A democracy is a government in which power comes from the people. A republic, meanwhile, is a form of government in which the people elect representatives to govern them. The founders of the American republic, while they sometimes used republic and democracy interchangeably, disdained direct democracies, as they were seen as facilitating mob rule. They preferred, and established, a representative democracy instead, in which the people elect the representatives who enact policies on their behalf.
Similarities and Differences
In his famous study on the American experiment in the early 19th century, French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville called it a representative democracy -- which it is, just like nearly every other modern democratic regime -- to allow popular votes on individual policy matters in large countries is too unwieldy. But is it more accurate to call the U.S. a republic? Both systems of government share some similarities, after all; they both derive their legitimacy from the people. In modern parlance, however, purer, albeit still representative, democracies, such as parliamentary systems, are seen as being more closely tied to the will of the people, while republican forms of government are largely wary of majority rule, and have safeguards in place to protect minority groups and opinions.
In a democracy, the majority rules. Democratic governments tend to be responsive to the demands of the public. This is true in parliamentary systems, which are run more or less unfettered by whichever party or coalition amasses a majority of the popular vote, but also in countries and American states that employ referenda to enact policy. This more direct democracy “argues that citizens themselves can make wise decisions on political matters,” write Russell J. Dalton, Wilhelm Bürklin and Andrew Drummond in the “Journal of Democracy.”
Tyranny of the Majority
The founders of the American republic were wary of direct democracy. "Remember,” John Adams said, “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” The Founding Fathers believed that democracy would lead to chaos, and a republic to order, in the words of John Jay, the first Supreme Court chief justice. The American founders embedded in the new country’s governing framework a number of antidemocratic institutions, including the Electoral College to elect the president and two senators for each state no matter their population.
Political scientists have looked at the question of whether the modern public, both in the U.S. and Europe, still desire the old republican institutions, or whether they want to take a more hands-on approach to government. In several American states, for instance, major policies -- such as gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana, and tax and spend issues -- are enacted via popular referenda. Interestingly, and perhaps counterintuitively, at least some research has indicated that those who want more direct democracy the most are those on the “political periphery -- the less interested, the less informed, and the adherents of extreme parties,” according to Dalton and his co-authors. These are the people least satisfied with the status quo and most disaffected by the current state of affairs.
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