by Ryan McMaken, Mises Institute
The claim that the United States political system is “a republic, not a democracy” is often heard in libertarian and conservative circles, and is typically invoked whenever the term “democracy” is used in any favorable context. This claim is generally invoked when the user believes one of the following:
- “I don’t like your idea, and since it involves aspects that are democratic or majoritarian, I’ll invoke the republic-not-a-democracy claim to discredit your idea.”
- “A majority of the population appears to support this idea, so I will invoke the republic-not-a-democracy claim to illustrate that the majority should be ignored.”
Also key to these claims is to invoke the authority of “the Founding Fathers” — by which is meant the pro-centralization nationalists and not the Anti-Federalists — for the usual reasons that anyone appeals to authority rather than offer a real argument.
A recent example of this phenomenon emerged late last year in the debate over the electoral college. Advocates for eliminating the electoral college system were criticized by the republic-not-a-democracy crowd as being for democracy while those who wished to keep the electoral college described themselves as being in favor of the far-more-preferable republican style of government.
For example, at The Federalist, Donna Carol Voss writes:
[The Electoral College] works that way because this isn’t a democracy; not a pure one…“Pure democracy” is just another phrase for “mob rule.” Dictatorship of the majority means 51 percent of the citizenry rule the other 49 percent. That minority has no rights except those the condescending majority grants.
In practice, the arguments boils down to this: “you can be for republican government, or you can be for mob rule, otherwise known as democracy.”
Now, there are many good reasons to support the electoral college, and I have written about some of them myself. But, the claim that one must support the “republican” electoral college on the one hand, or be an advocate for “mob rule” on the other, is not one of them.
Voss’s use of the republic-not-a-democracy claim here also illustrates the laziness that is typically employed in its usage.
Like almost everyone who denounces democracy of favor in republican government in this context, Voss invokes James Madison, who warned against “pure democracy” and “mob rule” in favor of republican government.
How Madison Defined “Democracy”
The problem for Voss here is that even if the US abolished the electoral college — and many other “republican” institutions as well — it would still be nowhere near being a democracy as defined by Madison.
If one is going to invoke James Madison as a supporter of one’s anti-democratic positions, one should at least be aware of how Madison defines democracy. He defines it this way in Fedealist No. 10:
From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction… Hence it is that such 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. [Emphasis added.]
Madison continues: .
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
In Federalist No. 10, Madison then defines a republic simply as “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place.”
Later, in Federalist No. 39, Madison defines a republic further:
…we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is ESSENTIAL to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic. It is SUFFICIENT for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people; and that they hold their appointments by either of the tenures just specified…
It turns out that Madison’s definition of democracy describes a sort of regime that exists nowhere on earth. No country and no regime actually has democracy or “mob rule” as described by Madison, nor is any regime — including that of the United States — in danger of becoming that way. In fact, using Madison’s republican criteria of having a small number of representatives represent a large number of people, the United states is far more republican than nearly every other modern republic. And, the US is becoming more republican as time goes on.
Moreover, virtually no one argues for the sort of democracy denounced by Madison. Wanting to abolish the electoral college, or even abolishing the Senate, does not make one into an advocate of Madison’s version of a democracy.
In fact, every single regime on earth today that calls itself “a democracy” clearly qualifies as a republic according to Madison’s definition. All the countries that are described as democracies in contemporary discourse use representative schemes of government, and all have a system which at least in part “derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people.” They also all elect representatives instead of employing direct lawmaking.
Consequently, in contemporary usage, there is no relevant difference between the words “republic” and “democracy.” Thus, claiming a preference for a republic over a democracy communicates essentially zero information unless one precisely defines the two terms in a way that departs significantly from Madison’s definitions.
Not surprisingly, of course, those who bring up the Founding Fathers and their republic-not-a-democracy claim rarely bother to define the actual difference between the two. If these modern republicans were to use Madison’s definition, of course, they would quickly find that warnings about Madison’s sort of democracy are irrelevant in the modern world.
Now, this isn’t to say that one cannot argue against the excesses of majoritarian government — or even against majoritarian government in toto. There are many plausible and respectable arguments against it.
But, if anyone wants to argue against majoritarianism, he should simply do so. There is no need to rely on a half-baked usage of the writings of “the Founding Fathers” who clearly supported a political system in which majority votes play a big part in selecting elected officials, and which is obviously a democracy according to the modern usage of the term.