“Well that’s just because America is a republic, not a democracy.” When I hear this sentence, I want to scream. Blame my english teachers or my political science professors, but words are important to me. Words have meaning, and it is important that we use words that mean what we are trying to say. It’s especially important to talk about government and politics with precision. The last few years have felt like something of a political death spiral for our country. I’m not smart enough to know all the answers to our problems, but at the very least, I know it’s essential to communicate about our institutions and challenges effectively if we are going to pull ourselves out of this nose dive.
What is it about that sentence that makes me want to rip out my own hair? Let’s start with the word republic. The word calls up images of toga clad romans or white wigged patriots, but all it really means is a country that isn’t ruled by a monarch. It’s a “country [that] is considered a ‘public matter,’ not the private concern or property of the ruler,” . Americans often snicker when we remember that an authoritarian country like China is officially known as a “People’s Republic,” but the name isn’t incorrect. The Chinese state isn’t the property of a single sovereign and hasn’t been for over a hundred years. It’s not a monarchy, so it’s a republic.
I can hear what you are thinking. Wait! But it doesn’t have democracy, it’s rulers aren’t elected! You are right. But democracy and republicanism are different. And unlike what the false dichotomy presented in that dreadful sentence suggests, they aren’t two separate options that constitutional authors need to choose between. It’s easiest to think about them as positions on two distinct spectrums of institutional design. One spectrum has democracy on one end and authoritarianism on the other. The other spectrum has a republic on one end and a monarchy on the other. This is why you can have a democratic monarchy like the United Kingdom and an authoritarian monarchy like Saudi Arabia. It’s why you can have an authoritarian republic like China and a democratic republic like France.
So this brings me to the second part of that sentence, the assertion that somehow the United States isn’t a democracy. This is completely false. The confusion around this comes from a mixup between the concepts “direct democracy” and “democracy.” Democracy is when power to govern comes from the people through free and fair voting. A direct democracy is a system of government where all decisions are made through voting by all citizens. This does not exist. No country in the world is governed this way. So pundits or citizens aren’t wrong when they assert that America isn’t that type of system, they are just using the wrong word to talk about it.
The truth is, like all functioning democracies in the world, our Republic is set up with a blend of democratic and non democratic elements, and that’s a good thing. Although they were overly wary of the will of the common people, our founding fathers were eager to protect minority interests from domination at the hands of majorities. This is why we elect our lawmakers in free and fair elections, but the laws they make are subject to the interpretation of unelected judges. It’s the same reason we vote for our President even though the ultimate decision rests in the hands of disproportionately distributed electoral college members.
This is where the real debate lies. To what extent should we incorporate more democracy (through referendums or popular election of officials) or retain some of our less democratic traits (such as the electoral college or jurisprudence)? These are important debates to have as our country goes through tumultuous times. No matter what we choose–short of going back to Queen Elizabeth with our hats in our hands–we will still be a republic.
Of course Americans aren’t the only ones who misuse terms like democracy or republic. (Perhaps the only real law of comparative politics is that if a country has the word “democratic” in its name there is no way it is really a democracy. Looking at you Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.) But we should try our best to use the right words when we can. Democracy in our country is in a fragile place; the peaceful transition of power has been interrupted in a way not seen since the Civil War. The last thing our democracy needs is us to forget that it even exists, .
 Many of the ideas in this article emerged from a conversation between me and Dr. Ray Christensen (BYU Political Science Department). They are as much his ideas as they are my own.