We often hear a question debated in person and online by Americans who care deeply about making sure our government works for the people: is the United States a democracy or a republic?
Here’s the answer: The United States is both a democracy and a republic.
We promise we’re not dodging the question. It would be much easier if one word was absolutely correct and the other was not, but the terms are not mutually exclusive. The United States can be accurately defined as both a democracy and a republic.
Let’s break down why.
Is the United States a democracy?
Yes, the United States is a democracy, since we, the people, hold the ultimate political power. We’re not a “direct democracy,” but we are a “representative democracy.”
This is where our history education might add some confusion. We are commonly taught that democracy is a product of ancient Greece. It’s their word – demokratia – after all. The city-state of Athens is credited with implementing a system of government of and by the people, whereby eligible citizens would congregate to make decisions. They’d make these decisions themselves (or “directly”), not through any elected representatives.
That system of government, better understood today as direct democracy, lives on in the United States in the form of ballot initiatives and referenda. Some states and localities afford their citizens the right to use these measures to directly enact, change, or repeal laws themselves.
More commonly, we exercise our political power in a different way: by voting in elections to choose our representatives. That’s representative democracy.
The Constitution does not use the term “democracy.” It’s true. But as Eugene Volokh notes in the Washington Post, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Noah Webster, Justice James Wilson and Chief Justice John Marshall all used the word. These scholars understood representative democracy – the American variety – to be democracy all the same.
Is the United States a republic?
Yes. The United States is a republic because our elected representatives exercise political power.
History also tells us that Rome was a republic, unlike Athens. When its monarchy was overthrown, Rome developed a republican system of government whereby citizens elected officials who were empowered to make decisions for the public. That’s the core of how our government works. While “democracy” and “republic” have been historically pitted against one another, the reality is that the two terms enjoy considerable overlap.
So, which term should I use?
It’s really up to you. In practice, the word “republic” has the same meaning as the term “representative democracy.” And a representative democracy is a form of democracy in the same way that a Granny Smith apple is a form of apple. We wouldn’t say it’s inaccurate to use “apple” to describe a Granny Smith apple, so it’s OK to follow in the footsteps of Jefferson, Adams, Webster, and Chief Justice Marshall and simply call our “representative democracy” a “democracy.”
But it’s also accurate to call the United States a “republic.” It’s mostly about your preference of words. Hopefully, this post will help lower the heat in the online debate. Let’s put our energy toward working to fix our government so it represents the people!
What type of government is the US, exactly?
To be very specific, the United States could be defined as a “federal constitutional representative democracy.” You might also call it a “federal constitutional republic.” Let’s break those terms down.
Constitutional: Our system of government is considered constitutional, because the power exercised by the people and their representatives is bound by the constitution and the broader rule of law.
Federal: Our government is also a federal system, since power is shared between a national government, representing the entire populace, and regional and local governments.
These two terms can come in handy when you want to get really exact with your description. It’s accurate to call our government a “federal constitutional republic” or a “federal constitutional democracy,” but it’s probably overkill to be that specific. These terms just help us further define our governmental structure, especially when comparing the United States to other countries.
Bonus: Is the United States still a democracy/republic?
In the literal sense of the word, yes. In practice, the answer is more complicated. In 2016, The Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” in its Democracy Report, an annual study of the “state of democracy” around the world.
There were a number of reasons the nation’s rating fell, but one of the most important was the American public’s declining trust in government. Our system of government depends on citizens being able to freely elect leaders who will represent their interests. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. In a study published 2014, two political scientists found that, on average, the policies representatives pursue are not in fact dictated by public opinion. This is the mark of a flawed democracy/republic: election without true representation.
So, is the United States a democracy or a republic?
The United States is both a democracy and a republic.