seem intent on making us over into an oligarchy. There is an obvious reason why Trump loves and praises authoritarian strongmen and universally despises Western-style democracies. He admires the model upon which he wants to build.

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