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Refresher Course: Is the U.S. a democracy or a republic?

voting in Concord NH
Cori Princell
/
NHPR
What does it mean to be a democracy, anyway?

Every other Tuesday, Civics 101 hosts, Hannah McCarthy and Nick Capodice, join NHPR’s All Things Considered host Julia Furukawa to talk about how our democratic institutions actually work.

But there's plenty of debate over just how democratic our institutions really are — and whether we can call the United States a true democracy. Some people argue it's more accurate to say the country is a republic. This week, Nick and Julia unpack these and other key questions about the foundation of our government.

You can listen to Civics 101 here, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Transcript

Well, Nick, I grew up in school learning that the U.S. is a democracy. So why are people saying that the U.S. should actually be called a republic and not a democracy? What's their reasoning?

Yeah, well, we made an episode about this, Julia, because frankly, it is the most common critique of our show. This is a relatively new accusation. America has been referred to as a democracy since the very beginning, since our founding. And maybe part of the reason we've been hearing this recently, partisanship notwithstanding, is the amount of time that the framers referred to the word “republic” in the Federalist Papers. There's a quite famous exchange that probably happened between Elizabeth Powell and Ben Franklin when she asked him, “What have you given us? A republic or a monarchy?” And Franklin said, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

Let's set the controversy aside for just a moment and define the two terms “democracy” and “republic.” Can you lay it out for us?

A democracy is a system where the power to make policy comes directly or indirectly from the people. We, in the U.S., we're not a direct democracy — which is like where everybody votes on every piece of legislation. We vote to choose our elected officials and we trust they will do that on our behalf. Now, a republic is a system where elected officials make the rules, versus being born into power like a monarchy.

Sara Plourde
/
NHPR

So what is the verdict? Nick, is my civics education as a child a lie? Is it fair to call the U.S. a democracy?

Yeah, Julia, it is fair. It's fair and it always has been. Long story short, the United States is both a democracy and a republic. Anybody who insists that we are one, not the other — to quote something I saw on Reddit — is like a child saying the ball isn't green, it's round. Those words are not mutually exclusive. You can say we're a democratic republic. You can say we're a constitutional representative democracy. You can say whatever you want. Democracy is not an achievement that you get on Steam, right? You get it and it's over. Democracy is a constant, unreachable goal. And if you believe in democratic principles, you have to fight for that goal forever.

And Nick, finally, has our government become more or less democratic in the nearly 250 years since its creation?

That is the most important question. At the time of our founding, we were a lot less democratic. Anybody who says otherwise is missing a very important point. Americans enslaved people. Only white men, white men with land, could participate in the civic process. And this gets to this notion of what we think of as a sliding scale of democracy, right? Sometimes we go forward, sometimes we go back. Lots of states ever since then have adopted some direct democracy. Some states have ballot initiatives where the people can write laws and if they get enough signatures, the people vote on them and pass them or not.

One scholar I talked to said that if we want to think of when “peak democracy” [was] in the U.S., that's around the late 1960s after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. But we've had a slide back since then. And that's the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby v. Holder in 2013, which frankly gutted the Voting Rights Act. So the scholar suggested a good thing to think about, is not whether we are or are not a democracy, but whether and when we have actually ever been a democracy. Because democracy is under threat right now — and I'm trying to figure out, is there a time when it wasn't?

Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
Michelle Liu is the All Things Considered producer at NHPR. She joined the station in 2022 after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.
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