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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

A Republic or a Democracy?: Once More with Feeling

As someone who writes in part about eighteenth-century “republicanism”, one of the most common corrections I get at conferences and the like is that I fail to recognize that “republican” and “democratic” were strict antonyms at the time of the U.S. founding, that the founders staunchly favored the former and denigrated the latter, and that references to “republicanism” were always wound up with an elitist counter-majoritarian emphasis. These confident corrections are tri-disciplinary! I have now been corrected in this way by individual law profs, political scientists and legal historians attending their respective conferences (from NON-eighteenth-century historians I can’t help adding). The corrections can sound to my ears less like invitations to dialogue and more like what the embarrassed friend might say when I mix up “further” and “farther.”

Obviously I think the corrections are misguided or I wouldn’t persist. In fact, my rejection of the stern “republican”/“democratic” opposition is well-trod ground. Countless times, first-rate scholars have debunked the conventional wisdom about the eighteenth-century usage. My primary interest here then is not to add one more voice to the debunking. Instead, I have moved on to the question of why the debunking is impotent. The republican-not-democratic meme seems as fit as a cockroach. The species cannot be killed off by evidence. Why is this the case? Is it because it carries particular historical or scholarly baggage? Because the historical distinction is now in service of modern rhetorical or ideological functions?

I should first stop to say a little in favor of the debunking view lest I talk over the many smart, educated folks who do still credit and spread the meme. A few of the most recent debunking secondary sources worth a read are political scientist Robert Dahl’s thoughtful essay on point, “James Madison: Republican or Democrat?,” and historian Holly Brewer’s brief discussion in her book BY BIRTH OR CONSENT (pp. 13-15). Or better yet, go to the primary sources for your own fact-checking. Highly-motivated proponents of the conventional wisdom can take my Word Search Challenge: Consult a large-item source like the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution or Eighteenth Century Collections Online, and spend a pleasant evening running searches (electronically online or through the hard-copy indexes) for “republic”, “republican”, “democracy” and “democratic”, and watch for the blooming, buzzing variety. Tell me you can still insist didactically on the binary in the abstract. [Cont'd after the jump]


To speak more carefully, there is not so much confusion as a fair amount of order within particular sources and perhaps within some groups of sources. Many speakers use “democracy” and “republic” interchangeably (including many a Federalist like James Wilson and William Vans Murray). Others evidently intend to attach distinct shades of meaning to their different terms. But this sometimes-rigor can only be discerned at ground level. That is, there was nothing even close to a majority position for today’s conventional wisdom about usage that would justify generalizing across the sources. For example, even James Madison writing as Publius in Federalist No. 10 (the source most frequently cited as support for the strong distinction) includes himself as a “friend of popular governments” and he has to STIPULATE “[a] republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place” precisely because he can’t count on his audience already having a stark democracy/republic distinction in mind. (And, as Dahl rightly observes, Madison/Publius here was contrasting a republic and a small-scale direct democracy, not a “representative democracy.”) Quantitatively, the term “democracy” probably did receive much more denigration in the late-eighteenth-century than did “republic.” But it does not follow that the emphasis in “republican” and “republic” was more often about putting brakes on the people than it was about the popular character of the republic.

Of course, careful consideration of the variations would require much deeper understanding of context than you get from a word search. But, if evidence matters, even the sloppy-empiricist searches should be enough to take away the generalizations and the didacticism. Not going to happen. Or at least this non-falsifiability is the premise of my post! If you grant me this (or, at least, agree that the republic-not-democracy line is highly sticky), then we get back to my ‘why’ question (about which I have only half-baked speculation).

Dahl is again a good starting point. He suggests the conventional wisdom comes from today’s inegalitarian right: “I would dismiss the whole [republic/democracy] question as trivial if it were not for the frequency with which I have encountered the assertion that the founders created a republic, not a democracy... [M]y impression [is] that those who make this claim want to use the authority of the founders to reject the legitimacy of “democracy” as an appropriate standard for contemporary America.”

Dahl’s inegalitarian right is no doubt one source of the meme’s popularity. See, for example, Eugene Volokh’s nice blog series on the republic/democracy distinction today, including his example of the Georgia legislators who introduced a resolution to instruct their Supreme Court Chief Justice that Georgia is a republic, not a democracy. http://volokh.com/2010/04/09/more-on-the-republic-vs-democracy-debate/%23.Tq7qobl3O00.printfriendly

However, I can’t take this as a complete answer because I’ve only gotten the republic-not-democracy line from people who self-identify as left-of-center. Here the implicit point may be to reject the authority of the founding and not the legitimacy of democracy. (Perhaps this broad-spectrum agreement on usage goes back at least to a convergence between the early-20th-century-right and Charles Beard?) Maybe politically-invested claims about our history can get politically settled the same way we can get a constitutional settlement when both parties agree (e.g., expanded executive power to the extent Pres. Obama and congressional democrats ratify innovations of the last administration).

Then there is the fact that popular discourse still disambiguates “democratic” and Democratic” but probably not “republican” and “Republican” (at least my two-second Google search suggests this is so). Witness the effort of many Republican pols to rebrand Dems as Democrats [taking out the “ic” to sound more like “rats” or “crap” and less like warm cuddly democracy]. Neither party would seem to have incentive to disambiguate the R words. Dems don’t want to emphasize the populist strain w/in the Republican brand-name, and the Republican tent has to please a faction that’s happy to lean on the republic-not-democracy theme. Or maybe the manufactured distinction is, at root, truly nonpartisan. America feels discomfort about inequality in America, and so it’s cleaner to say the founders repudiated democracy. Some because they like the ideal less than they want to own up to? Others because of our unease about tracing "democracy" back to a time when radical evil like slavery could be accommodated?

[End of my first blog post ever. Long-time reader. Grateful to Prawfs for the forum. Next time, I’ll aim to be briefer!]

Posted by Kirsten Nussbaumer on November 1, 2011 at 08:49 PM | Permalink


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Certainly he was (as you "Publius" must know very well!) At the time he was writing Federalist No. 10, Madison/Publius indeed said he feared majority faction more than minority faction in a republic (and this apparently reflected JM's personal views in the wake of his frustrating experiences w/ the first state legislatures as former congressman and VA burgess). After the founding, JM actually changed his mind and decided that minority faction is the real problem. In No. 10 though, he does flog the republic versus (direct) democracy distinction. At the same time, we should also not forget that he understood the mediating, sphere-expanding features of the new machine to be "*republican* remedies" for a "republican disease". That is, he was trying to modulate the excesses of popular gov't precisely because he wanted to keep the revolutionary ideals of popular sovereignty.

The point in my post was not to say that no one at the founding used "republican" w/ the intent that this term have a somewhat more counter-majoritarian cast than "democrat". Rather, I meant that no generalization about this contrast is valid, that Madison & the others who spoke like this were not representative in their usage (and they knew it), and that even some of the most elitist founders could use the language of "republicanism" with the emphasis more on the popular self-gov't than on the counter-majoritarianism (tho' they would of course insist this should be rule by the people according to rule of law, not mobocracy).

Posted by: KN | Nov 2, 2011 1:51:41 AM

So Madison wasn't suspicious of the tyranny of the majority? Or we're just precluded from using contemporary language to say so?

Posted by: Publius | Nov 2, 2011 1:19:34 AM

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