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Republic or a Democracy? - Office of Naval Contemplation

Jan. 5th, 2012

05:22 pm - Republic or a Democracy?

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It's oft quoted that the United States is a Republic, not a Democracy, which apparently drives some political science professors nuts. Methinks the problem is one of overloaded terms. Dr. Taylor is correct both that 1) in modern political science parlance, the two terms are pretty much interchangeable, and 2) in the writings of Madison and other founding fathers, the distinction is not particularly relevant to modern political discourse. But in other connotations and shades of denotation, I do think there's a meaningful distinction to be drawn.

Backing off a bit, let's look at the origins and literal meanings of the words. Democracy is Greek (used to describe the civic government of Classical Athens before the coup of the 400 Tyrants), meaning "rule of the people" or "rule of the citizens", and Republic is corrupted Latin (used to describe the Roman government before the Caesars), originally "Res Publica" meaning roughly "public affairs" ("res" means thing, object, or affair, and "publica" means shared, open, public, or held in common). The word "commonwealth", although it has now taken on a different meaning (a loose confederation or economic union), started out as a calque of "res publica" into English and was used interchangably with "republic".

The overlapping meaning of the two terms come in part from them being the independently-derived terms from the two primary classical language for forms of government that had far more in common with each other than with the other prevailing classical forms of government. Another contributing factor has been that both terms have come to be used as applause lights, which places too great a burden on the terms for them to also be able to simultaneously hold fine shades of technical meaning.

To the extent the terms do mean different things, part of it comes from the literal meaning of the terms (and how they terms have been used historically), and part comes from the differences between the Roman Republic and Athenian Democracy. Tackling the latter difference first, Athens relied much more on direct political participation by individual citizens (referring many big decisions to general ballot among all eligible voters, and handling many routine matters with large juries selected by lot), while Rome was more based on voters delegating their power to elected legislators and magistrates.

Returning to the literal meaning and historical usage of the terms, "democracy" has long been a term with negative connotations, used to deride "mob rule" and "tyranny of the majority". "Republic" was neutral or slightly positive during the same time period, and was long used to describe any state with a stable government that wasn't a monarchy, even if (as in the English Commonwealth under Cromwell) it was functionally no more representative than a standard-issue monarchy: the distinction was that in a Monarchy, the King "owns" the government and the country, whereas in a Republic the country belongs collectively to its citizens, even if they don't actually hold the levers of power (Cromwell's title of "Lord Protector" reflects this attitude, as that title had a long history in England as being the title held by a regent who wielded royal power on behalf of an absent, underage, or insane King -- at least in theory, the people of England collectively owned the traditional role of King, and Cromwell was a humble functionary managing their collective property on their behalf).

In modern usage, both terms refer generally to elective forms of government, with moderately different emphases in connotation. "Democracy" emphasizes majoritarian rule, while "Republic" emphasizes delegation, rule of law, and counter-majoritarian protections against tyranny of the majority. In practice, just about every state with elective government has aspects of both, but the point of the cries of "Republic, not a Democracy" are aspirational and normative, expressing the view of the speaker that the non-majoritarian aspects (especially rule of law and protections against tyranny of the majority, in the case of most people who make these arguments) of our system of government are more important on the margin than the majoritarian aspects, and should be emphasized and prioritized over them.

In purely descriptive terms, I'm tempted (probably because I've got a pretty strong metacontrarian streak) to argue that the United States is best understood as neither a Republic nor a Democracy, but rather as an Elective Monarchy.

There are roughly four types of monarchies. We normally associate the term with hereditary monarchies, where the crown passes along bloodlines under fairly strict rules of inheritance, but there are several other forms of monarchy. There's also nominative monarchies, where the king appoints a designated successor regardless of bloodlines, and so-called "occupative" monarchies, where the primary qualifier of a monarch is the ability to plant your ass firmly in the seat and preventing other claimants from tossing you out of it (both of these last two forms of succession figure prominently in the history of the Roman Empire, with something like a third of all Roman Emperors holding no better claim to the throne than "I stole it fair and square", and most of the rest holding the throne by virtue of appointment as designated successor by the previous Emperor). Then there's elective monarchies, which form the counterexamples to King Arthur's claim to Dennis the Peasant that you don't vote for Kings -- in the medieval Holy Roman Empire (no relation to the actual Roman Empire), in the Kingdom of Poland, in Anglo-Saxon England, in the Mongol Empire, and in many early-medieval tribal monarchies, Kings were elected (by a small council of high nobles in the HRE, by the legislature in Poland, by a popularly-elected council (the Witangamot) in Anglo-Saxon England, and by popular ballot of the warrior caste among the Mongols and in most tribal monarchies).

The structure of the US Constitution very closely mirrors the British unwritten constitution as practised in the late 18th century. In both cases, executive power is based in the hands of a single person, and is delegated from him to subordinate officers appointed by him, answerable to him, and for whose actions he is deemed to be ultimately responsible because they are acting in his name. Legislative power is split three ways, between two legislative bodies and that same executive. One house of the legislature is popularly elected, designed to represent the interests of common voters, and the other house is set up to be countermajoritarian, to balance mature long-term judgement against the popular passions of the lower house, and to balance sectional interests against numerical coalitions. Any major change in law, especially taxation and spending authority, must be approved in concert by all three bodies (the executive and the two houses of the legislature) before it goes into effect.

The powers and role of the President of the United States are nearly identical to those of King George III. There are three key differences:

1. The President is elected for a term of years rather than inheriting for life.
2. The legislature can (by a 2/3 majority of both houses) overrule him if he withholds consent to legislative acts.
3. The power to declare war (but not the role of Commander in Chief) is shifted from the executive portfolio of powers to the legislative portfolio of powers.

#3 has been fudged into near-meaninglessness, as the Commander-in-Chief powers have been stretched to the point that Congress's power to declare war is not a significant practical check on the President's ability to involve the country in a military conflict. Congress's only practical power to restrain the President from doing so would be to withhold funding for combat operations, a power which Parliament has had since the 12th century and has used often over the centuries (including at the end of the American Revolution, to force the obstinate King George to accept defeat and bring the war to an end).

#2 is fairly rare. Over the centuries, US Presidents have vetoed 2564 bills, and only 110 (4% of the total) have been overridden. 2454 vetoes have stood, killing the bills in question. Over the same time period, despite royal vetoes (technically "withholding the royal assent") being absolute, not a single act of Parliament has been blocked by withholding the royal assent. The last act of Parliament to be vetoed was the Scottish Militia Act, which Queen Anne blocked in 1708. Even before then, it was routine for Parliament to force the monarch's hand on major bills by holding the budget hostage.

So it is only #1 that forms a key distinction between the 18th century British monarchy and the Presidency of the United States. And as we've already discussed, you can indeed vote for monarchs. Indeed, the very term "Elector" used in our Constitution to describe the members of the assembly that chooses our Presidents comes from the aforementioned HRE: the seven-ish (it varied over the centuries) high nobles who elected the Holy Roman Emperor each held the title of "Kurfürst" (literally something like "choice-prince" or "election-prince"), usually translated into Latin as "Elector", and for which the Latin term was and is almost universally used in English.

It is a meaningful distinction too, that the election is for a term of years, not for life, and this is a distinction that has practical effect as well: the average reign of an English or British monarch since the Norman Conquest has been about 20 years, whereas the average American President has spent just over five years in office (the medians are about 13 and 4 years, respectively). Still, there have been short-reigning Kings and Queens (I'm looking at you, Jane Grey) and long-term Presidents (I'm looking at you, FDR), and that doesn't make FDR (12 years in office) more a King than, say, Richard III (2 year reign) was, so why should the reverse be true?

Likewise, it's a meaningful distinction that Presidents can be voted out of office. Even though nearly a third of English or British monarchs have been deposed, assassinated, executed, or pressured into abdication, kicking an executive out through violence or the overt threat thereof is a very different matter than having a peaceful transfer of power following an orderly scheduled election. It takes things one step further than the usual way elective monarchies work.

The other major difference is the notion that the executive "owns" the country and its government doesn't exist here to the same level it did in 18th century England. He's perhaps more like Lord Protector Cromwell than like King George, holding a monarch-like role as regent for the true sovereign(s), not in his own right. The President does have a major role as the ceremonial head of state, as the source of appointments, as the "fountain of honor" from whom medals, awards, and other ceremonial distinctions flow, and there is an undercurrent of deference to the President as a symbol and leader of the country that doesn't exist for, say, the British Prime Minister, along with the notion that too-harsh criticism of the President can be seen as a lack of patriotism if it crosses the line from disapproval of his policies to rejection of him in his symbolic role. It falls short of the level of deference normally shown to a monarch, but seems to exceed the level of deference usually shown to Prime Ministers and the like.

As a side-note, it does strike me as somewhat ironic that even though the Presidency seems to have been constructed as a nerfed version of the King of Great Britain, the role of the British monarchy has waned to a nearly purely ceremonial role, more Britain's mascot than Britain's ruler, to the point that Britain is sometimes described as a "Crowned Republic" rather than a true monarchy; whereas the role of the Presidency has waxed to the point that it's often described as "imperial".

Ironically, it may be the very limitations placed on the President relative to the King that made the former role grow while the latter declined. Reigning for life and passing your position on to your son gives the King a direct, personal, long-term responsibility for the consequences, in a way that a Member of Parliament lacked, making the King much more likely to back down in a political standoff because he'd have the most to lose if the country gets screwed by a protracted standoff; whereas a President has an eight-year time limit at the very most (if he's just starting his first term and expects to coast to reelection) and is facing off against Representatives and Senators who have no term limits and reelection rates so high that they effectively serve for life subject to good behavior. The elective nature of the system also has an impact on who's likely to blink, as the President has a popular mandate in the way a King doesn't, giving him the political clout to face down Congress better than the King could face down Parliament. And, ironically, the inability to override a King's veto may embolden Parliament to make far more liberal use of the main tool in their arsenal, the power of the purse, by making it more understandable if they force the King to accept their wishes by holding the budget hostage (to the point that it became routine for Parliament to threaten this and the King to acquiesce); whereas it's generally regarded as poor form if Congress tries to tug the President around by putting policy riders in the budget or an appropriations bill.