Republic v Democracy

*****Disclaimer: This is not legal advice and is for educational purposes only. This does not create an attorney-client privilege.

As an American citizen, I am sure that you have heard many references to ‘the republic’ and our system of democracy. Heck, even our current two major political parties are called the Republicans and Democrats. But what exactly is a republic and a democracy, and how are they distinct from one another? What is a democratic republic?

Well both a republic and a democracy are forms of representational government and involve a political system that citizens are encouraged to participate in. Both types involve electing officials to represent them and are sworn to protect the interests of the people.

Though many call the United States a democracy, it is better described as a "representative democracy”. A democracy is a system of government wherein the people vote directly on laws. A direct democracy is essentially majority rule, and some might argue that it leaves the rights of the minority unprotected.

A republic is a system of government that entails that elected officials be the ones to make laws that are compliant with the constitution. This constitution is designed, in theory, to specifically protect the rights of minorities. Thus, when laws are drafted, they may be influenced by the will of the majority that elected the representatives, but the representatives are sworn to protect the interests of all citizens and operate within a legal framework set by the constitution. The United States is essentially a republic, although the term “representative democracy” or democratic republic are also apt descriptions.

Though a republic is a good way to keep better structure and more protections in theory, there are definitely some valid criticisms of it. For example, the way that we use representatives to select our president. If we had a direct democracy wherein the overall popular vote determined who was elected as president, we would be better able to ensure each vote has an equal weight. However, we have a republican (in the traditional sense of the word) approach to having electoral votes that vote on behalf of entire districts based on the majority. However the problem with this is that it presents an opportunity for district lines to be strategically drawn to divide up certain groups so that the power of their collective voice is divided. It is literally a divide and conquer approach. There are also cases of “faithless electors” who decide to cast their electoral vote how they want or say is “in the best interests of the people”, even if it goes against the majority rule.

One might argue that warnings that direct democracy and majority rule will lead to chaos or mob rule that destroys the rights of minorities. But how is it okay for gerrymandering to split minority voices so they can't elect officials to serve their interests? Or how does it make sense that these trusted officials can receive money or favors from lobbyists and corporations who compel them to vote and draft laws in favor of them, not the will of the people? A republic could be a great system in theory, but there is a lot of corruption and stacking of the deck. What is said to be a way of protecting the minority, in fact often ends up being a way of silencing them and choosing for them.

Though there is a lot of reasoning behind a republic, anyone would do well to consider these things and think critically about how our representatives and our republic`s design ends up allowing groups to be silenced or disenfranchised.

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