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Republic, Democracy, or a Combination


The mission of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Southern New Mexico is to empower voters and strengthen democracy. In recent months, references in opinion pieces and on social media to the state of democracy in the United States have drawn responses, such as “but we’re a republic, not a democracy.” This is often the extent of the comment with no elaboration on what is intended. The reader however may recall hearing something about this issue in a distant history or government class. In any case, a declaration that “we’re a republic” is not the end of the conversation.

In fact, looking at current dictionary definitions, the words “democracy” and “republic” are often used interchangeably. Dictionary.com lists as a first definition of democracy “government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their representatives under a free electoral system.” It goes on to say that many democracies are republics where the people wield power through elected representatives. The Merriam Webster dictionary offers a similar definition and references majority rule. Definitions of “republic” are similar although one definition describes a republic simply as a state in which the head of government is not a monarch or other hereditary head of state.

In Federalist Paper No. 14, James Madison (1787) used the word “democracy” in referring to the situation where people assemble to conduct government business directly. As such he saw it as workable within a small area, but not a larger region such as the U.S. was even then. It would be inconvenient for people living “on the frontier” to get to “the seat of government.”

Does the objection to the use of “democracy” to describe the U.S. simply suggest that we are not a direct democracy, like that of the New England town hall beginning in the early 1600s, where all voters who want to participate determine what policies will be adopted? With the town hall, participants need to research and come prepared. Decisions are made during the meeting and the majority rules. We have a government which has moved in almost 250 years to expanding the role of the people in the decision-making process – that is, in the direction of a more democratic process. This has occurred by expanding the electorate to include women, Native Americans, and African Americans.

According to a Forbes article (October 19, 2022), voters who are concerned about the economy need to see the connection to our democracy. A weakened democracy can make interest rates go up, making it harder to borrow. The Forbes article states, “the 117th Congress should not adjourn without passing legislation to modernize the Electoral Count Act of 1887, an effort which has garnered bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. . . (it) is essential to keeping our economy stable.” Such action by Congress would make it more difficult to undermine our democracy.

The dictionary definitions suggest important differences between a republic and a democracy. The republic describes how our government operates, by electing “representatives under a free electoral system.” A democracy is why the government functions “by the people,” with the shared values of citizen participation, human rights/freedoms, and the rule of law. Our government can be described as a democratic republic or a representative democracy.

Kathy Brook and Eileen VanWie, Co-Presidents, League of Women Voters of Southern New Mexico