Is the United States a Republic or a Democracy?
The United States is a Constitutional Federal Republic (a federation of states with a Representative Democracy). Despite a strong democratic tradition, the U.S. is not a “Direct Democracy” (where people vote on laws directly*).
Thus, although the U.S. is a type of Representative Democracy (where elected representatives vote on laws), the U.S. is not a “Democracy” by the classical meaning of the word (which implies “Pure Direct Democracy”).
Instead, the U.S. can be described as a “Republic” in the classical sense (which generally implies a mixed government ruled by officials and laws; in our case, elected officials, the laws they create, and the Constitution) with a Republican and Democratic spirit, value-set, and subsystem (where the democratic elements denote the liberties and rights of the bill of rights, elections, and direct voting on laws, and where the republican elements denote law, order, and a popular mixed government).
In other words, there are a few ways to describe the United States in terms of its power source and structure in modern and classical terms, but we can generally call it a “Mixed-Republic” and add detail from there (so “a mixed-Republic with a strong Democratic tradition”, or “a Constitutional mixed-Republic with a Representative Democracy”, etc).
BOTTOMLINE: It is a myth that the United States is a “Pure Direct Democracy” in the classical sense, however it is not a myth that the United States “is a Democracy” regarding the idea that it is a mixed-Republic with a Representative Democracy, a democratic spirit, democratic values, and some direct voting on state-based laws. This can be correctly stated as “The United States is a Presidential Electoral Constitutional Federal Republic with a Representative Democracy, some direct voting on state-based laws, some advisory voting, and a general Democratic Spirit”. Or for short, a Mixed-Republic (where both Republic and Mixed imply a popular government). Otherwise, although each term is an important descriptor of our real mixed form, distinctions have a tendency to be semantic.
* To clarify the statement on direct voting on laws in the United States. The general form of Government of the U.S. is not “direct democracy”. The exception to this is that people do vote directly for some state-based laws brought forth by the people, initiatives and referendums (see how voting works in the United States). The people can also bring forth and vote on recalls. Otherwise the people vote directly for local, state, and federal officials who create and vote on legislation and serve as their representatives in Government, except in the case of President and Vice President who are elected by appointed electors and in the case of other select positions (like Supreme Court Judges and executive positions) which are appointed or hired by officials.
Understanding Why the U.S. is a Mixed-Republic, Classically Speaking
One can accurately say that the United States is both a Republic and a Democracy, as it is a purposefully “mixed-Republic” (it is a mix of aristocracy, democracy, and more within a Constitutional Elective Republic).
One could call this form a “Democratic Republic”, although other countries that use that term tend not to be very democratic or republican (and thus it makes using that term, “prickly”).
While a term like “mixed-Republic” ultimately works well to describe the U.S. (using other for descriptors as needed), it helps to instead understand the classical government types upon which the United States is based (giving one the tools they need to describe the system for themselves).
Classically speaking, Plato’s five regimes (the five forms of government from his Republic, on which the West bases its political theories) are Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny.
Meanwhile Plato’s ideal state, his “ideal Republic“, is a state rooted in a lawful and wise aristocracy that mixes the other forms to prevent Tyranny and to maximize liberty and equality (so the term Republic has specific connotations classically speaking, but it is generally like a “lawful” container which to put the other government types in).
Given the above, comparing a Democracy and a Republic is, classically speaking, a bit like comparing apples and oranges (this can be confirmed by Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws CHAP. II.: Of the republican Government, and the Laws relative to Democracy as well; here one would note that Montesquie was one of Madison’s inspirations for the Constitution and his book one of the most cited of the early U.S.; if one wants to compare forms, they should compare aristocracy and democracy within a republic, not compare a democracy and a republic).
Keeping in mind that the U.S. really is “a Republic” (a lawful state with a popular government), the argument that “America is a Republic, not a Democracy” is essentially wordplay. This all gets politicized due to the namesake of the major political parties. Both Democracy and Republicanism are core concepts of liberalism, and both are ensured by “the Republic” (which is why our ancestors choose those terms for the parties).
TIP: See CIA World Factbook of Government Types for an idea of the different types of real life governments. Notice how although “what a government says they are” and “what they are” don’t always line up, the term Republic clearly denotes a mixed government (and beyond this the distinction is other attributes like parliamentary vs. presidential). Even when a term like parliamentary democracy or presidential democracy is used, it is still generally denoting a type of mixed government with a representative democracy. Thus, we see there is real wisdom in Machiavelli’s simple philosophy illustrated in the quotes below, that all states are either popular mixed governments or not. The United States is a popular government, a Republic (which implies a popular and lawful mix as opposed to a despotic, anarchistic, or tyrannical government).
“… the governments of the people are better than those of princes.” Machiavelli’s Livy Book I, Chapter LVIII
In what ways is the United States a “Democracy” or a “Republic”?
As we have noted, for the sake of simplicity one can call America “a Mixed-Government”, “a Mixed-Republic”, or just “a Republic”, but the most formal description of its form is probably “a Constitutional Federal Republic; with a strong democratic tradition”.
Constitutional because of the Constitution, Federal because its a Union of states and commonwealths (each with their own republican governments), and Republic because 1. the people are sovereign and ruled by law, 2. the nation is sovereign and ruled by law, 3. and it is “ruled by the few [representatives]” (an Aristocracy), and not “ruled by the many [directly]” (Democracy) or “ruled by one” (Monarchy).
The U.S. is also specifically an elective republic, because there are elections (which is allows the sovereign people the democratic ability to consent via the ballot box).
Those technicalities aside, broadly speaking, we can refer to America as “a type of Democracy” (a “Representative Democracy”) because [today] everyone can democratically vote for [many] officials AKA “representatives” (including advisory voting for the President and Vice President) and can bring state-based legislation to the table and vote on it directly.
We can also refer to the U.S. as a “democracy” under an even looser definition where “democracy” implies “democratically minded principles of liberalism” like voting rights, a separation of powers, and values like those found in the First Amendment (where free speech, press, and association allows for an outspoken people, which is very “democratic”).
So, while the the classical form of government isn’t “Democracy”, the United States upholds many democratic principles.
Thus, we can say, we live in a Republic and be correct, or speak of “our Democracy” and be correct, but more specifically we have “a mixed-Republic with a Democratic sub-system”, essentially the mix of Democracy, Aristocracy, and Oligarchy Plato called a Kallipolis and Aristotle called a Polity (i.e. one can argue that the founders intentionally attempted to build the ideal state from Plato’s Republic with the separation of powers that Montesquieu suggested, the principles that Locke suggested, and more; and as suggested by all the aforementioned, they purposefully avoided creating a “direct democracy”).
TO SUMMARIZE: Although the structure of the United States government as defined by the Constitution is technically a Mixed-Republic in the classical sense, there are many democratic aspects to the government in practice (especially at the state level), and thus we can describe the U.S. as a “mixed-Government” AKA “mixed-Constitution” or more specifically, a “mixed-Republic” (as the founders intended).
TIP: The Constitution as originally written was less democratic than our current system. States’ Rights movements and Progressive Movements have led to the winner-take-all system, the direct election of senators, and to the people being able to bring forth and vote on state-based initiatives and referendums. Our founders picked a Republic on purpose… but they envisioned a more aristocratic form of government than the one we have now (with the hope that it would stave off corruption and special interests). We may think of Democracy as ideal, but Plato’s Republic and all of philosophical and political history disagree strongly. That is why we have a mixed government. The idea is maximize liberty and equality by using authority, order, and restraint.
TIP: Republic and Aristocracy, when discussing forms of government, can at times almost mean the same thing. But like this conversation, that conversation is a little more complex than can be summed up in a sentence. See “What is a Republic?”
TIP: When American politicians say “our Democracy” they are referring to all the Democratic aspects of the American Republic, including advisory voting, direct voting, all the liberal Amendments, rights, and customs, they aren’t being literal in the sense of the classical meaning of the word.
TIP: When people say “bring democracy to the world” they don’t mean bring a system of direct democracy for voting, they mean help ensure the principles of democracy, liberalism, federalism, and republicanism, as this ensures a nation that can participate in free-and-or-fair trade and ideally that the people have a voice… even if direct governmental action is delegated to an elected and appointed hierarchy as it is in our Republic. See the Monroe Doctrine and “why America’s founders chose a Republic“.
TIP: Representative Democracy and Representative Republic are basically synonyms. Both imply officials are elected to rule and create laws (elected to be “representatives in government”) rather than people voting on laws directly. It is a type of “indirect democracy”. Remember though, in the U.S. we vote on some state-based legislation, so it really is a “mixed” system.
TIP: The U.S. Constitution sets up a Republican form of government for the U.S. and it also guarantees every state a Republican form of government (which is very Democratic, as it puts power into more hands by ensuring the power of state governments). Thus, not only is the U.S. a Republic, each state is also a Republic. When we say “Republican” we mean an ideology that is pro-Republic (rather than pro-Monarchy for example; We aren’t talking about the Republican party). When we say Democratic, we mean favoring the people (we aren’t talking about the Democratic Party). All of America’s founders were both Democrats and Republicans (as are almost all Americans today)… this is why the party of Jefferson was the Democratic-Republicans. The current party names are both named after American values and the ruling style of the parties of the 1800’s, they have little do to with the ideologies of parties of today. See the history of the parties.
NOTE: Feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.
Why the U.S. is a “Mixed-Constitution” and Not a Democracy – More Details
To fully understand why the U.S. is a specific type of Republic and not “a Democracy” we need to cover some details regarding the above:
First, we have to understand that the types of government are classically based on who votes for laws and who rules, not on who gets to vote in general.
It is very a Democratic thing that everyone gets to vote and that the people can vote on some state-based legislation brought forth by citizens, but this isn’t what defines the power structure of a government. What defines it is who makes the laws and rules, and in the U.S., elected officials rule and make the laws, not the people.
Thus, the U.S. is at its core: a type of aristocracy (ruled by the few) and a type of Representative Republic (ruled by elected representatives). The other aspects of the mixed system are essentially contained within the bounds of Aristocracy / Republic.
|Correct (lawful)||Deviant (corrupt)|
|One Ruler||Monarchy||Tyranny / Despotism|
|Few Rulers||Aristocracy / Republic *You are here-ish||Oligarchy / Plutocracy|
|Many Rulers||Direct Democracy||Anarchy|
NOTE: Remember Republic isn’t “a classical form”, I put Republic next to aristocracy to show its aristocratic nature, but it is more like a container in which other forms can be placed.
With that said, as noted above, our Constitution has many Democratic elements. It dictates a separation of powers: an Executive, Judicial, and bicameral (two part) Legislative branch.
Meanwhile, as of today, the Senate and the House are elected by popular vote, as are some Judges and many local positions.
Due to the elective nature of many positions, the fact that other positions are appointed, the fact that the people vote directly on some laws, but not on others, and due to other aspects like the separation of powers, paired with our capitalist “[sometimes] oligarchical” economic system, paired with our liberty, equality, and freedom at home, the U.S. government is well described as a “mixed” Government (or “a mixed-Republic”, or “a mixed-Constitution”) rather than just “a republic” (like the old Republic of Venice was, and in line with Madison’s take on Montesquieu’s political theory of the separation of powers and checks and balances).
All this to say, the U.S. is very Democratic (and very proud of that fact), and can be accurately be called a representative Democracy, but it isn’t a pure direct Democracy (but this makes sense as, after-all, it isn’t really a pure anything).
FACT: When Plato and Aristotle first gave names to the forms, they specifically used Democracy and Aristocracy to denote who rules. Since all future political philosophers have used their naming, the distinction is important. When we don’t stress the idea that the U.S. is a Republic (here meaning a sovereign law-abiding mixed-constitution “rooted in an aristocracy”), it makes aspects of the Constitution like the Electoral College very confusing. Yet, when we stress the term Republic too much, it makes it seem like the Republican party is inherently more American or that they hold only Republican principles, but all of those ideas are pretty far from the truth. If you want to know more about that, see the U.S. party names explained.
Who Rules? (Types of Government). A take on the forms of government.
To Summarize all the above into four points:
- The American people vote for elected officials who create laws, they don’t create laws or vote on the laws directly (aside from the aforementioned initiatives and referendums which are state and not federal, but which can be drafted by and voted on by citizens; learn more about how voting works). Thus, America’s power source can be described as a Representative Democracy,Representative Republic, or just Republic.
- America is a Federation of states with local governments and a strong central government. It is not an other power structure like a confederation (see history of the U.S.), where states have more power than the central government, so America’s power structure is described as Federal.
- The structure and power source are defined by a legal constitution, a legal document with principles and limits by which a state is governed (as opposed to say, “the divine right of kings“), so America is Constitutional.
- The Constitution is amended by a democratic and liberally minded Bill of Rights and other amendments, this along with the structure and power source as laid out by the Constitution (especially the checks and balances, separation of powers, and citizen participation), and along with intentions expressed in the Declaration of Independence, Federalist Papers, state-based rules, and general American history, helps to confirm America’s strong democratic values and tradition.
TIP: When people say “our Democracy” they are referring to our Democratic spirit and tradition, they aren’t being literal and referring to our power structure which is more Republican by nature. A Free-Republic (or in our case “a Free Trading Republic”) is a very popular sort of aristocratic government. Historically the free-trade-Republics, like the Venetian Republic (which had an unelected Prince and was thus a hybrid), the Athenian “Republic” (which had a hybrid oligarchical Republic / Direct Democracy by lottery in terms of voting), and Roman Republic (which had a hybrid Democracy / Republic) have represented the pinnacle of popular governments (the pinnacle of polities as it were). Consequently the U.S. is in many ways based on all three, although it also drew its principles from other past governments like England’s post-Glorious Revolution government and Lycia’s Confederate Republic.
The American Form Of Government. Minus the bias (this video really wants you to associate Republics with the American political party Republican… which is incorrect; see American history), this video provides the best video-based answer as to why America isn’t a Democracy. To summarize, America isn’t a Democracy because there are only three types of governments and they are Monarchy, Aristocracy (Republic), and Democracy… we are a mixed-Republic, so not a Democracy (almost every Government is a form of Republic). Learn “why the founders choose a Republic“.
TIP: Athens claimed to be a Pure/Direct Democracy (everyone votes directly on laws) and Rome a Republic (elected officials vote on laws). In reality, both were mixed systems like the Venetian Republic. America’s Founding Fathers wanted the best of all worlds, while avoiding the pitfalls of any single type, so they designed “a mixed Constitution” (a hybrid of the classical forms) as suggested by philosophers like Montesquieu.
The Constitution, the Articles, and Federalism: Crash Course US History #8
TIP: The democratic principles like our freedoms and separation of powers all come from the growing liberalism of the Age of Enlightenment. Learn about the enlightenment and the birth of modern governments.
FACT: According to the CIA World Factbook America is, a “Constitution-based federal republic; with strong democratic tradition”. Learn more about the basic government types and the political left and right.
Where US Politics Came From: Crash Course US History #9. What did the founding fathers want the country to look like?
TIP: Our founders called America everything from a Republic to a Democracy. Jefferson was frustrated at being given a label because he considered himself a Federalist, Democrat, and Republican. Meanwhile, John Adams used the term “representative democracy” and Benjamin Franklin and Governor Morris both confirm the United States to be Republic. This is because terminology is largely a matter of semantics and context. You can read the Constitution and slap your own label on America if you wish. The important take-away is America isn’t a Direct Democracy and does vote for elected officials.
Is the United States of America a Democracy or a Republic? – Definitions
Above we explained why America is a “Mixed” Constitutional Federal Republic with a Strong Democratic tradition. Below we will examine each aspect on its own accord and look at a few more terms. From here forward its only about reinforcing what we have already covered above.
When speaking of the power source of government specifically, “The United States of America is a Republic,” where elected officials vote for laws, not a Direct Democracy, where citizens vote for laws directly. This truism is often used to imply a political party or style is best, but that is simply a matter of opinion (even Plato’s warnings of the dangers of pure Democracy are “opinion” technically speaking, if I say that as an admirer of Plato, you can imagine what I think of some politician trying to conflate the modern U.S. party’s with their namesakes).
The following questions and answers will help clarify America’s political system and form of government:
- Is America a Democracy? America has many democratic traditions, but the basic agreed on government style is a Constitutional Federal Republic. That is a very democratic type of Republic, sometimes called a Representative Democracy.
- What is a Democracy? Democracy is one of the major government types; it broadly means “the people vote on laws directly,” although there are countless sub-types including limited representative democracies like America has.
- Is America a Republic? America is a type of Republic called a Federal Republic, it’s a democratic form of government that uses a Republic governance style where elected-officials create laws. Many other government types are used as subsystems, especially by the non-legislative branches of Government, and thus a better term is “mixed Republic”.
- What is a Republic? A Republic is a system where people vote for politicians and politicians vote for laws. Different types of Republics favor different forms of government and different styles of voting for or appointing representatives.
- What are the other Government types? There are many government types, but the basics for power source are Democracy (ruled by many), Oligarchy (rule by few), Monarchy (ruled by one). A Republic is a sort of Democratically formed oligarchy, an important hybrid defined since Plato’s Republic as “a good choice”.
- Is America a Representative Democracy? America can also be described as “representative democracy,” we can say there are technical differences, and sometimes the term representative democracy can be used semantically to contrast a less democratic republic, but generally they are similar. See this conversation.
- Why is the United States a Republic and Not a Democracy? America is a Republic because the constitution specifically organizes the States as a Republic run by elected officials. This is literally what is meant by Constitutional Federal Republic.
- Why Do People Say America is a Republic and Not a Democracy? Typically it is a matter of semantics, sometimes it’s party politics, but sometimes it’s people being sticklers for terminology. The basic government types only include a few choices, saying Democracy in this regard implies “direct democracy”, America isn’t a direct democracy.
- What does “Federal” Republic mean? It refers to a federation of states (Federation), a union of partially self-governing states with a democratic form of government, under a central (federal) government. This describes a power structure, not a power source. Other options include: chiefdom (kinship based), empire (nations under the rule of single power), hegemony (nations under the rule of other nation), confederation (weak central government), and unitary (single power, not state power).
- What does it mean that America is a “Constitutional” Republic: It means the government style is laid out by a constitution. Not all nations are defined by constitutions, and any power source can have a constitution (for instance, a constitutional monarchy is a monarchy established by a constitution).
- What does “of the people, by the people, for the people” mean? It means a government formed of citizens, by the citizens, for the interest of the citizens. Not by the aristocracy, or for the special interest oligarchs for example. It doesn’t imply America should be run by mob rule; it speaks to our Freedom of speech, press, and assembly and right to vote for elected officials (and specifically against a Monarchy).
- Is America a Democratic Republic? You could say America is a Constitutionally Limited Representative Democratic Republic. The trick here is that lots of countries call themselves Democratic Republics, but then are run like something else. Authoritarian regimes like to use this term, so let’s avoid it. See Democratic Republics.
- Is America a Corporatocracy? This is a matter of opinion, the Founding Fathers talked about factions. Those include political factions and other “special interests.” We can say the growing power of corporations and special interests in America can be described as a type of Corporatocracy but this would be a subsystem of the Republic, and a matter of complexity and semantics. America values liberty, and that means people have the right to form interest groups. Deal making requires sitting across the table from interest groups, to balance the power.
- Is America Christian? America has no official Religion; instead we have freedom of Religion. Still, about 70% of Americans identify as Christian, that means (statistically speaking) no one political party is “Christian.”
- Is America Capitalist? America has no official economic system (but in practice the current system is quasi-capitalist). America values liberty, law, and justice, which allows for a flexible economic system, taxation, and regulation. America’s constitution could stand as is in a completely different economic system, although some don’t mesh well with our values. A regulated form of capitalism has been traditionally favored in America. Unlike with the religion bit, the constitution more flexibility here.
TIP: The political parties have very little to do with government style. They are mostly Democrat and Republican by name, which party supports which platforms and issues are always changing.
What is America’s Political System in Practice?
In practice, America functions a little different than it does on paper. America’s political system can loosely be described as a Constitution-based, mixed-government, limited, Federalist Democratic Republic, with a mixed-market Capitalist economic system, and strong Democratic values. The amended Constitution ensures rights like freedom of religion, press, and speech, but America doesn’t have an official religion or economic system.
Due to the mixed nature of the United States, and specifically due to recent deregulation of campaign finance, some call America a type of oligarchy called a corporatocracy (where crony capitalists and corporations make the laws). How true this is in practice is a matter of perspective, and requires a deep understanding of history and the current political system.
TIP: Generally speaking, pure Oligarchy is not desirable, and history shows clearly that Barons pose real historic danger. However, we should acknowledge that the Greeks generally encouraged aspects of oligarchy in their ideal mixed government (not because they loved oligarchy, but because the human condition essentially demands it, as can be seen in Plato’s theory of a producer class from his Republic for example). Those who are frustrated by any aspects of oligarchy in the state should consider that fact. Plato’s main warning was that pure liberty and equality were pitfalls (pure democracy is a pitfall)… because it breeds an oligarchical tyrant without restraints. So, the lesson: liberty, equality, democracy, capitalism, order, authority, and more are all great things, but they don’t work good in their pure forms. They work best when “mixed”, in a “system of checks and balances”, retrained by “a set of fair laws”. In words, they work best in a Constitutional Mixed-Republic.
The Proofs in the Constitution
Taking into account all of the above, we can say the U.S. is a regulated mixed-market hybrid Republic with freedom of religion with strong democratic principles. Despite subsystems that occur to preserve liberty and equality, or the many subsystems laid out in Constitution (for instance the agencies created by the executive branch, or Court nominations for life which use other power and structure types), America’s core political system is confirmed specifically by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and it’s economic system exists within these bounds. Important clauses include:
- The US Constitution. Section. 1-3. Lays out the structure of the government.
- The US Constitution. Section. 4. The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened), against domestic Violence.
- The Bill of Rights. Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
As Benjamin Franklin was exiting after writing the U.S. constitution, a woman asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?”. He replied, “A republic—if you can keep it. (Implying the rule of law was needed to ensure Democratic values, values that have been traditionally usurped by Oligarchs and Authoritarians).
TIP: See our page on how to understand American politics for an overview of the whole political system. See the history of party switching to spot how today’s themes are old as the country itself. You can also read more about why our founders picked a Republic instead of a Direct Democracy here.