U.S. Not A Democracy?

January 5, 2009

[First published January 11, 2005] I’ve gotten many emails informing me that the U.S. is not a democracy, but a republic. Libertarians especially assert this, such as the following: “The U.S. is a republic, not a democracy. The Constitution does not even mention ‘democracy,’ while Article 4, Section 4 of the Constitution, ‘guarantees to every state in the union,’ a republican form of government. Yet, you keep calling the United States a democracy. Why?”

This is another confusion over terms whose meaning over the centuries has morphed into something different. For example, the word “liberal” once meant what “conservative” stands for today.
The view that the U.S. is a republic and not a democracy comes from the 17th-18th century understanding, and those of our Constitution writers, when democracy was much feared by classical liberals. Democracy that was then limited in meaning to pure democracy (people vote directly on issues), has now evolved to mean both parliamentary (the closest to traditional democratic institutions) and republic. In present political science writing, democracy means any government, whether a parliamentary democracy, majority rule democracy, or a republic, that has open, fair, and periodic elections for the highest offices, near universal franchise, and secret ballot. A liberal democracy would be one with not only such elections, but also civil rights, such as freedom of religion and speech. (See my chapter on “What is Democratic Freedom”) What can be said about violence and democratic freedom applies to all forms of democracy, and best to liberal democracies.
Whatever, no democracy, a republican form or any other, makes war on another democracy.
Then I’ve been asked, “Why, if the United States is a democracy, have we had ties to tyrannies such as Iran, Iraq, Indonesia, and Chile at their worst. Does this mean the U.S. is not a democracy?” Hardly. Such ties were a function of the Cold War. The American foreign policy was that of containing the Soviet Union and communism. As part of this attempt to prevent the spread of communism, the U.S. allied itself with many unsavory anticommunist regimes. There has been much criticism of this, but strangely, there has been no similar criticism of the American alliance with Stalin to defeat Hitler. Yet, of all regimes, Stalin’s was worse than any military or authoritarian regime we supported after the war, and on par with Hitler’s. Why the unhappiness with our support of, say, Chile (after the coup) during the Cold War, and not of the Soviet Union in World War II?