Defining Republic Vs. Democracy
We often hear about "threats" to our Democracy, but are we even a Democracy? What is the difference between Republic and Democracy?
This has been a question since the days of the American Founders. It has to do with how the American government will operate from day to day, versus the great American ideal laid out in the founding documents. It's imperative that we each understand the defining differences between a Republic vs. Democracy.
What is a Republic?
“...a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law...” (Merriam Webster Dictionary).
This type of government was born with the inception of the American government. Giving power to the people was an entirely new concept! Our system is characterized by the elected deputation of representatives responsible to the people for governing the nation. Republicanism guards against the tyrannical rule of the majority while recognizing that non-majorities in our society have a right to have their voices and concerns heard.
Consider this, if the majority is focused upon protecting the right to bear arms, therefore voting to preserve them, most conservatives would be overjoyed. However, if the majority does not value this right then they may vote to abolish it without consideration for the minority group who uses firearms for the purpose of sport, providing food for their family, or self-defense. At this point, the majority has disregarded the understanding that the arms they bear are meant to defend against just such tyranny!
A Republic concedes that while the role of the majority is important, it is not the same as the common good. This distinction and understanding is important.
What is a Democracy?
"...a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections..." (Merriam Webster).
The difference between Republic and Democracy is amazingly subtle when you look at these definitions. Yet the founders of the American Republic were adamant that one path would lead to destruction and tyranny, while the other would hopefully create peace and prosperity for hundreds of years to come. On its face, Democracy sounds like a great thing, empowering the people to rule themselves by majority vote. The word has been repeated so often for defining the American form of government, that it's currently a bit difficult to sort the difference that the founding fathers warned us about.
“Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths … A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking.” -- James Madison, Federalist Papers No. 10
Here is where we find the key difference. While we weren't quite paying attention to it, the widely known definition of Democracy was extended to include "or indirectly through a system of representation." Historically, Democracy meant simply the rule by the majority and I would argue that if you look at it in practice now, the true definition has not changed. For example, look to the democratic policy proposal to eliminate the electoral college which was established to protect us from popular rule by the majority.
Democracy in its essence seeks to tear down the institutions and hierarchies that give both government and society the structure they need for stability. These institutions go beyond the political and civil kind to social institutions, religious institutions, and the institution of the family.
“in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot.” -- James Madison
Protecting Against Populism
This essential difference between Republicanism and Democracy is exactly what has long protected American from true populist tyranny. While populist movements from Greenback and Granger to the current Bernie Sanders have come and gone, the republican institutions laid out by the founding fathers have stood firm. It is not, that the concerns of those populist movements were never addressed, it is that they were held in check by the balance of representation. If we are to preserve the Republic and conservatism for generations to come we must embrace the diversity of thought presented by the factions of our political parties and we must guard against raising up populist leaders of our own. Remember that you will always like what policies a majority presents while you are in that majority, step outside that majority and you will know tyranny.