The difference between a “democracy” and a “republic”

The Framers of the US Constitution
The Framers of the US Constitution

It was kind of fun researching this short little civics post because something as simple as a definition of “democracy” was unclear.  Webster defines a democracy thus – “government by the people; especially :  rule of the majority.”  If you Google a definition you get – “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

That’s a big difference.  It’s the “typically through elected representatives” that is the key difference.  That’s actually a republic.  I used to tell my students on day one of my US Government classes that the USA is NOT a democracy.  They blanched as I paused for effect…”we are a republic.”  The difference is important.  A true democracy is simply rule by majority.  It failed in ancient Athens.  Republicanism lasted longer in Rome.  The Framers of the US Constitution never intended to create a democracy.  I go into this a bit in my post on the Electoral College as it is an excellent example of “republican” structures to our governance.

I wrote that post the day of the election assuming, as most did, that the winner of the election was likely to win both popular and electoral voting.  But I was also mindful that we have had many elections in our history where the two tallies did not have the same “winner.”  I even went into some of the reasons why it’s a good thing that it isn’t;  I welcome blog readers to review that post.  I stand by the importance of having a winning candidate not win, mainly, by heavy vote totals in a few urban areas.  Mrs. Clinton’s popular vote “victory” is solely through her heavy vote margin in California.  Both candidates knew that states, not individual votes, determine our presidential elections.  They would have campaigned differently if it had been a “popular vote” election.  We will never know for certain how that contest would have ended.

Looking at the differences of the two, republic and democracy, the most important reason to favor a republic is to keep the majority from violating the rights of the minority.  They were mainly concerned about protecting property, but today we would be concerned about religious, racial, social, gender, and other minorities having their rights protected from the majority using it’s “votes” to infringe the rights of individuals.

America’s republic is actually unique in the world, chiefly because of the unusual way the United States of America came into existence.  Thirteen individual republics of diverse economic, religious, and ethnic populations surrendered significant powers of autonomy in order to unite into a single country, but not a unitary government.  This is a key idea to understand. 

When the American War for Independence ended with Great Britain granting the thirteen colonies their statehood, thy didn’t imagine a unified country resulting.  The agreement between the states that was created right after they declared independence, called the Articles of Confederation, was openly defined as a “firm league of friendship” but also as sovereign states, NOT a single country.  When it threatened to completely unwind, the Constitutional Convention resulted in a proposed new government that would have the states surrender SOME of that sovereignty, but not all. 

Today, we have many reasons that we remain a nation of identifiably separate states.  Think about it: Texans have preserved their rights to have open beer and rifle racks in their pick up trucks, Coloradans can go to the mall to buy pot, and Californians issues driver’s licenses to undocumented individuals.  As long as it doesn’t conflict with federal law,  states have their own culture, identity, and character, as well as a division of authority in  America’s federal republic.

We are also witness to an ongoing public protest over the rights of indigenous people in North Dakota that is another example of our republican (remember, small “r!”) form of government.  The different governments all play a role (in some cases, NO role) due to the different levels of government that have an impact in the Dakota Access Pipeline story. 

Some have asked me whether the republican government will play out in the case of the election and the DAP dispute.  I think I can give an answer that I feel fairly certain of because of the way this will work their ways through the levels of authority and through our court system.

The election: The recounts won’t change the ultimate result.  Michigan has already done it’s recount because they were so thorough from the night of the election on.  Dr. Stein may file papers in court, but the courts know that the authority for determining the accuracy of the election is up to the Secretary of State’s office in Michigan.  They have announced and verified the results.  Unless Dr. Stein has widespread evidence of “hacking”, mistakes, or fraud, that one’s over.  Wisconsin will do a “recount” which is basically a re-totaling of the votes.  Actually, last reports have increased Trump’s margin by almost 500 votes.   Pennsylvania said Dr. Stein’s petition was too late.  In all three states, she can always go to court but, absent any evidence, no judge will take away the Secretary of State’s authority in those cases.  Expect the Electoral College to vote with very little controversy on December 19th.  Sure, a few electors may change their votes…but…38?

The Senate will verify the count on January 6th, and the Trump-Pence inauguration will happen on January 20th.  The reason I am so certain of this is that voting results are the responsibility of the states, NOT the federal government.  All the feds do is report the certified results that the states report to Washington, DC.  It’s a reminder that there are MANY areas that states have the authority in:  Driver’s licenses, marriage licenses, property taxes, school authority, police (we are one of the few countries that does NOT have a national police force), etc.

Dakota Access Pipeline – There is no question that a lot of attention has been paid to this dispute.  The sad thing is that the federal government has been VERY pro-active in trying to work with the native tribes in the area over recent years.  Wait, why is Keith now talking about the Federal government in this?  Because state governments have no authority in relation to the native tribes; it’s in the constitution, this is an area of federal government authority…only.  So, can the US Government stop this?  Probably not.  They can delay it, they can interfere with it, but the companies have already been granted access and ownership of certain areas.  In the end, perhaps after more negotiations, changes, and court hearings, the pipeline will be built. 

So why should we keep a republic?  Wouldn’t a democracy be “fairer?”  In some cases, perhaps, like those who take the side of the tribes in the DAP debate.  But what if what the majority wants to take next time is YOUR individual rights?  I am a member of a small religious minority.  In the 1990s there was a nationwide movement to deny us some of our most important rights of our families.  This succeeded in some laws being passed that restricted certain of our important religious principles.  Many saw this as “common-sense restrictions of ‘weird’ religious cults or sects.”  Fortunately, higher courts saw these laws as a violation of our First Amendment freedom of religion and these laws were thrown out and some members who has been convicted in court in violation of that freedom found redress under these higher court rulings.

This highlights the second, and in my mind most important, aspect of a republic.  It’s rule by law, NOT by majority.  Is it possible that the tribes might get redress because of the “rule of law?”  Absolutely, that is their best course of action, not torching construction equipment or obstructing the company workers.  The fact that they DON’T seem to be going that direction suggests to me that their attorneys have told them the pipeline company has the law on their side.

I would suggest that the best path for the tribe is to go to court, or go on TV to plead with the public to change the law.

That’s the way things are resolved, peaceably, in a republic.   Cheers.

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