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The ‘We’re Not a Democracy, We’re a Republic’ Talking Point Is Tedious Midwittery

AP Photo/Terry Spencer

Occasionally, when I discuss Democracy™ and its liberal proponents who use it as a political cudgel against their opponents, someone chimes in with the standard “we’re a republic, not a democracy!” talking point, as if out of moral obligation to remind everyone, at any opportunity, of this very crucial and overridingly important distinction.

Granted, it is technically true.

Here’s a decent primer, via Merriam-Webster (emphasis added):

It’s true that there is nuance and difference between these words, according to their historical use and etymology: democracy comes from the Greek roots meaning “rule by the people,” and the most basic understanding of the word’s original meaning refers to the direct democracy of ancient Greece.

Republic comes from the Latin roots meaning “public good” or “public affair,” used in ancient Rome to mean simply “state” or “country” with reference to the representative democracy of the Roman Republic. The elected representatives in Congress are a contemporary example of this kind of government.

Because democracy is an abstract name for a system and republic is the more concrete result of that system, democracy is frequently used when the emphasis is on the system itself. We could say that democracy is to republic as monarchy is to kingdom…

These terms are not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, a document that nevertheless expresses clearly that governments should be established “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This reads like a definition of both democracy and republic. In Article IV Section V of the Constitution, the term republican is used as an adjective: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.

American republicanism is a form of a democratic system in which the population (in theory; whether this is true in practice is very much up for dispute) exercises popular control over government via the representative system set up in the Constitution.

It’s sort of analogous to the “hate speech” vs “free speech” debate; not all free speech is hate speech, but all hate speech (to the extent that term means anything) is free speech.

          Related: Hate Speech Is Free Speech

The problem with the “not a democracy, a republic” talking point is that it’s total midwit, pseudointellectual peacocking to try to score debate points without actually explaining anything of substance. One, upon reading or hearing the comment, is meant to marvel at the enlightened, brave and stunning commenter’s nuanced understanding of the intricacies of American governance.

In almost all contexts, the distinction between a representative democracy in the mold of the American republic and a pure democracy is totally irrelevant to whatever point is trying to be made.

At any rate, not that this will discourage anyone from doing it, whenever someone trots out the old war horse “muh republic” talking point, it doesn’t impress me. On the contrary, it exposes their pettiness.

But people are free to do whatever they like, of course, because I believe in free speech and don’t censor any comments, no matter how silly and irrelevant they are, when such decisions are left up to me.

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