The U.S. is a Democratic Constitutional Republic, and Yes, It Matters
By James D. Agresti
May 2, 2019
James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution and primary author of the Bill of Rights, repeatedly emphasized that the United States is a “republic” and not a “democracy.” In stark contrast, Jonathan Bernstein, a Bloomberg columnist and former political science professor recently insisted:
- “One of this age’s great crank ideas, that the U.S. is a ‘republic’ and not a ‘democracy’, is gaining so much ground that people in Michigan are trying to rewrite textbooks to get rid of the term ‘democracy’.”
- “For all practical purposes, and in most contexts, ‘republic’ and ‘democracy’ are synonyms.”
- When Madison said that the Constitution established a “republic” and not a “democracy,” he was using a “mild form of propaganda” and “none of this had to do with specific institutions or forms of government. Just word choice.”
Those statements, along with the bulk of Bernstein’s column, are misleading or patently false. In reality:
- People were not trying to remove the term “democracy” from Michigan textbooks. Instead, they proposed education standards that would teach students that the U.S. is a “unique form of democracy.”
- The proposed standards made clear that the U.S. is not merely a “democracy” or a “republic” but a “democratic” and “constitutional republic” that “limits the powers of the federal government.”
- In Madison’s day and now, there are crucial differences between democracies and republics that are vital to the issues of human rights and equal justice.
The Michigan Standards
In 2014, the Michigan Department of Education began to revise its social studies standards, releasing a draft of them in 2018. Soon thereafter, critics began attacking the planned changes as “far-right.” Beyond the issue of whether or not this generalization is cogent, some of the specific allegations used to support it are plainly false.
For example, a Change.org petition signed by more than 75,000 people claims that the standards “would eliminate references to climate change.” In fact, the older standards contain only one reference to climate change, while the newer standards contain two. Notably, these are social studies standards, not environmental science standards.
The article that started the uproar over this issue, which was published by a Michigan news outlet called Bridge, reports that the newer standards “limited” climate change “to an optional example sixth-grade teachers can use when discussing climate in different parts of the planet.” This is deceitful in three respects:
- The newer standards also mention climate change in the context of contemporary global issues.
- The older standards’ lone reference to climate change also appears only in the sixth-grade section of the standards.
- The Michigan Department of Education’s comparison of the older and newer standards states 74 times that the newer standards “relocated” numerous subjects to an “examples column” that spans most of the document. This includes climate change and many other topics, like “Independence Day,” “respect for rule of law,” “taking care of oneself,” “Constitution Day,” and “respect for the rights of others.”
Contrary to what Bridge led its readers to believe, this is not a case of global warming being singled out and relegated to an optional example. This was a general layout change that involved numerous issues, including many conservative ones. Yet instead of correcting Bridge, other media outlets like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Detroit Free Press repeated these specious allegations.
Likewise, Bernstein’s claim that people were trying to purge the term “democracy” is untrue. The newer standards use the word “democracy” 34 times, including 21 times in the phrase “American Democracy.” In fact, the newer standards actually use the term “democracy” one more time than the older standards.
The newer standards also repeatedly state that the U.S. is a “unique form of democracy” called a “constitutional republic.” This differs from other republics like the People’s Republic of China or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It also clashes with the agenda of many people in the United States, including some of the nation’s most prominent politicians.
Why It Matters
Bernstein leads his readers to believe that there is no practical difference between republics and democracies. He asserts that “when Madison said the U.S. was a republic and not a democracy, he meant (in today’s vocabulary) that it was a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. Given that all modern democracies employ a ‘scheme of representation,’ that’s an unimportant distinction today.” Bernstein quotes a grand total of five words from one of Madison’s writings to make that case, but the full historical record shows otherwise.
Early during the convention at which the Constitution was written, Madison declared that the government it creates must provide “more effectually for the security of private rights and the steady dispensation of Justice.” He said that violations of these ideals “had more perhaps than any thing else, produced this convention.”
Madison then singled out “democracy” as the cause of those abuses and pointed out that all societies are “divided into different Sects, Factions, and interests,” and “where a majority are united by a common interest or passion, the rights of the minority are in danger.” He stressed that:
- this is “verified by the histories of every country, ancient and modern.”
- this is the cause of slavery, “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
- it is the duty of the convention to “frame a republican system” of government that will better protect the rights of the minority from the will of the majority.
Other delegates to the Constitutional Convention concurred with Madison. Edmund Randolph of Virginia observed “that the general object was to provide a cure for the evils under which the U.S. labored; that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy….” Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts stated: “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.”
For the purpose of curbing such evils, Madison and the other framers of the Constitution developed a system of checks and balances on the powers of the government that they formed. In the words of Madison, these provisions were to “guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part” and “will be exemplified in the federal republic of the United States.”
One of these features is the Electoral College, which was designed to prevent highly populated states from dominating the election for U.S. president. As shown below in the electoral precinct map from Washington State University professor Ryne Rohla, the vast majority of America’s communities voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Yet Hillary Clinton’s personal vote count was higher, mainly due to support in big cities:
Exposing the falsity of Bernstein’s storyline, most Democratic presidential hopefuls have called for abolishing the Electoral College based on arguments about democracy. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, for example, said of the Electoral College: “It’s gotta go. We need a national popular vote. It would be reassuring from the perspective of believing that we’re a democracy.” Educators build support for such agendas when they teach students that “the U.S. is a democracy” without any qualifiers.
Another major implication is the centralization of power. President Trump and former President Obama have complained about opposition parties standing in the way of their agendas, but the founders created different branches of government for the expressed purpose of “keeping each other in their proper places.” As detailed in Federalist Paper 51, this entails a separation of powers between:
- the states and federal government.
- the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the federal government.
- the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
A mere “representative democracy,” as described by Bernstein, does not necessarily have such features. And without them, a “stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker,” as stated in Federalist 51. Such governments, wrote the paper’s author, are akin to “anarchy,” because “the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger.”
Nonetheless, some people wish the Constitution didn’t have all of these provisions. For instance, Sanford Levinson, a professor of law and government at the University of Texas at Austin has called the Constitution “imbecilic” because its “separation of powers” and “checks and balances” causes “gridlock” that “prevents needed reforms.” He would prefer that the U.S. government had more elements of a “direct democracy.”
All of these facts reveal major differences between the words “democracy” and “republic.” Hence, Bernstein’s blurring of these terms fosters ignorance of the crucial reasons why the founders of the U.S. structured the government as they did.
The Foremost Matter
The most substantial check on unfettered democracy created by the U.S. founders is Article V of the Constitution, which allows it to be amended with the approval of three-quarters of the states. This high bar is meant to stop a simple majority from trampling on the rights of others. At the same time, it gives the Constitution flexibility to change if there is widespread agreement.
Yet, Professor Levinson has argued that the “worst single part of the Constitution” is “surely Article V, which has made our Constitution among the most difficult to amend of any in the world.” He would like to make it easier to change, which would also make it easier for democratically elected majorities to strip people of their constitutional rights. This includes, for example, freedom of speech, the “right to be tried by an impartial jury,” the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” and the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
This is why George Washington, the president of the Constitutional Convention and first U.S. President, highlighted the import of Article V in his farewell address to the nation:
If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.
Many politicians and jurists have attempted to undercut this restraint on democracy. One of the most candid admissions of this came from Thurgood Marshall, a liberal icon who mentored President Obama’s second Supreme Court appointee, Elena Kagan. When asked to describe his judicial philosophy, Marshall responded, “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.”
This view is reflected in a third grade social studies textbook titled Our Communities from Macmillan/McGraw-Hill. It states: “The Supreme Court is made up of nine judges. They make sure our laws are fair.”
Marshall’s doctrine—which violates the oath of office that every public official takes to uphold the Constitution—allows a majority of the Supreme Court to flout the Constitution based on their personal notions of right and wrong. Since Supreme Court justices are appointed for life by the president and confirmed by the Senate, these elected officials can effectively void the Constitution by appointing jurists with such mindsets.
That is what occurred in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Korematsu v, United States. In this World War II-era case, six of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s appointees to the Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional for Roosevelt to put U.S. citizens of Japanese descent into detention camps without any evidence that the individuals were disloyal to the United States. These justices ruled in this way in spite of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment requirement that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
Had the justices faithfully applied the U.S. Constitution in Korematsu, this infringement of human rights would not have happened. However, under democratic standards, it could, and it did.
After the uproar that ensued when the Michigan Board of Education released draft social studies standards in May of 2018, an election changed the composition of the board from an equal number of Republicans and Democrats to two Republicans and six Democrats. This new board released an altered draft of the standards in March of 2019.
These latest standards never use the phrase “constitutional republic,” which appeared 43 times in the previous standards. Instead, they use similar phrases among a jumble of other terms to describe the U.S. government, such as “republican government,” “constitutional government,” “American democracy,” “representative republic,” and “Constitutional Democracy.”
To Madison and other framers of the Constitution, the words “democracy” and “republic” had important differences. Democracy meant majority rule, and it still has this connotation today. A republic, on the other hand, meant a democratic government with limited powers that are widely divided among different voting blocs in order to protect the rights of as many people as possible.
Towards that end, the founders of the U.S. produced what is now the longest-standing constitution of all nations in the world. As explained by Encyclopædia Britannica, it is “the oldest written national constitution in use,” and it “has served as a model for other countries, its provisions being widely imitated in national constitutions throughout the world.”
Like many words, the meanings of “democracy” and “republic” have changed over past centuries, and neither now fully describes the United States or differentiates it from other “republics” like the People’s Republic of China. A term that arguably does that is “democratic constitutional republic.” This captures in modern terminology the key elements that the founders put in place.
The U.S. also distinguishes itself from other democratic constitutional republics by virtue of its stronger protections against tyranny by majorities. However, the practical application of this is sometimes undercut by politicians and jurists who violate their oaths of office and place their personal agendas over that of the Constitution.
Addendum (8/28/19): Some people claim that the United States is not “democratic” at all, but James Madison himself described the U.S. republic as a “democratic form of Government,” and he wrote that the Constitution preserves “the spirit and the form of popular government.” As such, it begins with the words “We the People.”
I find the history of majority rule to be informative of its risks. Aristotle described early majority rule in his Politics IV at (Bekker) 1294be.
Only the Ancient Greek Forty Tyrants practiced majority rule while the citizens elected volunteers by sortition using pinakia and kloterion, just as we elect juries today.
The failures of democracy are buried while those of autocrats are held up by small men with feet of clay.
In the ancient “democracies” there were no elected “representatives.” Every citizen participated directly in his government, voting on all laws and even presenting laws for consideration and speaking directly in favor of or opposition to all proposed laws. Because we elect some representatives does not mean that we have direct participation in our government and is a long way from a pure democracy. Because of the population of our country and it’s enormous area, democracy is impossible, even if it were desirable. To even suggest that we have a democratic form of government is just wistful thinking.
Silly, there are over 300 million in the USA. We all can’t fit in Congress!
Yes, that is what I said.
In “the ancient ‘democracies'”, most people did not participate in the democratic process. Slaves, peasants, women, etc, had no rights and could not participate.Only rich, aristocrats — exclusively men — were allowed to participate in the democratic
That was then this is now. In the Peoples Democratic Republics of……… run by Russia and China it was about three percent of the population at best. Meanwhile in our Representative Constitutional we had free and open elections and typically ran a bit over 30% up to very rarely almost fifty percent. Why? Not enough choices. Stifled to two parties only. But that wasn’t true because the second layer after a form of democracy and before the federal level of res publica offered a huge amount of choices. Even though many were pimping for one party one leader. Can’t expect much more except in the middle of a ‘real’ counter revolution or when you don’t ‘teach your children well.’
No! It we are not a “Democratic Constitutional Republic”
We are a Republic, Period!
Don’t believe me? Check any one of our Founding Documents and find the word Democracy.
Hint: It doesn’t exist!!!!
It appears you didn’t read or understand the article.
The People’s Republic of China is a constitutional republic, and so was the Soviet Union. It’s important to differentiate the U.S. from such autocracies, and the word “democratic” accurately does that.
Furthermore, if we did not have a democratic element to our government, we would not have the right to vote.
As I stated before, show me one place in our Founding Documents the Founders used the Word Democracy.
I’ll be waiting for your evidence.
At the Constitutional Convention:
• George Mason “argued strongly for an election of the larger branch [i.e., House of Representatives] by the people. It was to be the grand depository of the democratic principle of the Government. It was, so to speak, to be our House of Commons.” http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_531.asp
• James Madison “admonished to enlarge the sphere as far as the nature of the Government would admit. This was the only defense against the inconveniencies of democracy consistent with the democratic form of Government.” http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_606.asp
• Edmund Randolph stated that “the democratic licentiousness of the State Legislatures proved the necessity of a firm Senate. The object of this second branch is to control the democratic branch of the National Legislature [(i.e.,, House of Representatives]. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_612.asp
And don’t try to wiggle out of this by stating you asked for the word “democracy” instead of “democratic.” The article states that the U.S. is “a democratic constitutional republic” and you wrote “No! It we are not a Democratic Constitutional Republic.”
As the article documents, the founders created “a democratic government with limited powers that are widely divided among different voting blocs in order to protect the rights of as many people as possible.” They called this a “republic,” but the meaning of this word has changed over time, and thus, it is vital to spell out exactly what it means in modern terminology.
More BS I see. Your article, though well written, is full of wants, wishes and Unicorn Farts.
To claim Democracy in any form is ludicrous and your reply still side stepped my query as to the term Democracy or what have you, in our Founding Documents. E.g. Constitution Bill of Rights.
You fail to grasp the simple fact that our Founders disdained the idea of govt, but saw it as a necessary evil, which is what brought about the creation of the BofR, and a Republic of States, not an overbearing Federal entity, which you seem to have fallen for in the romantic.
Madison states: Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution guarantees “to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.” James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, states we are to exist under “republican constitutions,” referencing both the Federal Constitution and the State Constitutions, not constitutions under a democracy.
republic n 1 : a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and is usually a president; also : a nation or other political unit having such a government 2 : a government in which supreme power is held by the citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives governing according to law; also : a nation or other political unit having such a form of government Source: NMW
In the context of the United States, both definitions apply.
In our Founders world, the States held all the Rights, and the Rights not specified to the Federal Govt, were afforded to the States.
That is the epitome of Republic, not a democracy.
Your false claims have been thoroughly debunked, but instead of owning up to them, you’re making new bogus arguments. I’ve done my work here and am moving on.
Don’t run away, you are nowhere finished, or rather, I’m not done proving you wrong!
You throw out this line as if it were actually true to make your ridiculous case for Democracy.
“To Madison and other framers of the Constitution, the words “democracy” and “republic” had important differences. Democracy meant majority rule, and it still has this connotation today. A republic, on the other hand, meant a democratic government with limited powers that are widely divided among different voting blocs in order to protect the rights of as many people as possible.”
That is an outright Lie!!!
Madison said no such thing!
Note the word “CURE” as in infection, disease, that’s how Madison viewed a Democracy, as an affliction in need of a “CURE”.
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
Son, you picked the wrong person to argue Constitutional politics with, I’ve been a political adviser and consultant for more than 30 years, own several Conservative sites as well as a published author.
You started this lie and I will finish it with the truth!
It is certainly Democratic in it’s inception and at it’s base but more importantly it is NOT a Democracyi but a Representative Constitutional Republic. The DNC group themselves are far far far from democratic by any of the definitions attributed. TheTrue comment is that the Founders and writers of The Constitution rejected the notion of a Democracy NINE TIMES. FirstTime I read that much Spin in Just facts.
Democracy and Republic are NOT Synonymous no matter how many times your teachers failed to educate you. And if they wanted it to be Democratic instead of Representative why would they have rejected it nine times and left it completely out of The Constitution?
I don’t know what you’re talking about. This article directly debunks the notion that “democracy” and “republic” are synonymous.
Saying that voting to elect a few representatives gives an element of democracy is like saying that a quarter in my pocket gives me an element of richness.
That’s a poor analogy given that every legislator, governor, judge, and the U.S. president are chosen by voters or their elected representatives.
I get to vote for my local school board members as well, but I do not get to participate directly in its decision-making process. It is a representative assembly, not a democracy. If it were a democracy we would not need to have representatives. Every citizen would participate personally and directly at every level of the governmental process, proposing legislation, speaking for and against, voting, etc.
First of all, you’re twisting my words. I didn’t wrote that the U.S. is a democracy. I wrote that the U.S. has “democratic” elements. As documented above, the words of founders prove this is true.
Second, your description of a “representative assembly” accords precisely with one of the key definitions of “democracy” given by Merriam Webster’s dictionary:
“1b. a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections”
I will concede that voting for representatives gives our government a democratic “element,” but I don’t think that element justifies referring to our government as a “democratic” constitutional republic. As I said, in a pure democracy there would be no need to vote for representatives. Each citizen would represent himself. And, I’m pretty sure that “democratic” is the adjective derived from the noun “democracy.” So when used that way, there is an implication that our constitutional republic is a democracy.
With reference to the dictionary definition you quote: I agree with the first part of the definition that says, “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly.” You adequately explained the second part of that definition in your article when you said, “Like many words, the meanings of “democracy” and “republic” have changed over past centuries…”
James Madison himself described our republic as a “democratic form of Government.”
Furthermore the U.S. Constitution begins with the words “We the People,” and one of the modern definitions of “democratic” is: “Of or for the people in general.” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 2016
Quit referencing an opinion site written by Europeans!
I gave you Madison’t exact words, not an opinionated break down like your link.
Madison despised the idea of Democracy, which is why he went to great extremes to make certain we never had any form of mob rule, hence, the Republic.
You can link to that nonsense all day long, but the facts are going to continue to expose you for the leftist you are.
Your agenda ended here!
I quoted Madison’s exact words directly from Madison’s own notes on the Constitutional Convention, not “an opinion site written by Europeans.”
Your comments bear all these hallmarks of trolling: baiting, distortion, distraction, and deceit.
That’s a great analogy!????
I joined your site because it was unique, I love when people write with unique perspectives in our black and white political spectrum.
Based on the sites claim that it’s all about the “FACTS” I thought I had stumble across a new and different Conservative take on issues.
I was wrong, dead wrong. I realized this when I discovered you and another created this site, both educated at Brown, a hardcore leftist university, and neither having any formal education in political science, let alone history.
So in “Fact” what you’re doing is writing opinion pieces from the view of leftists.
At least I don’t lie about one of my sites, the conservativehardliner.com,
it is, for all intents and purposes, a site written for Conservatives searching for the truth with a Conservative slant, or rather, actual facts, with history to support our claims.
I’m deleting my account, obviously, and bid you a good day sir.
Did I get blocked? What did I say that would warrant that?
Well, maybe not. But there is a gremlin in your system that has blocked a comment I was trying to make about a half dozen times now. I will try again and see what happens.
Is there a character limit or something? It still won’t post.
As far as I know, the only filter we have is for foul language.
My comment goes to the garbage every time I try to post it. I promise it contains no foul language. I will not try again.
Absent being mentioned in The Constitution and of course it would have helped your case had Democracy not been rejected nine times I have finally found the only verbiage tht makes sense. A Republic based on democratic principles and those principles of course all ‘few’ of them were incorporated in the inclusion of voting for all citizens at the very lowest levels.
Where it failed is the violations called the 16th and 17th Amendment and prior to that in the failure of 9th and 10th Amendments to be honored and the unspoken use of the concept of ‘new rights’ replacing ‘old’ or ‘original’ rights as in “I have the right without explanation to all of your rights without exception.””
But going back to the fallacy of omission denying the States Right to run and operate their own elections and prior to the States the Citizens put paid rather neatly to the false idea of any kind of Democracy. Else why do all States not have initiative, referendum, recall and term limits for all except the two and two only federal offices? And why are the delegates to the federal congress or congregation suddenly, magically appointed as aloof from and over their fellow citizens.
Doesn’t matter how they are paid it’ all comes out of the same pockets. It matters that a State that wants to recall a delegate is illegally denied that right and furthermore and it matters why that sad state of affairs has now created a ‘ruling class a la’ that run by the DNC’ over the Citizens in violation of powers granted where recall and term limits are concerned.
I see nothing in the description of terms for Senators and Representatives that provides them such status but plenty that suggests just the opposite.
I am curious as to your thoughts on–take for example the recent impeachment vote which is just the tip of an iceberg–the great number of our elected “representatives” who referred to “our democracy.” Aren’t these people supposed to know better?
Senator Warren is notably stupid, uninformed, and spineless. She has been around for ages teaching and as a Senator and this just occurred to her?
The worst of her simplifications is to say that voting by the majority is one simple thing, when in fact we have a simple majority, 3/4, 2/3, and combinations of this as when Congress overrides a Presidential veto.
The article quotes Buttigieg , whose father was a disaster
and who just today made an ass of himself
Pete Buttigieg Relentlessly Mocked After FAA Outage Grounds All Flights