Ask Americans what form of government the United States has, and most will tell you a “democracy.” Sadly, they would be inaccurate. The United States is not a democracy, and I don’t mean that in a contrarian “the United States government is so corrupt that you can’t even call it a democracy anymore” kind of way. Well, not just that way anyhow.
The United States is in fact a republic — always has been, even. It’s referenced in the Constitution, as well as our Pledge of Allegiance: “to the Republic for which it stands.”
The distinction between the two forms of government is significant. In a true democracy, the people weigh in on each issue and the majority rules. Rather than having politicians, everyone is a politician, and the community makes decisions as a whole. As for a republic, instead of voting on the decisions, the people vote for politicians to make all other decisions on their behalves.
Given that we live in a republic, why is it then that we are so often labeled a democracy? I see the shift as an intentional attempt to placate the population. A democracy is a significantly more empowering system, so by presenting the United States as a place where the people are making the decisions, we more readily accept the government’s flaws as our own.
Think of how often politicians and pundits remind constituents that we live in a democracy when things don’t go the way people had hoped. The implicit message is, “Tough luck, the majority doesn’t agree with you in this case.” However, that excuse doesn’t always hold water. The majority of Americans believe in the danger of climate change, yet Congress declines to do anything about it. The majority of Americans want to see Wall Street executives held accountable for the rampant fraud that crashed the economy, yet the Department of Justice refuses to prosecute any involved parties. Those are the consequences of having a republic, not a democracy.
The closest that some states come to pure democracy is in the cases of ballot measures. Voters are directly tasked with giving a “yes” or “no” to initiatives, with the majority determining the outcome. We’ve seen this work well in cases where the will of the people overrides the legislators’ inaction by setting new tax rates or term limits. We’ve also seen this work poorly when multiple states banned gay marriage – clearly, the majority doesn’t always protect the rights of the minority.
I’m not necessarily advocating for a democracy. Is the average American informed enough politically to make the right decisions for this country? Unfortunately, I’m not remotely confident that that would be true. Nonetheless, at least some of the prevailing political ignorance and apathy on the part of American citizens can be attributed to the fact that this country is a republic. After taking most of the power out of the hands of the population, there is less incentive for people to keep updated on the day’s issues.
Still, I do suggest that we strip the word “democracy” from our vocabulary when discussing the United States. Given the current state of politics, it’s more important than ever to emphasize that we live in a heavily flawed republic.
Republics aren’t bad in principle. If elected officials genuinely represented the interests of their constituents, it would be an efficient way to make decisions for the country. Instead, we see politicians prioritize corporate interests. The Supreme Court just augmented the influence that a handful of wealthy people can have over elections. Unscrupulous gerrymandering essentially pre-determines most elections anyway. Looking at these extenuating factors, it’s clear that Americans barely even have a republic at this point, let alone a democracy, given that their opinions are almost irrelevant in choosing who (and how) they will be represented.
At least by calling the United States a “republic” moving forward, Americans on the whole will be better informed of the kind of rule we live under. Changing our description will help to illuminate the lack of power the people actually have; it’s these politicians who we almost universally despise calling the shots, yet the system prevents us from disposing of them.
Perhaps this realization could help to motivate some much needed reform. In that sense, consider calling us a “republic” a political statement as much as a factual one.
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