Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Volokh: "Is the United States of America a republic or a democracy?"

I often hear people argue that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. But that’s a false dichotomy. A common definition of “republic” is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, “A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them” — we are that. A common definition of “democracy” is, “Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives” — we are that, too.
The United States is not a direct democracy, in the sense of a country in which laws (and other government decisions) are made predominantly by majority vote. Some lawmaking is done this way, on the state and local levels, but it’s only a tiny fraction of all lawmaking. But we are a representative democracy, which is a form of democracy.
Read the whole thing.


Tom Van Dyke said...

I think Volokh left several key features unaccounted for.

The first is the existence of constitutional rights, which are not subject to revocation by popular vote. Therefore "constitutional" trumps "democratic."

Further, both the Electoral College and the Senate are elected democratically by the individual states, but because Rhode Island gets the same number of senators as California, there's something downright "undemocratic" about that imbalance. "Republic" trumps "democracy" here.

In order, we are constitutional, a republic, and only thirdly democratic.

Tom Van Dyke said...

From the comments:

Peter G. Morales
5/13/2015 6:29 PM PDT
The Guarantee Clause (Article 4, Section 4) in the Constitution provides: "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."

See link for more:!/articles/4/...

Doesn't this, if nothing else, tell us what the country under the new constitution was originally intended to be?



5/13/2015 1:32 PM PDT
He mentioned "shifting to truly direct election of the president" which would require a constitutional amendment, which could be stopped by states with as little as 3% of the U.S. population.

I'd say a system where 3% of the population can thwart the other 97% is more a republic than a democracy.


Sam Gompers
5/13/2015 12:56 PM PDT
Since Congress has outsourced so much of its authority to the Administrative State I don't think you could call us Democracy, a Republic, or even both anymore. We're some authoritarian hybrid creeping towards totalitarianism as our political order dissolves.

is an interesting objection. "Technocracy," generously, ruled by "science." With the courts resorting to "experts" and "rational basis" as the final word on law, there's something to that.

frank said...

If I were to answer that question then I would say that America is both a republic and a democracy.