Differentiating between democracy and republic.

Although NZ readers may not be that interested in the subject and in lieu of US Fathers Day missives (not celebrated in NZ), I thought I would lay out some brief thoughts on a political subject being debated in the US. It seems crazy but there seems to be some confusion on what a the terms “democracy” and “republic” mean.

There are (MAGA) right-wingers and conservative media commentators who claim that the US is a Republic, not a Democracy. They are either cynical or ignorant. The two are not antithetical. Democracy is a means of giving political voice, selecting political representatives and granting social (and often economic) equality. It comes from the Latin word “demos,” or polity.

Republics (from the Latin res publica) are a type of political governance where, unlike monarchies or other forms of oligarchical rule, leadership purportedly derives from or is delegated by the sovereign will of the people (which may/may not be voiced democratically). There are democratic republics and there are authoritarian republics, so the two terms–democracy and republic–while having different specific meanings, may or may not be overlapped when it comes to a given political framework.

In fact, as the old saying goes, any country with “democratic” in its name is likely not regardless of whether it has “Republic” in its title. For example, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) is anything but. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) holds elections (in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)), but is certainly not democratic in the liberal (universal, free, fair and transparent elections) sense of the term. Argentina under its dictatorships remained a “Republica Federal.” In fact, Republics can be federal in nature, where political administration is decentralized and broken into constituent parts such as US or Brazilian states, or unitary in nature, where the central government has administrative jurisdiction over the entire country (as in NZ). In neither case does this necessarily involve democracy as a concept or practice. It is simply a type of governmental administration within given territorial limits, to which different types of political voice, representation and accountability are attached.

Again, democracy is about political expression and social equality; republic is about political organisation. The US was founded and has been broadened via much struggle and conflict as a democratic republic (first for some, eventually for all). The process involved two parallel processes that were not always congruent or synchronised, which consequently has led to repeated conflict (think Civil War and the Civil Rights movement). In fact, the broadening of “democratic” rights within the US over the years has produced backlash from small and large-R “republicans” who believe that the awarding of rights to previously marginalised groups and non-citizens somehow infringes on their existing rights (which assumes that “rights” are an indivisible pie where awarding some to one group means that other groups will lose their fair or previously allotted share). This has extended into discussions of “states rights” versus those accorded by US federal law, where advocates of the Republic versus Democracy designation argue against democracy because it interferes with State’s autonomy over their internal (political, economic and social) affairs. In this view, a US Republic leaves the issue of individual and collective rights to be decided by States under their own self-made laws. Democracy removes that prerogative by federal fiat, subjugating states to the dictates of a federal overseers (who in turn are seen as pawns or tools of nefarious elites). This view is deeply flawed, if not dishonest.

The “states versus feds” debate has been rehashed endlessly and largely settled as a matter of US constitutional law. Despite ongoing efforts by groups like the Federalist Society to redefine the relationship between the central government and states, it has never really been framed as a “Republic versus Democracy” issue. But in the hands of malevolent or ignorant actors, this adversarial distinction contributes to the false dichotomy between and binary juxtaposition of the two different but often compatible terms.

It would be a pity if the narrative that democracy is antithetical to being a republic begins to take larger hold in the US in the lead-up to the November elections. Perhaps some of those who espouse such a view really would prefer that the US become an authoritarian republic. But what the very presence of such views does show is that when it comes to fundamental concepts underpinning the US political order, there sure are a lot of misinformed if not downright stupid people out there–and plenty of others who wish to exploit their ignorance for myopic partisan gain.