Republic v. Democracy

In regards to the letter-to-the-editor, “Journal’s ‘democracy’” (7/14/2010), the issue is not the Providence Journal’s usage of the term ‘democracy’ instead of ‘republic.’ The wider issue is the democratization of opinions to the detriment of facts and editorial oversight.

The United States of America is a democracy; the editorial board of the Providence Journal was correct.

The United States of America is a republic; Susan Berge is also correct.

The two terms are not mutually exclusive. “Democracy” is a general term to describe any form of government in which the “people” rule or have “power” (from the Greek demos and kratos). Having said that, there are many forms of democracy. There are the ancient “direct democracies” (though women, non-landowners and slaves were barred from voting) and then there are the more modern “indirect democracies.” The United States is an indirect democracy because we elect representatives to make the laws for us.

Among indirect democracies, there are further differences: there are Constitutional Monarchies in which power is shared between a monarch and the people, such as the United Kingdom (although the last hundred years have weened much of the British monarch actual powers away), and there are republics. The United States is a republic, just as Susan Berge states. [However, it is worth noting that the Pledge of Alligence which Berge cites as evidence was written more than a hundred years after the Founding Fathers (Francis Bellemy, 1892) and was not officially adopted by the United States until 1942.]

Furthermore, there are three different kinds of republics. The Italian and Irish Republics are unitary republics, where as the Swiss republic is a confederation and the Mexican, German, Russian and Brazilian republics are all federations. Here is the issue is whether the republic has internal political boundaries and, if so, what the balance-of-power is between the centarl government and the state, provincial or departmental governments. For our part, yes, we have internal boundries, but the central government has more authority than the state governments [Article VI of the US Constitution and McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), though Federal authority is limited by the Reserved Powers Clause and the 10th Amendment]. Thus, the United States is a Federal Republic.

That’s not even the end to the various forms of democracies in the world today. The people from all of these various republics have organized themselves into roughly two formats of republican government. Some republics separate legislative and executive powers. In these so-called Presidential Republics, the executive has true legal authority and is usually elected separately from the legislature. Conversely, in Parliamentary Republics, the legislature has supreme power (even if there is also a ceremonial post of President such as in Israel and India) and the person vested with the day-to-day authority to managed the government is a Prime Minister. The United States is a Presidential Republic.

While some definitions of the word, “republic” may be mutally exclusive, not all usages are. Certainly, the term “democracy” and “republic” are not mutally exclusive. The United States of America is a democracy. We are an indirect democracy. We are a republic. We are a Federal Republic and we also a Presidentail Republic. As I said, both the editorial board of the Providence Journal as well as Susan Berge are correct. As is often the case, the full reality of the situation is more complicated than sound-bytes and one-liners. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” Susan Berge wrote an very interesting and elloquant piece, but the premise (that the Journal was incorrect) was itself not completely accurate. To me, it begs the question why the Journal published Berge’s letter-to-the-editor and, once the decision to print was made, why was there not an editor’s note to clarify the terminology?

Here is the original letter:
Letters, Wednesday, 07.14.10
01:00 AM EDT on Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Journal’s ‘democracy’
The July 4 editorial, “Liberty and obligation,” states: “Let’s pause today to reflect on the many blessings of living in a . . . democracy.”

The Pledge of Allegiance begins, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the united states of America and to the republic for which it stands.” This country was founded as a constitutional republic, not a democracy, and with good reason.

Consider this quote from the 19th Century Scottish historian Alexander Fraser Tyler: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence, ‘From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage.’ ”

We’ve moved through selfishness, apathy and dependence, and we are well on our way into bondage. Americans had better wake up before it’s too late!

Susan R. Berge

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s