Democracy or Republic?
Both...Sort of...Maybe...If we can keep them.
One of the most vexing recurrent arguments in social media is that pitting factions on the nature of the political organization of the US.
It is a Democracy! cackle some, only to be immediately corrected by dozens of self-appointed Catos: No! It is a Republic!
One is left with the impression that neither has the foggiest idea of the meaning of either "democracy" or "republic," and the matter strays into ever more ridiculous territory as readers from abroad pipe-in with ever more ludicrous contortions of both the English and their native languages.
So let's take a look at this and what the selection of one or the other might mean.
Let's start with the basics.
The most common meaning of "republic," especially for those so unfortunate in their intellectual development as to depend on web searches for meaning, is:
By that idiotic definition, the system of government in the US is no different than, say, that of the old Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cuba or the Congo.
So I guess there's something missing.
My old Websters Unabridged, a relic from my days at NYU, has a somewhat limited yet more appropriate definition:
1. a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them.
2. any body of persons viewed as a commonwealth.
3. a state, esp. a democratic state, in which the head of government is an elected or nominated President and not a monarch or other hereditary head of state.
4. blah, blah, blah, France, blah, blah, blah, Plato.
So far so good. We'll come back to this.
And what about democracy?
Let's do the same exercise. First, that endless fountain of confusion, the web:
Sounds almost the same, uh?
So let's go back to the trusty old unabridged:
1. government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.
2. a state having such a form of government.
3. a state or society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges.
4. political or social equality; democratic spirit.
5. the common people of a community as distinguished from any privileged class; the common people with respect to their political power.
And there we go.
To make matters more interesting, in other lands they have yet more confusing definitions.
In Spanish, they add this telling bit to "República": 6. Place where disorder reigns. No kidding. Go ahead, check the link; and the rest of the definitions are not much better. It does gets better with "democracia," a collection of confused statements enough to give the sturdiest amongst us a week-long headache.
In French, "democratie" is just the "sovereignty that emanates from the people," and "republic" is where those who hold power do so by mandate of the social corpus, but should not be confused with "democratie." And people wonder why France is such a basket case.
Perhaps, though, the confusion starts in ancient times. After all, the only reason we have the word "republic" is because the Greeks could not understand what the heck the Romans were doing with a queer blend of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy; and poor Polybius had no choice but to classify their system in the non-committal way the Romans themselves referred to it: "Res Publica;" or what we'd call today "public affairs."
In the end, Republic and Democracy, regardless of latter-day nonsense peddlers making every effort to redefine the meaning of words to conform to their snake-oil du jour are not opposites at all, but words than complement each other well to describe what our Founding Fathers were trying to accomplish:
A system of government with no hereditary nobility, in which sovereignty resides in the citizens (Republic) governed by representatives of those citizens entitled to vote (Democracy) or, as we have named it for a couple of centuries, "a Democracy in a Republic."
A tricky system to implement and trickier still to maintain; for then as now democracies tend to degenerate into mob rule as demagogues take hold and the universe of "citizens entitled to vote" ever expands, and not for the better: Just as the emperor Caracalla's granting of Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of the empire in an ever expanding search for revenues to pay for an ever expanding web of expenses required by an ever expanding morass of pandering was not enough to stop cities and provinces to go bankrupt and collapse…So today the increasing need to raise revenues to pay for endless pandering can only lead to the same results.
This our Founding Fathers feared the most, and they made every effort to prevent it through a delicate architecture of checks and balances that we have been busily dismantling now for 100 years.
This is what Alexis de Tocqueville warned us about in Democracy in America, as did James Bryce Bryce in The American Commonwealth.
And this is what we have been ignoring, systematically, as our knowledge is diluted in an ocean of inanities, our elections are corrupted beyond recognition and our Democracy collapses in a swamp of inequities enacted by law.
But that is the subject of the next article.