Republic vs. Democracy: What Is the Difference?

Two women looking at a display of the US Constitution
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In both a republic and a democracy, citizens are empowered to participate in a representational political system. They elect people to represent and protect their interests in how the government functions.

In a republic, an official set of fundamental laws, like the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, prohibits the government from limiting or taking away certain “inalienable” rights of the people, even if that government was freely chosen by a majority of the people.

In a pure democracy, the voting majority has almost limitless power over the minority. 

The United States, like most modern nations, is neither a pure republic nor a pure democracy. Instead, it is a hybrid democratic republic.

The main difference between a democracy and a republic is the extent to which the people control the process of making laws under each form of government.

 

Pure Democracy

Republic

Power Held By

The population as a whole

Individual citizens

Making Laws

A voting majority has almost unlimited power to make laws. Minorities have few protections from the will of the majority.

The people elect representatives to make laws according to the constraints of a constitution.

Ruled By

The majority.

Laws made by elected representatives of the people.

Protection of Rights

Rights can be overridden by the will of the majority.

A constitution protects the rights of all people from the will of the majority.

Early Examples

Athenian democracy in Greece  (500 BCE)

The Roman Republic (509 BCE)

 

Founding Father James Madison may have best described the difference between a democracy and a republic:

“It [the difference] 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.”

The fact that the Founders intended that the United States should function as a representative democracy, rather than a pure democracy is illustrated in Alexander Hamilton’s letter of May 19, 1777, to Gouverneur Morris.

“But a representative democracy, where the right of election is well secured and regulated & the exercise of the legislative, executive and judiciary authorities, is vested in select persons, chosen really and not nominally by the people, will in my opinion be most likely to be happy, regular and durable.”

The Concept of a Democracy

In a pure democracy, all citizens who are eligible to vote take an equal part in the process of making laws that govern them. In a pure or “direct” democracy, the citizens as a whole have the power to make all laws directly at the ballot box. Today, some U.S. states empower their citizens to make state laws through a form of direct democracy known as the ballot initiative. Put simply, in a pure democracy, the majority truly does rule and the minority has little or no power.

The concept of democracy can be traced back to around 500 BCE in Athens, Greece. Athenian democracy was a true direct democracy, or “mobocracy,” under which the public voted on every law, with the majority having almost total control over rights and freedoms.

The Concept of a Republic

In a republic, the people elect representatives to make the laws and an executive to enforce those laws.  While the majority still rules in the selection of representatives, an official charter lists and protects certain inalienable rights, thus protecting the minority from the arbitrary political whims of the majority. In this sense, republics like the United States function as “representative democracies.”

In the U.S., senators and representatives are the elected lawmakers, the president is the elected executive, and the Constitution is the official charter.

Perhaps as a natural outgrowth of Athenian democracy, the first documented representative democracy appeared around 509 BCE in the form of the Roman Republic. While the Roman Republic’s constitution was mostly unwritten and enforced by custom, it outlined a system of checks and balances between the different branches of government.

This concept of separate governmental powers remains a feature of almost all modern republics.

Is the United States a Republic or a Democracy?

The following statement is often used to define the United States' system of government: "The United States is a republic, not a democracy.” This statement suggests that the concepts and characteristics of republics and democracies can never coexist in a single form of government. However, this is rarely the case. As in the United States, most republics function as blended “representational democracies” featuring a democracy’s political powers of the majority tempered by a republic’s system of checks and balances enforced by a constitution that protects the minority from the majority.

To say that the United States is strictly a democracy suggests that the minority is completely unprotected from the will of the majority, which is not correct.

Republics and Constitutions

As a republic’s most unique feature, a constitution enables it to protect the minority from the majority by interpreting and, if necessary, overturning laws made by the elected representatives of the people. In the United States, the Constitution assigns this function to the U.S. Supreme Court and the lower federal courts.

For example, in the 1954 case of, Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court declared all state laws establishing separate racially segregated public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.  

In its 1967 Loving v. Virginia ruling, the Supreme Court overturned all remaining state laws banning interracial marriages and relationships.

More recently, in the controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that federal election laws prohibiting corporations from contributing to political campaigns violated the corporations’ constitutional rights of free speech under the First Amendment.

The constitutionally-granted power of the judicial branch to overturn laws made by the legislative branch illustrates the unique ability of a republic’s rule of law to protect the minority from a pure democracy’s rule of the masses.

Republic vs. Democracy: Key Takeaways

  • In a pure democracy, laws are made directly by the voting majority leaving the rights of the minority largely unprotected.
  • In a republic, laws are made by representatives chosen the people and must comply with a constitution which specifically protects the rights of the minority from the will of the majority.
  • The United States, while basically a republic, is best described as a “representative democracy.”  

References

  • Definition of Republic.” Dictionary.com. “a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them.”
  • Definition of Democracy.” Dictionary.com. “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 elected agents under a free electoral system.”
  • Woodburn, James Albert. “The American Republic and Its Government: An Analysis of the Government of the United States.” G. P. Putnam, 1903
  • Peacock, Anthony Arthur (2010-01-01). “Freedom and the Rule of Law.” Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9780739136188.
  • Founders Online. “From Alexander Hamilton to Gouverneur Morris.” 19 May 1777.