Republic vs. Democracy


Say, “our democracy,” and it shall follow as the night the day that a libertarian will pedantically correct you, “We’re a republic, not a democracy.”  This is usually said hearkening back to the Founders, and of course it’s technically correct.  We are, or at least were designed to be, a representative republic and not a direct Athenian democracy.

I can state with some confidence that the number of people it’s persuaded is in the low single-digits.  Neither those being corrected nor those listening in are likely to second-guess their opinions on whatever subject is at hand, and there’s a good reason for that: our elections are democratic, we frequently have ballot measures that are decided by majority democratic vote, and people use the word “democracy” in common parlance all the time without thinking, “What Would Pericles Do?”

Most of the time, it’s both annoying and irrelevant.

A recent Washington Post oped decried the practice of “gunsplaining,” or pointing out that gun control activists often don’t know very much about the items they’re trying to regulate or ban.  The author argued that the sole purpose of correcting factual mistakes is to bully gun-control advocates into silence.  In my experience, bringing up the fact that there’s no such thing as a “full semi-automatic mode,” or noting with some derision that a Congressman, who’s actually empowered to make laws on this subject, describes a non-existent, “shoulder thing that goes up,” serves a different purpose.

Most of the gun-control activists and legislators in this country are on the left, which has spent the last century or so quietly and not-so-quietly shifting control over our lives to a bureaucracy of experts.  We are expected not merely to defer but to actually give thanks for this growing rule-by-enlightened-bureaucrat.  But when the subject turns to firearms, these very same people turn ignorance into a virtue.  “Gunsplaining”, in its best form, is used to make sure that we’re all talking about the same thing, as with any technical subject, and to make sure that people who want to impose new laws or regulations don’t make them overly-broad.  It’s not contemptuous; it pays the other party the respect of assuming that they’re acting in good faith.

To shout, “We’re a Republic, not a democracy!” in the middle of a gun control discussion doesn’t do any of that, because it’s not really relevant to the subject at hand.

There are plenty of cases where it does matter.  If the discussion is about eliminating the Electoral College in favor of a mythical National Popular Vote, or Colorado’s recent Amendment 71, changin

 

g the way that Constitutional amendments are adopted, govsplaining is entirely appropriate.  Like gunsplaining, it assumes that the other side is discussing the issue in good faith, may simply not recognize the difference between the two or the difference it makes, and tries to reach some understanding of terms that matter.  Govsplaining should be confined to those instances, but usually isn’t.

Contrary to popular opinion, this confusion is not a recent development, nor does it represent a catastrophic failure of our educational system, although there are plenty of those.  Allow a lengthy quotation from Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty  towards the end (pp. 717-18), where he’s discussing the changes between 1789 and 1815 in our early Republic:

If indeed the Americans had become one homogeneous people and the people as a single estate were all there was, then many Americans now became much more willing than they had been in 1789 to label their government a “democracy.”  At the time of the Revolution, “democracy” had been a pejorative term that conservative leveled at those who wanted to give too much power to the people; indeed Federalists identified democracy with mobocracy, or as Gouverneur Morris said, “no government at all…”

But increasingly in the years following the Revolution the Republicans and other popular groups, especially in the North, began turning the once derogatory terms “democracy” and “democrat” into emblems of pride.  Even in the early 1790s some contended that “the words Republican and Democratic are synonymous” and claimed that anyone who “is not a Democrat is an aristocrat or a monocrat.”  …soon many of the Northern Republicans began labeling their party the Democratic-Republican party.  Early in the first decade of the nineteenth century even neutral observers were casually referring to the Republicans as the “Dems” or the “Democrats.”

With these Democrats regarding themselves as the nation, it was not long before people began to challenge the traditional culture’s aversion to the term “democracy.”  “The government adopted here is a DEMOCRACY,” boasted the populist Baptist Elias Smith (pictured) in 1809.  “It is well for us to understand this word, so much ridiculed by the international enemies of our beloved country.  The word DEMOCRACY is formed of two Greek words, one signifies the people, and the other the government which is in the people…. My Friends, let us never be ashamed of DEMOCRACY!”

We all know the difference between a representative republic and a direct democracy.  The Americans of 1790-1810 knew it, too.  I suspect when pressed, most Americans even now understand the difference.  It’s important not to let corruption of the language degrade our understanding of institutions, and eventually our institutions themselves.  But it’s most important when it’ll do some actual good.