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A Republic or a Democracy:  What IS America’s Form of Government?

By Dr. Robin Lauermann

Lately, some of the national discourse has been like a scene from the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon episode, the one in which Bugs and Daffy Duck, with Elmer Fudd looming nearby, argue over whether it is Rabbit Season or Duck Season.  They trade retorts without supporting their points, and in some cases without engaging the complexity of reality, in an effort to protect their self-interest.  Likewise, the conversation regarding our structure of government has reflected a similar lack of evidential argument on the nature of our structure of government.  Republic? Democracy?  Try BOTH!

When our founders first established our wildly innovative constitutional system, they were looking to balance the sovereignty (ultimate authority) of the people with moderation of its passionate swings.  In fact, in Federalist #10 – one of the 85 papers which were circulated to explain the reasoning of the Constitution – James Madison noted that the structure of our representative government was to “refine and enlarge the public view, by passing it through the  medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”  This body would, however, be elected by the people (or, in the case of the Senate until the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, by the state officials who were selected by the people).  Our system is indeed considered to be a republic.

If we are a republic, how can we also be a democracy?  In the discipline of political science, which focuses its study, among other topics, on the nature and functioning of government, we formally classify our system of government as a republic which is a representative democracy.    Republics are a large class of governments which may include institutions which are accountable to the people by elections as well as those which are appointed to serve in other manners; the structure was a reaction and alternative to the more common monarchies at the time.  This conception is again echoed in Federalist #39.  Those republican governments which have free and fair elections to select officials are representative, or indirect, democracies.

While our founders were concerned with the idea of democracy, as were classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, their apprehension rested on a very primitive conception of this form: a structure in which the people directly determined policy and who did so from a point of self-interest and not from that of the larger good.  What the founders sought to limit was this impulse; democracy thus also refers to structures or reforms which provide for accountability to the people by those who represent them.  This interpretation is consistent throughout the discipline which holds the utmost authority on this subject and can be seen throughout the vast literature on democratic transition and consolidation.

Some governments falsely use these terms to classify governments which do not have the ultimate authority of the people at their core; we should not be misled in our understanding of the nature of republics or democracy because of this distortion, nor because doing so suits a particular political outcome.


Read an electronic version of the Federalist Papers through the Library of Congress.

Wall Street Journal(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Keep up with the current political discourse surrounding the 2012 elections with the Wall Street Journal’s ELECTION 2012