Understanding Republics and Republicanism

A Republic is a lawful, constitutional, and sovereign state in which a sovereign people are represented by representatives. Where the term Republic, classically speaking, denotes “a mixed-government” (a mix of the lawful classical forms Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, and Democracy that is meant to maximize the virtues of state and avoid Anarchy and Tyranny), and generally denotes classically liberal values like a separation of powers and other key liberties and rights. With that in mind, the term has been used in a number of ways historically.[1][2][3][4]

Below we discuss Republics and Republicanism.

What is a Republic?

In cases where no other descriptors are offered, Republic generally implies a lawful form of government with both an aristocratic and democratic spirit (a love of equality, liberty, law, and order in balance).

Republic as a Synonym for a Lawful State

In Plato’s Republic, the Republic is his Polity (his ideal mixed government). Thus, in this respect the term Republic describes as state in which a mix of the classical forms of governments is placed to create an ideal lawful popular government. In those terms, Republic can be seen as lawful container in which “mixes” of lawful government types are put (for example the U.S. is a Democratically minded liberal Constitutional Federalist Elective Republic).

TIP: With the above said, it is vital to note that the term Republic has been used in different ways by different philosophers and real life governments. Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Locke, and Rousseau all discuss Republics, in all cases they denote popular lawful governments that aren’t pure Monarchies, but beyond that exact definitions differ. Philosophy aside, Republics are real in-action things that we can look at (see CIA World Factbook of Government Types). With that in mind, one should be forewarned that governments often give themselves names that don’t align with their governing style (the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea comes to mind as an example of honorable name self-given to a despotic militaristic state).

What is Republicanism?

Given the above, it follows, that Republicanism is an ideology which identifies with principles related to Republics, namely:

  • A lawful and orderly state (an appreciation of aristocracy, and timocracy).
  • A democratic spirit in some form (san appreciation for the virtues of democracy with a healthy fear of anarchy and democracy in extremes).
  • An appreciation of free trading popular governments (so some tolerance for oligarchy within the mix).
  • A sovereign people whose will is represented by the state (why true Republics are generally democratic whether they use a representative democracy like a parliamentary republic does or like a Presidential Republic like the U.S. does, a direct democracy like old Athens, or a mix).
  • Rule by representatives (a favoring of aristocracy to pure democracy).
  • A desire to maximize the virtues of the state, like liberty, equality, honor, strength, wealth, and justice; balancing these forces via correct and wise governance (and typically voter participation and liberal principles like free speech, free assembly, free press, etc).
  • And thus, an appreciation for both law and order AND liberty and equality, but an aversion to Pure Direct Democracy, Anarchy, Absolute Monarchy, Despotism, Tyranny, or general extremism in any form; and an appreciation instead of mixed and balanced popular governments where both individual liberty and the common good are respected. I.E. “a love of mixed lawful popular governments”.

TIP: Both the founding Anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson and the founding Federalist Alexander Hamilton considered themselves Republicans (and Federalists, and Liberals, and Democrats, etc; consider the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans in the “one-party” Era of Good Feelings), the United States is republican and democratic, the parties of any era represent two different stances on this, not two polar opposite positions.

More on Republics and Republicans

In other words, a Republic generally describes a popular government that utilizes aspects of aristocracy to ensure justice and order, as that is the means by which the other virtues are maximized.

Likewise, a Republican is one whose principles are reflected by the virtues of this type of state (so not a tyrant, monarchist, or anarchist generally speaking).

A Republican is also typically “a liberal” and “a democrat” to some extent, although Republican typically implies a set of slightly more conservative values (in the favoring of order, aristocracy, law, and authority to accomplish the ends rather than a focus on pure liberty and/or equality).

That said, the concept is complex, so keep reading for different perspectives.

Below we explain Republics and Republicanism in historic detail, Republics to the classical forms of government like democracy and monarchy, and finally compare these concepts to the U.S. political parties (they relate to the original naming of the parties, and to a few aspects today, but typically one is wise to not conflate the U.S. parties and the core concepts they are named after).

We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.” – Alexander Hamilton. Republicanism, the one thing the founders form Jefferson, to Madison, to Hamilton, to Henry agreed on outside of liberalism.[5][6][7]

TIP: The term Republic is very equatable with the Greek term Polity. Both terms can refer to “a state” or “a form of government”, but more specifically refer to “the ideal state” or “ideal form of government”. Polity and Republic are like containers which different mixes of lawful popular governments can be placed in. The lawful form of government which is to “the right” of democracy is aristocracy, not “republic”. America is a mixed-Republic with aspects of democracy and aristocracy working in tandem to create a lawful and correct balance.

From Machiavelli, the Father of Modern Republicanism: A Simple Definition of the Term “Republic”

The term Republic is perhaps best described in its most simple form by Machiavelli (the father of modern political science) when he said,

ALL STATES, all powers, that have held and hold rule over men have been and are either republics or principalities. – The first line of the Prince

“… the governments of the people are better than those of princes.” Book I, Chapter LVIII of Livy

The above quote in context refers to Machiavelli’s idea that “there are only three forms of government” Monarchy, Aristocracy (Republic), and Democracy.

However, Democracy is Anarchy, and thus not ever a form in practice (Machiavelli, a realist, considered Athenian Democracy, Roman Republican Democracy, and all other similar systems simply “republics”).

Given the above, another acceptable definition for Republic is: Erring toward Aristocracy and away from Absolute Monarchy and Direct Pure Democracy.

Adding Complexity

With the above said, definitions of what the term Republic means beyond the simple distinction between “a state for a sovereign people” (Republic) and “a state by a single absolute sovereign” (a Monarchy or “Principality”) are complex and have varied over time.

From one perspective, a Republic is a synonym for the classical form of government aristocracy (ruled by the few), from another perspective, it isn’t a classical form at all, and is rather a container in which most of the classical forms can rest in either pure or mixed forms (as so long as there is the rule of law and the people are sovereign; so no pure lawless anarchy and no absolute monarchy or pure despotism).

In truth, the term has essentially been used in all these ways (by Plato, Aristotle, Livy, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Locke, Rousseau, etc) since it was first coined in…wait for it… Plato’s Republic.

With the above noted, the first thing we should do to understand the nuances of “Republics” and the corresponding ideology “Republicanism” is go back to the classical forms of government as laid out by the Greeks.

TIP: The American political parties are named “Democratic” and “Republican”. The absolute biggest mistake you can make is trying to equate the modern platforms and ideologies with the general terms Democracy and Republic as an absolute. There is lots of room for interesting conversation here, but the U.S. party platforms have changed, ideologies differ issue-to-issue in each era, and the terms really shouldn’t be taken too literally in the modern day… even when they seem to fit (see original meanings of the party names). The Republic, for which we stand, is a very Democratic Republic, and either party is more Democratic or Republican on a given issue in a given era.

The Classical Forms of Governments

Keeping in mind that the Greeks didn’t [always] draw little charts like the ones below to describe the governments. Below is an attempt to translate their theories into a few tables. See “the forms of government” for more discussion.

Plato Defined the Forms like this:

Correct (lawful) Deviant (corrupt)
One Ruler Monarchy /Aristocracy Tyranny
Few Rulers Timarchy (honor based) Oligarchy (greed based)
Many Rulers Democracy (pure liberty and equality based) Anarchy (pure liberty and equality based)

NOTES: Plato and Aristotle don’t really distinguish between Democracy and Anarchy (I think to make a point) and for Plato, Monarchy and Aristocracy may as well be the same thing (even though he recognized that the “who rules” question applies and distinguishes between the two types before considering them together). Lastly, Plato’s Kallipolis (his ideal mixed government meant to rule over his “ideal Republic”) was a mix of Democracy, Oligarchy, and Aristocracy, so it doesn’t really fit in the chart.

Aristotle, Plato’s reacher, defined the forms like this:[8]

Correct (lawful) Deviant (corrupt)
One Ruler Kingship Tyranny
Few Rulers Aristocracy Oligarchy
Many Rulers Polity (Mixed Republic) Democracy

NOTES: Aristotle, like Plato, treats Democracy and Anarchy as essentially the same thing. Here his Polity (his perfect mixed government) is placed in the many rulers box, as it shows that the seemingly great sounding Democracy isn’t as good in practice as it seems on paper, but that this should be confused to mean “the many shouldn’t rule” (they are sovereign, and they should be represented, but they shouldn’t rule directly). It is then, for the Greeks, this ideal mixed Republic that allows for the best system which best represents “the general will” of the people…. of course, this is just the type of thing that confuses people in modern times, making them think that “Democracy” is somehow inferior to “Republicanism”… it isn’t. As we will note below, the actual conversation we are having today is “how should a mixed-Republic look”, should it be more toward aristocracy or more toward Plato’s Democracy.


Now, to translate Aristotle’s Forms of Government into modern terms
it looks like this:

Correct (lawful) Deviant (corrupt)
One Ruler Monarchy Tyranny / Despotism
Few Rulers Aristocracy (what we typically think of as a Republic; where I would put the ideal mixed Republic) Oligarchy / Plutocracy
Many Rulers Direct Democracy Anarchy

NOTES: Both Plato and Aristotle make our modern conversation a little confusing. They make it look somehow like Democracy was inherently bad as a concept. So, the modern chart above helps explain why we would want a “mixed Republic” rooted in an Aristocracy. It is a means to balance the forms and ensure the liberty and equality that Democracy sought in the first place.

What is the Difference Between a Republic and a Democracy?

As you can see in the above charts, Democracy is a classical form of government, but technically speaking, “a Republic” isn’t.

Republic describes, in general, any type of lawful state where the people are sovereign and have representation (even a Constitutional Monarchy could be this, speaking loosely, even though an absolute despotic Monarchy, where the people weren’t sovereign, or a tyrannical despotic state, which by its nature is not rule lawfully, would not be).

Thus, comparing a Republic to a Democracy isn’t the right starting point.

Instead, we should start by discussing the difference between Pure Democracy and Aristocracy.

Comparing Democracy and Aristocracy

A Pure Direct Democracy is a system of government in which everyone votes (sort of like Athenian Democracy), and Aristocracy is a system of government ruled by the few (whether elected, appointed, or hereditary; more like the Roman Republic).

A Republic is a lawful popular government that almost always has aspects of both democracy and aristocracy in practice. However, when comparing “democracy and republics”, we treat the term “republic” like it is a synonym for aristocracy.

Thus, it is important to understand context when people are talking about Republican forms of governments.

In modern terms, everything is generally talked about in the context of Republics (as all modern western states are Republics), so that can be a bit confusing. Again, the key is context.

The way the Term Republic is Used in the United States

As if the above wasn’t confusing enough, the fact that Democrats and Republicans are named after these concepts adds even more complexity. The problem is that their names speak to their founding ideologies to some extent, but not their modern ideologies nearly as accurately.

When people are talking about “Democracy and the United States Republic”, or “Democrats and Republicans”, they are generally talking about a more Aristocratic government vs. a more Democratic government, within the sphere of a liberal Republic ( they are talking about erring toward Democratic ideals vs. erring toward a more Aristocratic form of Republicanism).

For now, lets just conclude by saying, in general, “a Republic” is a state like Machiavelli describes (where there is law, representatives, and the people sovereign) and that when we say “republic” vs. “democracy” we could be talking about 1. republicanism as a concept vs. democratic ideals; 2. or, the form of government democracy vs. the form of government aristocracy.

So, Again: What is Republicanism?

Where the term “Republic” is used loosely to describe any law-abiding state with representatives, which loosely includes all the forms above except anarchy and despotism, and Republicanism has a related similar meanings, which is:

Erring toward aristocracy and away from Monarchy and Democracy; and generally championing the principles of Republics (as noted above).

Republicanism, not allowing for majority rule like its more Democratic cousin, on paper avoids some of the perils of the less restrained and more unordered Democracy.

In Plato’s Republic, he showed how democracy became tyranny, and showed that only a mixed-government, aristocracy, or monarchy could prevent it.

America’s Federalist founders knew this and sought a more Republican form of government (a more “aristocratic” form) for the “the Republic”.

Applying this to the American Political Parties and Ideologies

Today a modern conservative might twist this to somehow imply that states’ rights is Republican, and it is a bit (as Jefferson knew)… but, in terms of the history of the parties: the solid south conservatives and the more liberal Jeffersonians were both Democrats. So, the argument works, but it is historically nonsense. The modern Republican party still retains a federalist ideology in some ways, but states’ rights was an anti-federalist (Jeffersonian and states’ rights Confederate) position. The Federalist founders like Hamilton were essentially neoliberals.

So today, when Democrats use federal power, it is federalist, it is more Republican than Democrat… but that said, the parties are fluid and change, so really, all Americans are Democrats and Republicans, and whomever errs toward democracy on any issue is being a democrat and whomever errs toward Republicanism on any issue is being a Republican.

But look, The United States is a Constitutional Federal Republic (a federation of states with a Representative Democracy)… and at one point, during the Era of Good Feelings, there was only one party, the Democratic-Republicans (not an accidental name).

All of this speaks to one simple fact, America is a Polity / Kallipolis, a “Mixed Government”. A mash-up of all the forms, with a separation of powers, each checking and balancing each other. A purposeful “mixed Republic” based on Montesquieu, Locke, Plato and other thinkers.

You’ll notice the forms of government are hard to even place in a chart, consider that each form has many forms, and consider the history of philosophy and the political parties.

We are a mixed-government, and technically speaking a republic isn’t a form of government. So, any attempt to over-simplify this or make it political (for example, by pretending all good qualities belong to the modern “Republican” Party) just confuses the reality of things.

We are a Polity, both Democratic and Aristocratic by design, and our state, with its constitution, laws, sovereign states, sovereign people, and government, ruled by the few representatives, elected by the people for some positions, appointed in others, IS ONE OF MANY TYPES OF REPUBLICS.

The tyranny of the minority party: In America we call ourselves Democrats and Republicans… but the party platforms have changed, ideologies differ issue-to-issue, and thus the terms shouldn’t be taken too literally in the modern day (see original meanings of the party names). Today I hear people try to make a case for Republicanism like it was states’ rights Confederatism designed by the Good Lord to protect rural less-populous states and minority rights… but no. The Federalists of the North were the original Republicans and Lincoln was the first Republican party President. The winner-take-all system, the one that favors rural states in America, was invented by populist Democrats in the South as a mechanism for protecting their liberty (including their liberty to keep slaves), not by the Federalist future-Republicans who wanted a strong central government like England’s (a more aristocratic and less democratic government). The Federalists didn’t want elections for senators and the President, today we have them. I really respect the article: REPUBLIC vs. DEMOCRACY… but it presenting this false view that Republicanism is somehow related to the modern Republican party and their states’ rights stance. That is historically inaccurate. Yes, a Republic can protect minority interests, but in the case of the old Democrats, they didn’t want “the few” “aristocrats” telling them what to do, and actually the Era of Good Feelings ended because the aristocracy picked Adams instead of picking the winner of the Popular vote Jackson. I can’t fit the full argument here, but let us just say, yes tyranny of the mob is a real thing, but honestly, neither party alone has the correct position on this argument.

TIP: To add to the above point. The article republic vs. democracy says, “A republic and a democracy are identical in every aspect except one. In a republic the sovereignty is in each individual person. In a democracy the sovereignty is in the group.” This answer sounds good, and is true as a general statement in some respects, but it is provably incorrect as an absolute. The article seems to be about minority rights, but in that conversation, states’ rights are more democratic than federal power… yet federal power was used to end slavery and squash the states’ rights argument of the Confederate Democrats in the Civil War. For this reason and more, we can’t really boil this down to such simple terms. Sure, any American ideology sounds good, and wonderful if we can equate it with our own ideology, but correctness isn’t found in a single party, form of government or term, the whole reason this page is complex is because “mixed systems” that represent “the general will” (not the minority or majority will) are the ideal.

TIP: Plato defined the terms clearly in his Republic, but since then differing philosophers and politicos have used the terms loosely to imply different things in different eras. So, there is no one definition, just “the classical definitions” and then all else that follows.

TIP: One might think that pure democracy is best, as in that system all have total liberty and equality and all have a say in government… but that pure democratic system turns to anarchy (theoretically) as everyone getting a say on all things leads to not only a tyranny of the majority, but a certain degree of lawlessness and a lack of order. A person isn’t “in their perfect state” acting on their whims with no restraints, and neither is a nation. We may want more liberty and equality, but those ideals are ensured by a Republic. Thus, being a Republican is all about erring away from absolute monarchy, away from total liberty and equality, but toward a workable middle in which liberty and equality are maximized. On a give issue, we may find Democrats or Republicans taking this position, more typically though we find both arguing over minutia in the middle within the sphere of existing within a “Democratic Republic”.

Is America a Republic or a Democracy?

America is a Republic. If you think back to the Pledge of Allegiance, founding fathers, and core documents this becomes clear. We have a Republic- if you can keep it.

Citations

  1. Is the United States of America a republic or a democracy?
  2. Republic
  3. Republicanism
  4. Democracy vs. Republic
  5. Thomas Jefferson Establishing A Federal Republic
  6. Thomas Jefferson Establishing A Federal Republic
  7. Alexander Hamilton, Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments
  8. Politics (Aristotle)


"What is a Republic?" is tagged with: American Politics, Left–right Politics, United States of America

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