Political Terminology: Democracy and Republic
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Origin of the Term "Democracy"
The term democracy comes from the Greek “demokratia” with “demos” meaning “people,” and “-kratia” meaning “rule.” Political terms are highly charged and often volatile because they change over time; they may change drastically as events change.
Because the United States was born out of a monarchy, the terminology related to politics and government is gauged against the forms inherent in and against the monarchical form of government.
John Adams on "Democracy"
Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.
--from The Letters of John and Abigail Adams
Practical Application of the Term "Democracy"
In a monarchy, all power is vested with the ruling family, particularly the king. The king rules the nation’s citizens, who are his subjects, and he does not share power, unless he chooses to do so. The king rules; the subjects obey. Contrary to a “monarchy” is a “democracy” wherein the citizens rule themselves.
Therefore, a pure democracy would mean that each citizen of a nation would share equal power with all other citizens, and they would come together to vote on procedures that require cooperation.
Such an unwieldy situation is obviously impossible; therefore, no true pure democracy has ever existed for any extended period of time. An explanation that clearly demonstrates the unworkability of a pure democracy is the claim that 51% of the people could vote to kill the other 49%.
Where democracy has been attempted, it has quickly turned into a “republic.”
Origin of the Term "Republic"
The term "republic" is traditionally considered to originate from the Latin, often explained as "res" meaning thing or affair plus "publica" meaning people. Therefore a republic is a people's business.
However, because the term indicates a reflexive action, that is, the laws refer or revert back to the public from a representative government, it is likely that the meaning of republic may also be traced back to the Latin "re" meaning again plus "publica" meaning people.
Whichever origin one chooses, it is likely that the term comes into the English language through the French, "république." But again, because the term lacks the "s" in "res," it seems more likely that the French use of the term would indicate a combination of the "re" and "publica" rather than "res" and "publica."
James Madison on a "Republic"
As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.
--Federalist No. 55,
Practical Application of the Term "Republic"
Under a pure democracy, all citizens would be constantly voting on issues. They would have time for little else, and therefore the idea arises to choose individuals to represent a group of voters. Thus arises the “republic.” Instead of constantly taking time out for traveling and discussing the issues to vote about, the citizens vote locally for a “representative” to vote in their place.
The United States government functions as a republic, but why is it also called a democracy?
Remembering the fluidity of political terminology, we understand that the term “democracy” is a general term meaning that “the people rule”—not a king, not a dictator, thus, not a totalitarian tyrant, but the people. In order to facilitate the will of the people, they make a slight adjustment to a representative form of government.
The people are still ruling because the people elect their representatives; the representatives are not chosen by a totalitarian leader or appointed by a king. Therefore, a republic is a democratic form of government because the citizens of the nation are the ones who elect their leaders.
It is unfortunate that the conflation of the two terms allows nitpickers and busybodies to deflect from the important issues to engage the definition of the difference between the terms "democracy" and "republic." But that is the sad state of affairs regarding political engagement in late 20th and early 21st century America.
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© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes