A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Is the U.S. a democracy or a republic? What's the difference?

November 29, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

I have heard that the U.S. form of government is a democracy, a republic and a democratic republic. Which is it, is there a difference and if so what?


Do you know, I said, that governments vary as the dispositions of men vary, and that there must be as many of the one as there are of the other? For we cannot suppose that States are made of "oak and rock," and not out of the human natures which are in them, and which in a figure turn the scale and draw other things after them? (Plato, The Republic)

Ultimately, D., we've got to realize that no matter what they call themselves, every government on the earth is different from every other. However, we can get back to basics on the terminology if you like. The difference between democracy and republic is a fundamental one. "Democracy," strictly defined, refers to the method of government wherein the members of the group vote directly on all matters of legislation. "Republic" comes from the Latin 'res publica', and refers only to the nature of the government, 'a thing of the people' (that is, not a monarchy), without actually making claims as to how the leaders are selected.

In recent times, the term "republic" has been bandied about by just about every country, with a popular vote or no, on the claim that the government and the people were subject to the same law. Covers just about everybody except for hereditary monarchies, as I say, including the People's Republic of China, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the Republic of Texas, as well as the more "republican" Dominician Republic, Kyrgyz Republic, and Banana Republic. Because of that, modern-day nations with elected governments have often prefixed their "republics" with other adjectives, and although "democratic republic" does not literally mean "representative democracy" (i.e., in which the people elect representatives, and the reps make the laws), that's what it's been used for over the last few decades or so.

True democracy can also be called "town hall" or "referendum" government. Some small towns use the town hall as their exclusive system of law-making, and most state and local governments in the U.S. use referenda in placing bond issues and similar decisions directly on the voting ballot.

Direct involvement of the people is a nice concept, but for matters of day-to-day government, a strictly democratic system is impractical. Even now that it's somewhat feasible via electronic communication to survey each and every voter on each and every matter of administering the laws, would you really want this on a national, state, or even local level? Voting is rightly looked on as a civic obligation, but if you were asked to do it every morning when you woke up, you'd probably get pretty sick of it. That's why on a large scale we elect legislators to work for us, and they are charged with making legislative decisions on our behalf. In other words, our republic is governed by a representative democracy.

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