Is America a Republic or a Democracy?

Understanding the Namesake of the Major Political Parties

We explain the meaning of Democrat, Republican, Whig, Federalist, Anti-Federalist, Union, and Confederacy the political terms the major parties used for their party names.[1][2][3]

In simple terms: A Democrat believes in Democracy, a Republican believes in Republicanism. In this sense essentially every American is both a Democrat and Republican. The original party names come from the fact that Democrats used to favor direct democracy more than the slightly more elite Republicans.

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

Correct (lawful) Deviant (corrupt)
One Ruler Monarchy Despotism
Few Rulers Republic Oligarchy
Many Rulers Democracy Anarchy

TIP: America is a mixed government with Democratic and Republican aspects. It is not a Monarchy (see: the Revolution), and ideally no nation wants anarchy, oligarchy, or despotism. Hence, the names of the political parties. Likewise, the flag is red, white, and blue… so the major parties are (err umm, red and blue at least).

What Do Democrat and Republican Mean?

The major U.S. political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, are both named after types of governments which were favored by a given party upon their formation. The Republicans originally favored a more elitist and classically conservative Republic with elected officials upon their formation in the 1850’s, and the Democrats originally favored a more populist and democratic republic upon their formation in the 1820’s. Here, one should note that both parties favored Democracy and Republics and that Democracy in this time allowed for states’ rights to be slave states and Republic meant the right to tax and centralize power (i.e. both had pros and cons, and both are nods to American liberalism).

Specifically, Republican is a reference to a Republican form of government where representatives rule, and Democrat is a reference to a more individual-focused Democracy with more “power to the people”. Originally the Democratic Party favored states’ rights and individual rights (they were individualist populist more radical classical liberals who were favored in the rural south) and Republicans favor collective rights and central government (they were collectivist elitist conservative-classical liberals who were favored in the more urban north east).

The same is generally true for Federalists, Anti-Federalists, Whigs. Federalists favored the Constitution and federal power, anti-Federalists were (was the name implies) against federal power, favored state power, and favored the Articles of Confederation and a Confederacy.

When we get to the Civil War, and the Federalist line becomes “the Union” (favoring a strong union) and the former-Democratic party from the anti-Federalist line becomes the Confederacy (favoring a dissolution of the Union), it makes perfect sense. The anti-Federalist line had long favored a Confederacy, the Federalists a centralized and strong Union.

As Things Change, the Party Names Become Less Relevant (or at Least Take on New Meaning)

However, over time, after the Civil War during Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and Progressive era the parties changed considerably. From Reconstruction onward the party names began to speak less-and-less to the ideologies of the parties (it was convoluted by changing platforms and factions).

Today, the party names speak very little to the current ideologies of the parties. In fact, one could say today, on most issues, Republicans favor states’ rights and individual rights and Democrats favor collective rights and central government. When one realizes that Known Nothings, Confederates, and the Tea Party all have similar policy stances, and that their stance isn’t much difference from Jackson and Calhoun (the first Democratic President and VP), and knowing that line opposed Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln, we can understand that a modern Republican is in many ways a Jacksonian Democrat and a modern Democrat a modern Lincolnian… except, much changes between 1850 and 2017 and thus we find elements of both old parties in the modern parties, just consider figures like John McCain and Bernie Sanders, where McCain is more classically Republican like Eisenhower and Sanders more classically a Democrat like William Jennings Bryan.

All the complexities of today and yesterday aside, for all our differences, we can confirm a longstanding unity.

Both Republicanism and Democracy are liberal ideas, both can work together (as they do in our Constitution) and both are alternatives to pure Monarchy, Despotism, and Anarchy (see an essay on the types of governments). The best proof our unity is found in the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans who managed to unite all the factions for a brief period in time known as “the Era of Good Feelings”.

Democracy Vs RepublicThe United States is a Constitutional Federal Republic (a federation of states with a Representative Democracy). The Constitution ensures the liberal values of Republicanism, Democracy, and Federalism. Hence the names of the American political parties.

TIP: Today I would say neocons who favor statist policy are “republican” and those like Bernie who favor deregulation and the people’s voice are “democratic”. We can make this stretch and be right…. but mostly it is Democrats who favor well run centralized policy and elite representatives and Republicans who speak about deregulation and states’ rights.

The Ideology and Policy of the Democrats and a Republicans Over Time

Although it their core Republicanism and Democracy speak to who rules and votes on laws, from a broader American lens we can say:

  • Democratic ideas include: the Articles of Confederation, Bill of rights, direct voting on politicians, states’ rights. Favors individual rights in rural Americas. Ex. will tolerate slavery if it is what the voting populous wants. People not Kings rule, even when they don’t rule wisely.[4]
  • Republican ideas include: Constitution, Electoral College, federal government, central banking, national trade. Favors collective rights in more modernized urban America. Ex. Willing to override popular sovereignty to abolish slavery. Only those who are fit to rule should rule, even if they are aristocrats.[5]

Democracy Vs Republicanism.

Republicanism, Popular Sovereignty, and Individual Rights.

Forget about slavery, segragation, and Civil War for a second, and think about “the people, not the state, choosing who gets to do what”. When you do that, you’ll see the original Democrats were more for individual and states’ rights and the original republicans more for elite state control and order. For example, if we examine the end of “the Era of Good Feelings” (where nearly all politicians were Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans) we can see a very clear illustration of the difference between being Republican and a Democrat in Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, and the Great Triumvirate (Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina).

  • Clay, Adams, and Webster all favor central banks, trade, and central government, they were Hamilton Republicans. They were Federalists, Whigs, National Republicans, and Republicans like Lincoln would be before becoming the leader of “the Union”.
  • Meanwhile, Jackson, Van Buren, and Calhoun favored states’ and individual rights, they would sooner “kill the bank” than abolish slavery against the will of the southern rural states (Calhoun aside, they didn’t favor slavery… they just didn’t want to tell people what to do), they were Jefferson Democrats. They were Anti-Federalists and Democrats and would go on to become the Confederacy.

Now, putting aside things like the slavery and the unified Democratic-Republicans for a moment, we can see that in these eras, on most issues, the anti-Federalists and Democrats were the populist individualists and the Federalists, Whigs, Republicans the elite collectivists. And we can see that the Democrat / Republican naming structure makes sense, as it denotes two different types of American liberalism, one collective and one individualist.

Now, add slavery back into the equation, and here it makes the Republicans look more like modern social liberals… and… they were. They were “Teddy Roosevelt like social liberals” (social liberals who want to use the state to ensure social welfare and justice).

You see, in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s being pro-people was pretty darn Democratic and liberal, even if it meant accepting slavery for new states. However, as time rolled on, slavery and segregation became seen as increasingly socially conservative, thus adding complexity to the parties.

Ultimately the Republicans would continue to be Republicans in name and action fully until Theodore Roosevelt left the party to run as a Progressive in the 1912 election. Then, after Teddy’s exodus, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover reshaped the party into an individual liberty and small government party.

From Hoover on, the old Republicans became in many ways “Democrats”. Likewise, when FDR picked up the Rooseveltian torch and embraced his cousins programs, he essentially confirmed what Bryan and Wilson had started, that the new Democratic party would from here forth favor the type of Republicanism once found in the Republican party.

Or at least, it is partially this. In truth, America and her parties are complex and they only get more complex over time.

For example, Republicans still retained their elite business-minded factions and they remained elitist toward immigration. Meanwhile the Cleveland and Wilson-esque pro-business wing of the Democrats continued to grow until the modern day. Still, the changes are evidenced by figures like Henry Wallace, FDR’s party switching VP. Consider, even though the GOP retained an elite business wing, the geographic locations it favored and its stance on some issues has changed over time as the parties around the factions changed.

Today, back to the classical meaning of the terms which relate to voting (to whole rules), to add more complexity, Democrats tend to favor a national popular vote, which is more Democratic than the state-based winner-take-all Republicans favor (they are Republican in this way still… and back in the 1820’s when this started, the Democrats had this stance and they were being Republican).

I won’t go into every little detail I could here. But the takeaway is this:

  • Originally the naming of the parties was generally accurate. Federalist favored a central government and federation of states, the Anti-Federalists wanted to keep the more Democratic and less Republican Articles of Confederation. The Confederates wanted a weaker federation, the Union wanted a stronger Union. The Whigs named themselves after the English Whigs, the other party was more like the Radical Whigs or Jacobins. the Republicans favored a Republic, the Democrats favored Jacksonian Democracy.
  • However today, essentially the parties have “switched” (really progressives went to Democratic party and states’ rights southerner liberals went to Republicans, but this was enough to flip things). So today Democrats are more like the old Republicans and Republicans more like the Democrats, except when they aren’t like on the electoral college and winner-take-all… but that was true back-in-the-day as well.
  • Remember though, there was a moment where there was only one major party, the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. At the end of the day we are all Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Federalists… anyone who supports the Constitution must concede it, for our founding documents confirm little more than this.

  1. Democracy
  2. Democracy
  3. Republicanism
  4. Democracy
  5. Republican

"Where Do the Terms Democrat and Republican Come From?" is tagged with: American Politics, Liberalism, United States of America

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