The key difference between a democracy and a republic lies in the limits placed on government by the law, which has implications for minority rights. Both forms of government tend to use a representational system — i.e., citizens vote to elect politicians to represent their interests and form the government. In a republic, a constitution or charter of rights protects certain inalienable rights that cannot be taken away by the government, even if it has been elected by a majority of voters. In a “pure democracy,” the majority is not restrained in this way and can impose its will on the minority.
Most modern nations—including the United States—are democratic republics with a constitution, which can be amended by a popularly elected government. This comparison therefore contrasts the form of government in most countries today with a theoretical construct of a “pure democracy”, mainly to highlight the features of a republic.
|Philosophy||In a democracy, the community of people are considered to hold power over how they are governed. Kings and tyrants are seen as threats to the innate rights of the people. As such, all eligible citizens get equal say in decisions.||Republics are in opposition to rulership by a single person. All eligible citizens get equal say in decisions through elected representatives. Unalienable rights of individuals are protected by law to safeguard against a majority abusing the minority|
|Definition||Rule by majority. In a democracy, an individual, and any group of individuals composing any minority, have no protection against the power of the majority. In variations, people may also elect representatives.||A republic is similar to a representative democracy except it has a written constitution of basic rights that protect the minority from being completely unrepresented or abused by the majority.|
|Political System||Democratic. [Note: this is not meant as a reference to a Democratic Party.]||Republican. [Note: this is not meant as a reference to a Republican Party.]|
|Social Structure||Democracies are meant to resist separation by class, politically or economically. Class distinctions can become pronounced, however, due to capitalist society. Varies from state to state.||Republics are meant to resist separations by class, politically or economically. Class distinctions can become pronounced, however, due to capitalist society. Varies from state to state.|
|Economic System||Democracies tend to be free-market economies. Policies that govern economics are chosen by the voters (or their elected representatives in a representative democracy). Usually capitalist or Keynesian.||Republics are almost always free-market economies. Policies that govern economics are voted on by the people’s representatives. Usually capitalist or Keynesian.|
|Religion||Generally, freedom of religion is permitted, although a majority faction may limit religious freedom for a minority faction.||Generally, freedom of religion is permitted, especially insofar as there is a constitutional prohibition on interfering with freedom of religion.|
|Free Choice||Individuals may make decisions for themselves except insofar as a majority faction has limited individuals.||Individuals may make decisions for themselves, especially insofar as there is a constitutional prohibition on interfering with freedom of choice.|
|Key Elements||Free elections. Suffrage. Majority Rule.||Free elections. Constitution. Suffrage. Individual rights.|
|Priate Property||Generally, private property is permitted, although a majority faction may place limits on property rights.||Generally, private property is permitted, especially insofar as there is a constitutional prohibition on interfering with property rights.|
|Discriminaion||In theory, all citizens have an equal say and so are treated equally. However, often allows for the tyranny of the majority over the minority.||In theory, all citizens have an equal say and so are treated equally by the government, especially insofar as there is a constitutional prohibition on government discrimination.|
|Modern Examples||More than half of the world, including the US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, etc. The United Kingdom is an example of a democratic country that is not a republic, since it has a monarch.||The United States of America is a constitutional democratic republic.|
|Variations||Direct democracy, parliamentary democracy, representative democracy, presidential democracy.||Democratic republics, Constitutional republics.|
|Constraints on the government||No; the majority can impose its will on the minority.||Yes; the majority cannot take away certain inalienable rights.|
|Way of Change||Voting.||Voting.|
|Famous Examples||Ancient Athens (Greece), Switzerland (13th century)||Rome, France, United States Of America|
|Sovereignty is held by||the whole population (as a group)||the people (individuals)|
|Common confusion in the USA||People commonly confuse direct democracy with representative democracy. The US officially has a representative style, though many have suggested the US is closer to an oligarchy or plutocracy.||The US is actually a democratic republic. It is governed by rule of law. The elected are bound by oath to the written governing limits (i.e. constitution) yet vote “together” and create laws to address concerns of the represented in a democratic way.|
|Observation in practice||People commonly confuse direct democracy with representative democracy. The US has a representative style. But the will of the people shouldn’t easily decide to change the rules that limit power to the government.||The U.S.A.’s Constitution defines the U.S. as a Republic, Article 4, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution. America’s founders were wary of aristocracy and monarchy, and preferred a democratic republic.|
|History||Originated and evolved in ancient Athens during the 5th century. Numerous important reforms were made by the leader Solon and then Cleisthenes. Greek democracy was ended in 322BC by Macedon.||Originated in Rome in 509BC (to 27BC), after a period of oppressive kings. Copying a bit from the Greek leader, Solon, Rome’s leaders created laws (“The Twelve Tables”) and a republican system with a Senate, Consul, and courts.|
|Key Proponents||Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Noah Webster, Solon, Cleisthenes, Karl Marx||Cicero, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison.|
|View of war||Depends on the majority opinion.||Constitutional republics rarely wage war against one another, and they especially eschew war when a condition of free trade exists between them.|
|Disadvantages||Majorities can abuse minorities.||constant debates, deadlocks|
What is a Democracy?
A democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens have the right to equal participation, either directly or through elected representatives, in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. To put it in very simple terms, it is a form of government where people choose their own government and the voice of the majority rules. Once the majority is established, the minority has no say.
What is a Republic?
The term “republic” as used today refers to a representative democracy with an elected head of state, such as a president, serving for a limited term. Even in a republic, it’s the voice of the majority that rules through chosen representatives; however, there is a charter or constitution of basic rights that protects the minority from being completely unrepresented or overridden.
Are a Democracy and Republic Mutually Exclusive?
There are many who make this statement: “The United States is a republic, not a democracy”. This makes it seem like a democracy and a republic are mutually exclusive. They usually aren’t; usually a republic is a type of representational democracy with some checks and balances enshrined in the constitution that safeguard the rights of minorities. A “pure” democracy would imply the rule of the majority in every sphere of life, without such safeguards.
Is the United States a Democracy or Republic?
The U.S. is a republic. Though it is now common for people, including American politicians, to refer to the U.S. as a “democracy,” this is shorthand for the representational republic that exists, not for a pure democracy. The republic continues to be mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance, which was written in 1892 and later adopted by Congress in 1942 as an official pledge (although “under God” was added later during the Eisenhower administration).
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
While the founders disagreed regarding the role of the federal government, none sought to build a pure democracy.
“We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.” —Alexander Hamilton
“It is, that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person: in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, must be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.” —James Madison
Americans directly elect council members, governors, state representatives and senators, and numerous other officials. (However, senators were indirectly elected in the past.) Some other officials, such as mayors, may or may not be directly elected.
The president is indirectly elected via the electoral college. The legislative and executive branches then appoint a variety of officials to their positions. For example, the president (executive branch) nominates a justice to the Supreme Court when a seat needs to be filled; the Senate (legislative branch) must confirm this nomination.
There are several political implications that arise from the U.S. being a republic. Laws passed by the majority — through their representatives in government (federal or local) — can be challenged and overturned if they violate the U.S. constitution. For example, Jim Crow laws mandating racial segregation were deemed unconstitutional and were repealed, and in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court repealed state-sponsored school segregation.
In 1967, with Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court overturned all remaining anti-miscegenation laws which banned interracial relationships, including marriages. In the 1800s, however, the court had ruled in favor of states’ rights to ban interracial sex, cohabitation, and marriage. This illustrates the power of cultural mores, which influence the interpretation of the constitution.
In more recent cases, the 2010 healthcare reform bill (a.k.a. Obamacare) was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court because it forces individuals to buy health insurance. The law was passed by a majority in Congress, but critics claim that it violates individual liberties by forcing individuals to engage in commerce, a power that the government does not have in this republic. Ultimately, the Court ruled the individual mandate was constitutional but that states should not be required to expand Medicaid.
Another example is California Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment in which a majority of voters in California voted to make same-sex marriages illegal. Critics of the law argue that this violates the individual liberties of gay and lesbian couples, and the majority does not have a right to do that in a republic. While courts in California upheld the amendment deeming it constitutional, a federal court overturned it, judging that it was unconstitutional under both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Yet another example is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010). Citizens United is a conservative organization that sued the Federal Election Commission over its restrictions on campaign financing. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, saying that the restriction of an organization or corporation’s right to fund a political campaign is a restriction of that entity’s free speech rights under the First Amendment.
If the U.S. was not a republic, laws passed by the government (elected by majority) could not be challenged. The Supreme Court (and, indeed, lower courts too) can determine which laws are constitutional and has the power to uphold or overturn laws it judges to be unconstitutional. This demonstrates that the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution are higher authorities than the will of the majority at any given time.
History of Democracies and Republics
Democracies are older than republics. Pinpointing which place or people had the world’s first democracy or republic, however, is difficult. Many countries, tribes, and cultures had at least some democratic or republican procedures. For example, voting on community matters, electing elders to power, and even creating rules regarding individual rights have occurred on small and sometimes larger scales.
Even so, the most well-documented early democracy was found in Athens, Greece, and established around 500 BCE. Under Athenian democracy, the people voted on every law. This was a pure or direct democracy where the majority had nearly complete control over rights and progress.
The most well-documented historical representational republic is the Roman Republic, which developed shortly after Athenian democracy, again around 500 BCE. The rule of law favored by the Roman Republic remains popular in most of today’s governments. It is worth noting that the Roman Republic had an unwritten constitution that was constantly adapting to changing principles.
Democracies and Republics Today
Despite the common use of the word “democracy” and the desire to “spread democracy,” most countries throughout the world today govern as republics. However, republics differ widely, with some operating under a presidential system, where the people directly or nearly-directly elect a president who is the head of the government; a parliamentary system, where the people elect a legislature who decides the executive branch; and even constitutional and parliamentary monarchies that tend to behave as republics but often have royal figureheads.