Democracies, Republics and Federations oh my!

As you may well know, I have a habit of arguing on-line. One of the things that happens when you have a fresh batch of strangers to argue with, is that some of the same topics come up over and over again. While it can be tedious to face the same challenges, it is also a good way to sharpen up your arguments and learn more about a given topic.

One classic is that when you say “America is a democracy” you get the answer “no America is a republic” usually followed by “read your history” or some such admonition. Is this a fair retort?

Sometimes, but usually, it is misapplied. It is true that America is a republic. A republic is a form of government in which political authority rests with the citizens and is governed by people chosen by those citizens according to the republic’s laws. That certainly fits the government of the US.

That said, America is also a democracy. A democracy is simply a state where political authority rests with its citizens and they have a means of expressing their political will to influence policy.

When critics say we are not a democracy, they often are saying that we are not a “direct democracy” meaning we don’t vote directly on policy as citizens, we instead choose representatives (democratically) to represent us.

The retort works fine when it is in response to some complaint about our representative system. Say you feel we should throw out Congress and all vote on the budget directly and you think that Congress is not democratic. In that case, the retort works fine and is a direct response to the argument offered. Unfortunately, it is all to often offered as a kind of gotcha anytime someone mentions democracy in an argument. It is an attempt to show off a piece of knowledge, but unfortunately, it typically falls flat due to the misunderstanding of what democracy’s root meaning is.

It also gets run out frequently any time the idea of federal vs state sovereignty comes into play. There are some who seem to think that a republic is a collection of sovereign governments, in our case states. The proper term for that is a Federation, not a republic. America is indeed a federation but very few people ever make an argument using that definition. It is not clear where this idea of a republic comes from, but it is popular in conservative political circles.

It is surprising how often people use words in arguments without having researched what they mean. Certainly, words can have many meanings but in argument, you really want to try and be as specific as possible and stick to the most common definition of a word. It is pretty clear if you look at the definitions of Republic, Democracy, and Federation as to what they mean and arguments of this type can usually be settled by quoting a dictionary.

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