The United States of America is defined as a constitutional republic.
But what does this mean? Let’s break it down.
First, the “constitutional” part refers, of course, to the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. 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 Constitution, the Supreme Court’s Justices will decide whether it does or not according to their individual interpretations of the Constitution.
But what’s a Republic?
A republic is a system in which common people are involved in the affairs of government. The word “republic” comes from the Latin phrase “res publica,” which literally means “the public thing.”
The ancient Romans had the original republic, which the Founding Fathers of the United States took a great deal of inspiration from. For the Romans, their republic was defined in contrast to what had existed earlier: monarchy or kings’ rule. Roman citizens, both rich and poor, were involved in how their government worked by voting for representatives, who would then rule on their behalf.
To sum it up, a republic could be thought of as 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.
Republican features put some distance between everyday citizens and their government’s functioning – they’re involved because they’re the ones putting legislators in power, but that’s more or less where their involvement ends.
Republican Features of the United States
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 of states vote for members of the House of Representatives and Senate, who then vote on their behalf.
Representatives voting in place of citizens is classic republicanism – once again, we see “representative democracy.”
Another republican idea is the Electoral College. As mentioned above, republicanism puts some “distance” between everyday people and government functioning, and that’s what the Electoral College was originally intended to do.
While there’s always been a popular vote, wherein eligible U.S. citizens cast their votes for President of the United States, 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.
Another republican feature 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. 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 federal Senate.
So, say you lived in New York in 1890. You would vote for members of the New York State Legislature, just as you might today, but you wouldn’t vote for your two senators (today, Kirstin Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer). 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. But is it 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.
As we’ve mentioned a couple of times above, a republic could be thought of as 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.
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. As citizens of the UK elect their representatives in Parliament, we can refer to the UK as a democracy. A bit confusing, we know! 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’s and Great Britain’s forms 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 form of 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.
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 – in fact, it was the first constitutional republic in the world, established at a time where monarchy was the default form of government. Whether certain republican features like the Electoral College will change or be abolished remains to be seen.