A Republic or a Democracy? Demystifying the right-wing’s favorite anti-democratic argument
Updated: Mar 26
Every general election, at least in recent times has brought with it some form of debate about the US electoral system at the federal level. This, of course, was understandably prominent during the 2016 presidential election because of the discrepancy between the popular vote and the electoral college vote. This isn’t exclusive to presidential elections, however, since gerrymandering and the senate also tend to give a disproportionate advantage to the right-wing. The Democrats, and the left more broadly, understandably point to these things as structural and institutionalized anti-democratic measures that affect them. The usual right-wing retort to these complaints is to point out that it is not a valid critique. The founding fathers, so their argument goes, did not envision a democracy, but a republic, which justifies having anti-democratic measures preventing a majority from imposing their will on a minority. One of their go-to examples is the urban majorities imposing their ideas on a rural minority that they cannot understand. This is not something that is limited to Twitter discourse. Major publications such as The Federalist and The Atlantic have the argument this year.
There are multiple issues with this framing. An obvious one is that accepting the logic of the urban vs. rural divide would require us to accept that it is equally bad for a rural minority to impose its preferences on the urban majority (if not worse, because it is a minority). There is also the issue of the pro-democracy rhetoric espoused even by right-wing presidents like George W. Bush. However, one can ignore these problems and the republic/democracy dichotomy would still make no sense. The core fault of this argument is that it is, at best, a linguistic confusion based on lack of knowledge of the history of political thought and, at worst, a willfully misleading language game. Perhaps more importantly, the notion that republicanism is a conservative force is not consistent with a deeper look at the history of this intellectual tradition. In fact, if one were to truly invoke classical republican principles to address the problems facing the United States, they might point in a radical direction.
It must be said that this talking point has some basis, even if it has been misconstrued. James Madison, in The Federalist no. 10, does dedicate a considerable portion of the writing to defending the notion that the United States should adopt a republican form of government as opposed to a democratic one. However, this anti-democratic right-wing view only really survives the most superficial reading of these passages. A short look at what Madison writes makes two things abundantly clear: firstly, his understanding of what a democracy is has almost no relation to what we understand as democracy these days, and secondly, his concerns were chiefly related to the scale on which these systems would be applicable:
I remark here only, that it seems to owe its rise and prevalence chiefly to the confounding of a republic with a democracy; and applying to the former, reasonings drawn from the nature of the latter. The true distinction between these forms, was also adverted to on a former occasion. It is, that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person: in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, must be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.
The reason for this distinction is that Madison has the classical definition of “democracy” in mind. This should be clear by the fact that he describes citizens exercising government functions directly, instead of electing representatives. He is describing what Aristotle or Cicero would have called democracy. Aristotle, in his Politics, describes what he identifies as the six types of constitutions, one of which he calls “democracy”. In this type of constitution, he says, it is all free men who exercise sovereignty, with no qualifications of property for example. Because of this, the proper method of selecting magistrates (government officials) is by lot, which guarantees that every citizen has the same chance of being selected. This should already be an indication that the classical conception of democracy is very far removed from what the word means to us today.
We should also look at what Aristotle says about another kind of constitution, the one he simply calls “constitutional government” or politeia, in Greek. This type of arrangement is one which combines elements of both democracy and oligarchy, so as to moderate the influence of each and preventing any faction from dominating others. Cicero echoes this, and defends the view that a mixed constitution establishes equality among all its parts, which is needed in a free society, and makes each of its components check and moderate each other, preventing any from establishing its dominance. In both their views, this is the best constitution that there is. This is the kind of organizations that the Romans adopted, and which Cicero defends in his De Republica. The Roman constitution and Cicero’s writings inspired an intellectual tradition which we now call republicanism. It stretches from the time of Cicero to the present day, including thinkers such as Machiavelli, the Founding Fathers, but also much more radical movements like the labor republicans of the 19th century in the United States. The common thread that links all these different thinkers as part of the same republican tradition is the idea of freedom as non-domination. This is already sketched by Cicero as we have seen, but the labor republicans, for example, extended this concept to argue for a form of market socialism. More on that later.
Finally, before going any further, we should say something about the contemporary definition of democracy. The evolution of the word is not so important here, but noting some of the key differences will be relevant. Political Scientists generally define it as a system in which contested elections happen regularly and minimum guarantees of civil liberties are in place. This, of course, is much closer to what Madison, and even Cicero would call a republic. Elections are never identified as a democratic means of selecting political office holders, and in fact, are often regarded as oligarchic. Protections of civil liberties, which are now considered a key element of democracy, would be, in the classical world, much more clearly identified with republics and their emphasis on preventing any faction from dominating another one.
It is clear that, in many respects, the contemporary conception of democracy has much more in common with the republican tradition than with the classical idea that shares its name. It is no accident that virtually every modern democratic society (save those which remain nominal monarchies) also call themselves republics. The distinction between the two was meaningful for a good portion of political history, but to pretend that this is still the case makes as much sense as a statement like “this government is a kingdom, not a monarchy”. This should also make it clear that there are no insurmountable foundational differences between the United States and any democratic regime which elects its president with direct universal suffrage like, say, France. And so, by this token, the republican principles behind the constitution cannot be used to justify any institutions that are anti-democratic by modern standards. This is supported by the fact that even Madison preferred direct elections to the electoral college as a method for selecting the president.
In fact, invoking the republican tradition’s influence in the framing of the constitution, it could be argued, should push for radically democratizing (in the modern sense) the country’s institutions. We should keep in mind that the idea of non-domination is central to this intellectual movement. The 19th century labor republicans were aware of this, which is why their brand of market socialism was justified by opposing class domination over the workers. This language of class is not even exclusive to the labor republicans, however, as it was actually the primary concern of the classics like Cicero and Aristotle. Yet, one does not need to go as far as a form of socialism to see how republican ideals in the present-day United States push for radical change in terms of power disparities. James Madison, by no means a socialist, also incorporates the language of class relations, and warns about the dangers of the connections between wealth and political power. In his notes on the debates of the constitutional convention, he writes the following regarding Gouverneur Morris's intervention:
One great object of the Executive is to controul the Legislature. The Legislature will continually seek to aggrandize & perpetuate themselves; and will seize those critical moments produced by war, invasion or convulsion for that purpose. It is necessary then that the Executive Magistrate should be the guardian of the people, even of the lower classes, agst. Legislative tyranny, against the Great & the wealthy who in the course of things will necessarily compose the Legislative body. Wealth tends to corrupt the mind & to nourish its love of power, and to stimulate it to oppression.
Later, in his own intervention, he even goes on to say that the people are large were the fittest to choose the executive. All of this is perfectly in line with an Aristotelian or Ciceronian analysis of class relations. In particular, about the dangers of the domination of one class. The right is correct in pointing out that the framers of the constitution were concerned with too much popular power. It is equally important, however, to note that the republican principles of the Founding Fathers also made them wary about the elites concentrating political power. This passage makes it clear that Madison was, by no means, concerned only with the potential excess of popular power. It seems even that he saw the elites as a bigger threat.
I think it should be obvious that the republican concern with non-domination would side with the working class in the present-day United States. Politics are essentially financed by the richest people in the country, and this has an impact on whose voices have the most influence in the political process. The median net worth of members of congress in 2014 was $1.2M, and rising. This is far removed from the “balanced” republican government described by the classics, and even by the Founding Fathers. So perhaps, after all, it is a good idea to constantly point out that the United States was founded as a republic. It just does not point in the direction that those currently making it think it does.