Is the United States a Republic?

clenched fist
The United States is defined as a Constitutional Republic.

A republic is where the people delegate their responsibility to elected representatives in government to make decisions.

A democracy is a form of government where every person has a voice. This could be by representation or directly.

Is the United States a democracy or a republic?

The United States of America is defined as a constitutional republic.

Continue reading to find out what the different terms actually mean.

What Does a Constitutional Republic Mean?

Let’s break it down.

First, the “constitutional” part refers, of course, to the United States Constitution.

Government buildings
Washington, DC.

The Constitution functions as the supreme law of the land – by “supreme law,” we mean that no laws made by state governments or the federal government can contradict it.

If a specific law is believed to go against the United States Constitution, the Supreme Court’s Justices will decide whether it does or not according to their interpretations of the Constitution.

But What’s a Republic? 

A republic is a system in which common people are involved in government affairs. The word “republic” comes from the Latin phrase “res publica,” which literally means “the public thing.”

Roman soldier
The ancient Romans were governed by a republican form of government.

The ancient Romans formed one of the most famous republics in history, which the Founding Fathers of the United States, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, took a great deal of inspiration from.

The Roman republic was defined in contrast to what had existed earlier: monarchy or kings’ rule.

Roman citizens, rich and poor, were involved in how their government worked by voting for representatives, who would rule on their behalf.

Representative democracy

To sum it up, a republic could be considered a “representative democracy” – individual citizens are not directly exercising legislative authority by voting on laws themselves but delegating that task to the people who win elections.

Barack Obama
Barack Obama served as a United States Senator for Illinois from 2005 to 2008.

Republican features put some distance between everyday citizens and their government’s functioning. The people are involved because they’re putting legislators in power, but that’s more or less where their involvement ends.

Why Is the US a Democracy?

Republican features of America

The government of the United States has many features that highlight its status as a republic.

Article II of the Consitution, which describes how the legislative branch of the government functions, lays it out pretty well:

Citizens vote for representatives

Citizens of states vote for members of the House of Representatives and Senate, who then vote on their behalf.

Ballot box
Citizens vote for representatives in a Republic.

Representatives represent citizens in voting

Representatives voting in place of citizens is classic republicanism – once again, we see “representative democracy.”

Electoral College

Another republican concept is the Electoral College. As mentioned above, republicanism puts some “distance” between everyday people and government functioning, which is what the Electoral College originally intended to do. 

There has always been a popular vote wherein eligible citizens cast their votes for the President of the United States. 

Vote him out sign
The Electoral College was intended to prevent populists and tyrants from winning the presidency.

The Electoral College was originally meant to deliberate on that vote to ensure a populist or tyrant would not become President. 

While the Electoral College quickly took on its current form, where all of a state’s electors adhere to that state’s popular vote. 

This idea of there needing to be an “elite” deliberative body is, again, classic republicanism – the people have power, but not too much power.

All this means that a presidential candidate can lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College – this is relatively rare but has occurred in 2016, 2000, 1888, 1876, and 1824.

Election of Senators 

Another republican feature of America is how Senators used to be elected. Each of the 50 states has two senators. Today, these are voted for directly by the citizens of a state.

Map of United States
Senators were not always elected directly by the people.

However, this wasn’t always the case. 

Before the 17th Amendment (ratified in 1913), a state’s legislature decided who would be sent to the United States Senate.

So, say you lived in New York in 1890. You would vote for the New York State Legislature members, just as you might today, but you wouldn’t vote for your two senators.

Rather, the New York State Legislature members who won the election would do this.

Like the Electoral College, this original system entrusted voting power to representatives, removing things from the common person.

Is the United States a Democracy?

People often refer to the United States as a democracy and speak of concepts like “democratic” ideals.

We demand democracy sign
The word democracy is ever present in political debates in the United States.

But is the US a democracy?

This question can spark a lot of debate.

Once again, the United States is – officially – a constitutional republic. This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not also a democracy.

Representative Democracy

As noted previously, a republic could be considered a “representative democracy.”

When people say that the United States is “not a democracy but a republic,” this is a half-truth.

It’s not a direct democracy where each person casts their vote on specific legislation, but any system wherein people cast their votes for members of government is ultimately “democratic” in nature.

Comparing Constitutional Features of the US to the UK 

We can highlight the differences between a republic and a democracy with the modern United Kingdom example. 

Since the head of state of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II, has not been democratically elected, we can’t refer to the United Kingdom as a republic. In fact, it’s a constitutional monarchy.

Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace, London.

As citizens of the UK elect their representatives in Parliament, we can refer to the UK as a democracy.

No monarch or mob rule

In the United States, however, people vote for the head of state, who is the President.

There’s no aristocracy involved, which, for the Founding Fathers, was one of the most important differences between the fledgling republic and Great Britain’s form of government. 

The Founding Fathers of the United States did fear “mob rule” or the “tyranny of the majority,” and in this case, spoke of “democracy” negatively while promoting the virtues of a specifically republican government.

This is where the argument “the United States is a republic, not a democracy” often stems from. However, in a sense, most people understand “democracy” today. The United States is indeed a democratic republic.

Republic vs. Democracy

The answer to the question “Is the US a republic?” is a definite “yes.”

Whereas saying the United States is a “democracy” may get controversial and requires some more diving into detail, saying the United States is a republic is 100% correct.

It was the first constitutional republic in the world, established at a time when monarchy was the default form of government.

Whether certain republican features like the Electoral College will change or be abolished remains to be seen.

14 Responses

  1. I’m going to court tomorrow
    Should I be telling them that I’m a citizen of the republic of the United States of America?
    And my name should not be in all caps as indicated on the paperwork?

    1. You could say I am a citizen of the democracy states of America but they would look at you as if you weren’t serious about becoming a citizen. People understand that the US is a republic and you should expect a more understanding response.

  2. I am not so sure about your statement that the USA was the first constitutional republic. it could well be the Dutch. The “plakaat van Verlatinghe” from 1581 is considered the start of the Dutch republic. A lot of text from this document can be recognized in the US Declaration of Independence from 1776. It may have been Thomas Jefferson who had studied this document.

  3. This was a much more nuanced discussion of the matter than I had anticipated- it doesn’t resolve the ambiguity in the discussion of what a democracy or republic are, but that is because the ideas behind those labels are more complicated than I expected.

    In today’s “us versus them” political climate, I notice that there is a fight over identity that can be summed up as “Our party is more American than yours” – with the proof hinging on the official classification of our government. So its a good thing that neither party can gain the upper hand with such a dogmatic approach. Now if we can get over assigning the label of “Fascist” or “Nazi” to both the right and the left- we might even be able to start discussing the issues at hand. Also, I’d like a pony.

    1. In a democracy all citizens have a vote on every bit of legislation to be passed. You would not have a representative. Being a Constitutional or Federalist Republic we vote for people who will represent and vote for us. Why are we a federalist Republic? That is because states have rights that the Federal Government does not have. The Federal Government cannot overide states laws unless it is specified in the constitution as a right of the Federal Government. In other words The Federal Government has authority given by the constitution that is different from states authority.

  4. While it does make sense Republican vs Democrat seems to key identifiers in this 2-party system, historical comments by statesmen declared this would lead to the end of the Republic. Since a Republic, as defined, is the system with which to experiment – what are the founding concepts of each protagonist/antagonist? As time has passes, have not both parties become extreme in terms of abolishing the “Center of the Aisle”, or mutual Constitutional agreement, as a means of self-justifying internal argument? Are we beyond the recourse of 2-party reconciliation of nearly every issue – I am not seeing any more options than over two centuries ago – it’s disheartening.

  5. There are 2 Constitutions: one written by Founding Fathers ‘The Constitution for The United States of America’ and which has been replaced with Federal Constitution written by federal corporation The Constitition of the United States’. They are not the same and that’s why majority of people are surprised why ‘country’ is not run by it anymore and there is tyranny, lies and deceit. Check that out for yourselves.

  6. Read section under David Mcoullughs john adams book. Look under back section, “Republic.” John Adams and Dr, Rush both agreed that at some point in the distant future, America would have to become a monarchy, due to sedition, civil war, etc.. and this was based on the current state of problems they were witnessing AFTER the constitution was ratified.. ie: power hunger people, government falling apart, etc.. When all three branches fail, then how does one govern a nation??? Hmmmmm… Interesting to note.. and one ought to look up President Trumps royal bloodline.. yep, that’s right.. ROYAL direct bloodline to England, Iceland and Scotland.. All in good time, all in good time. Is that why they named his son Barron? As in, “he is a baron?” Things that make you go hmmmm.

  7. there is only one Consitution, jf you [andrew] are talking about the articales of confederation, it was superceeded with the ratification of the current CONSTITUTION. Art. 4 Sec. 4 states that the Federal goverment must gurantee a Republican form of government to the states. you wom;’t find democacy in any founding documents

  8. Nice article. Limiting senators to two terms would go a long way in repairing the demise of congress. We are talking about a group of folks with annual approval ratings in the 15-25% range. Term limits are the only thing that may prevent or at least slow these “career” and “dynasty” public servants.
    What if they are considered an excellent or very popular senator?
    I would think they would be equally adept at helping to select, mentor, and endorse a successor that will appeal to their voter base.
    Lets face it…senators want none of it…and their propaganda wing extremely rarely discuss or cover it in print and media. Current game is too lucrative. Nice to have a reasonable comment section in a time when many media/political outlets discourage readers from questioning or challenging their “stories”.

  9. For many years I have observed the increase in the number of people who believe America is a Democracy. We are not and we never have been. Our founders hated democracies.

    The word “Democracy” never entered the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States. The United States is not a democracy, and our founders used strong words to make clear that their nation should never become one.

  10. Many people incorrectly believe we are a Democracy in no small part because of the Democratic Party’s prowess and consistency in redefining our form of government for name recognition. Now the misnomer even permeates dictionaries, writings, and teachings with differing definitions.

    Some people even espouse that “voting” equals “democracy.” We do not elect our President; the Electoral College does. “Freedom to vote” or just “freedom” would be more appropriate. We did not even elect our U. S. Senators until the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, which in my opinion, was a mistake. State legislators choosing U. S. Senators and the electoral college were included in the Constitution as facets of republicanism.

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    I did some research. The Federalist Papers mention “republic/republican” 205 times, all favorably. It says “democracy” 28 times, all in negative contexts. It does not mention “democratic republic” or “representative democracy.” The word “democratic” is mentioned six times — once in a neutral context and five times in negative contexts.

    “Democracy,” or any derivative thereof, is not mentioned in the U. S. Constitution, its Bill of Rights, or any other Amendments. In fact, “Democracy,” or any derivative thereof, is not mentioned in any of our founding documents, The Declaration of Independence, or any of the states’ Constitutions.

    If some people ignore all this and call our form of government a democracy, that’s their prerogative, but they’d be wrong. For those who remain unconvinced, I recommend the following piece in the New American published back in 2000. It is a bit long, but it is an interesting read and an eye-opener.
    ________________________________________________________________
    “A Republic, if You Can Keep It” – The New American

    1. That’s all very interesting, but it ignores the very definition of a democracy. The fact remains that Republicanism and Democracy or not mutually exclusive. A republic is simply a type of democracy. No matter whether either terms were referred to in a positive or negative context in our founding documents. Simply put, the US is a republic and republics are a form of democracy.

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