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May 20, 2008

Do We Live in a Democracy?

Every time we use the word “democracy” we get complaints about our choice of words. We’re told that in the United States, we live in a republic, not a democracy, and that we should educate ourselves about what the Founders thought about democracy. This complaint was common yesterday, in the response to yesterday’s Dangerous Democracy post.

But whatever one might think about democracy in theory and practice, we believe it’s a much more precise description of our system of government than is “republic.” And “representative democracy,” the term we often used yesterday, is even more precise.

It’s true that we live in a republic. Other famous republics include ancient Rome and the Confederacy. But what does that really mean? After all, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia are both monarchies, but the differences between these countries are far more significant than the similarities. “Republic” and “monarchy” work as categories, but they don’t describe much in substance.

One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of a republic is “a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law.” That does describe the American form of government, but it doesn’t say who the “body of citizens” is. Is it only people of a certain religion or skin color? Is it only property owners? Is it everybody?

In contrast, here are some of Merriam Webster’s definitions for democracy

  • a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections
  • the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority
  • the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges

What is a “representative democracy?”

Wikipedia says,

Representative Democracy is a form of government founded on the principles of popular sovereignty by the people’s representatives.The representatives form an independent ruling body (for an election period) charged with the responsibility of acting in the people’s interest, but not as their proxy representatives—i.e., not necessarily always according to their wishes, but with enough authority to exercise swift and resolute initiative in the face of changing circumstances. It is often contrasted with direct democracy, where representatives are absent or are limited in power as proxy representatives.

It is clear that the Founders intended that we have a republican form of government. It’s true that they didn’t intend that everyone have the right to vote. But the simple fact is, the Constitution has been amended to make our form of government more democratic

  • all citizens 18 and up have the right to vote, regardless of race, color, or sex;
  • Not just Representatives, but even U.S. Senators are elected by the people;
  • Electors in the Electoral College are chosen by the people, and Presidents are indirectly chosen by the people.

We therefore conclude that our system of government is a “democracy” according to its most commonly-used and -understood definition. Using the word doesn’t mean we favor unchecked mob rule – as yesterday’s Dispatch indicates, we believe democracy must be checked by the separation of powers, and that government must be limited in size, scope, and power. But we won’t back down from calling our form of government what it is: a democracy.

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