Robbins: The difference between a democracy and a republic (2024)

It has of late become en vogue, at least in some circles, to claim that the United States, rather than a democracy is, in fact, a republic.This begs the question: What’s the difference?

Recently, I heard an interviewee who subscribed to the republic-rather-than-democracy theorem struggling.“A democracy, ” she said, “is government control.”Um, OK? But based on … ?

So let’s define some terms.

First, in consideration of the interviewee’s stumbling reply, let’s define “autocracy” which, in fact, smacks of “government control.” Autocracy may be defined as a “government in which one person possesses unlimited power” which, eh-hem, seems like a whole bunch of government control.

While we’re at it, let’s look at totalitarianism, which Webster’s says is “centralized control by an autocratic authority; the political concept that the citizen should betotallysubject to an absolute state authority.”


Let’s turn now to our subject.Democracy is “government by the people; a government in which the supreme power isvestedin the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held freeelections.” Definitionally, democracy is inapposite to “government control.” So au contraire; democracy is the antithesis of government control, it is where power is, instead, held by the people.

In a pure or “direct” democracy the power to govern lies directly in the hands of the people rather than being exercised through their representatives.Direct democracy or pure democracy is a form of democracy in which the electorate decides on policy initiatives without elected representatives as proxies.

Let’s say we have a softball team; nine starters and a half dozen waiting on the bench.Let’s also say where and when we play is determined by a show of hands.There is no leader and no one is elected to express any will other than his/her own. An issue comes before us.A show of hands, please.If eight or more hands fly up in support or opposition to the question, the matter carries. That is “pure” democracy.

With 15 votes, pure democracy is manageable. But when you get to 337 million people, give or take — the current population of the United States — pure democracy becomes a bit unruly. This is why the U.S., like most democratic nations, is a “representative democracy” which is just what it sounds like; we elect representatives who, at least in theory, serve to represent the will of the people.

“Representative democracy,” then, can be defined asa type of democracy (that is, a system of government where power lies with the people) where representatives are elected by the public.This is different from a direct democracy, where the public votes directly on laws or policies, rather than for representatives.

Now, what about a “republic?”A republic, based on the Latin phrase res publica (literally “public thing”), is a state or nation in which political power rests with the public through their representatives. Another definition is a political order whose head of state — in modern times — is usually a president and where the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them.

When the Founding Fathers brought forth this nation, what they conceived was a representative democracy where the people were the masters of their destiny and elected representatives to exercise the public will.

One need look no further than the first words of the Constitution to see that this is so; “We the People … do ordain and establish this Constitution.”A “constitution” may, in turn, be expressed as the basic principles and laws of a nation, state, or social group that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people in it.In the case of the United States, “We the People” ordained, established, and adopted the rules and powers that would govern.

Unless one fails to concede that government is us, this is a far cry from government control.

So what’s the difference between a democracy and a republic?

Not much.

Founding FatherJames Madisonmay have best described the difference between a democracy and a republic: “(The difference) 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.”

Are we a democracy or a republic? Technically we are a representative democracy which is an alter ego for the term “republic.”

What then is diff?

Really, nada.Nothing more than picking semantic nits.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the Law Firm of Caplan & Earnest, LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions; real estate and development; family law, custody, and divorce; and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 His novels, “How to Raise a Shark (an apocryphal tale),” “The Stone Minder’s Daughter,” “Why I Walk so Slow” and “He Said They Came From Mars (stories from the edge of the legal universe)” are currently available at fine booksellers.And coming soon, “The Theory of Dancing Mice.”

Robbins: The difference between a democracy and a republic (2024)
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