What Form of Government Do We Have Anyway?

by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

I remember some years ago when a certain group of political activists used to go around promoting the idea that “America is a republic, not a democracy; Let’s keep it that way.” That particular slogan disturbed me because it was misleading to those not accustomed to thinking critically about what they read or heard and I would get chastised for criticizing their use of the slogan. One of my major problems with the slogan was that the terms “republic” and “democracy” were never defined.

There is no doubt that the United States is a republic in the usual sense in which that word is used. A republic is a sovereign nation whose chief of state is not a monarch, usually governed by representatives of a widely-based electorate. In the United States the chief of state is the president and the representatives are the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. We also have a broad-based electorate; virtually every citizen over the age of eighteen is permitted to vote, excepting those, of course, whose voting rights for some reason have been rescinded by due process.

On the other hand, the United States is, in a very real sense, a democracy. We need to realize, of course, that the word “democracy” can refer to political institutions which may take different forms. There are at least three different political systems which can be described as democracies.

A government may be described as democratic if its decisions will serve the “true interests” of the people regardless of whether or not the people directly affected are involved in the decision-making process. Some governments, such as those of China, the former Soviet Union, and Cuba, refer to themselves as democracies because they allege to fit this definition of democracy. Many authoritarian governments, such as those past South American dictatorships, also referred to themselves as democracies with this meaning in mind. Whether or not, of course, these governments really serve the “true interests” of the people is arguable. Continual public unrest in most of these countries seems to indicate that these governments may not, in fact, serve the interests of the people governed.

A government may also be described as democratic if it comes as close as possible to the “rule of the many,” that is, if all or most of its citizens participate directly in either holding political office or making policy. This type of democracy is often referred to as “direct” or “participatory” democracy. We have had a few examples in the United States of this form of democracy on a local level, such as the old New England town meeting where all adult citizens within the community got together to discuss and determine policy.

Finally, a government may be described as democratic if political policy is determined by leaders who are authorized to do so by winning a competitive struggle for the popular vote of those who are citizens within the governed community. This is commonly referred to as “representative” democracy and is the form of political organization instituted in the United States as a whole. It is true, as some have noted, that the word “democracy” is not used in the Constitution of the United States. But a critical review of the Constitution will indicate that when our Founding Fathers wrote “a republican form of government,” they were referring to what is meant by “representative democracy.”

The United States is both a republic and a representative democracy. It is, however, more than that and this “more than that” genuinely reflects the careful thought that went into constructing the original political organization which we have today. We are not just a republic; we are a “constitutional” republic. Furthermore, our constitution is a written document and not an unwritten constitution of case law, such as that under which the government of Great Britain operates.

Our Founding Fathers went even further. Not only is the United States a constitutional republic and a representative democracy, we are a “federal” republic rather than a “unitary” republic with a dominant central government responsible for all political policy. The term “federal” refers to a political system in which there are local units of government, as well as a national government, that can make final decisions with respect to at least some governmental activities and whose existence is specially protected. The United States, along with Canada, Australia, India, and Germany, are federal systems. On the other hand, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Sweden are not; they are unitary systems.

If we are to completely describe the political system put together by our Founding Fathers, I guess we would have to say that the United States is a Constitutional Democratic Federal Republic, or some such combination of those four words, with the understanding that the term “democratic” refers to a representative democracy and not any other type. There is great beauty in the use of all four words and let me tell you why.

There are at least two major threats to individual liberty. One of those threats is a strong centralized government with no objective basis for governing. A government is the only institution which has the legitimate power of physical force. The legitimate power of physical force is granted to the government by the citizens of a certain geographic area with the presumption that such power will be used to protect the rights of the individuals in that area. This power must be “objectified,” that is, known to all and consistently utilized, rather than arbitrary, capricious, and subjectively applied. The written constitution of the United States give “objective” existence to the government and prevents (or ought to prevent) subjective application of arbitrary policies.

The second major threat to individual liberty arises from the citizens themselves. While the concept of “majority rule” may sound good, its actual application all too often ends in misery for those not part of the majority. This is what makes “direct” or “participatory” democracy a dangerous idea when it is applied to a large pluralistic population in a huge geographical area. If majority rule were implemented, it could mean that 51 percent of the population who were Christian could deny equality in some form or another to the 49 percent of the population who were Jewish or Muslim or Shinto. The opposite could also be the case, with the Christians (or the Whites or Blacks or Latinos or right-handed people) being the minority whose rights are being arbitrarily denied. The “people” are not always “right.” Or good. Or just. Or fair. Or anything else.

The beauty of the American system, then, is partly the fact that it has a written constitution which tells the central government what it can do and what is can’t do and “objectively” expresses in a Bill of Rights the specific freedoms which are the property of the citizens. Then the political system is created as a “representative” democracy. There are at least two advantages to this form of democracy.

First, a direct democracy is impractical insofar as it would take forever to make decisions and implement policy if everyone in the entire country were to vote on every policy issue or piece of legislation. It is more efficient for the people to freely elect “representatives” to do this job. Second, a direct democracy may lead to bad decisions because people often decide large issues on the basis of fleeting passions and in response to popular demagogues. A representative democratic system provides a “filter” through which policy decisions must pass before being implemented. In our case, the filter is the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Our Founding Fathers went a step further beyond just designing a constitutional democratic republic. They created the republic as a federal republic rather than as a unitary republic. The Constitution defines certain powers which are the province of the national government and recognizes that all other powers are left to the states (local government) and to the people. The individual states have certain powers and responsibilities which are theirs and do not belong to the national government. The federal system (partially broken, unfortunately, today) does or was to provide for some checks and balances between the powers of the central government and the powers of the local government.

The United States has come as close any nation ever has to instituting a perfect form of government. The Constitution of the United States is as perfect an instrument as has ever been devised by man. It provides a balance between two threats to individual liberty, the arbitrary power of a government and the potentially abusive power of a majority of the people. Just as the government cannot be entrusted with too much power, neither can the majority of the people. A constitution is not only to protect citizens from their government but also to protect citizens from each other.

So what is the United States? Is it a republic or is it a democracy? Is it correct to say, “This is a republic, not a democracy…”? I submit that the United States is both a republic and a democracy and much, much more. It is a democratic republic. It is a federal republic. It is a constitutional republic. It is, really, a constitutional democratic federal republic.

Furthermore, it is the best political organization thus far created by man, despite the obvious flaws which come to the surface now and then. To promote the idea that “This is a republic, not a democracy…,” is to both mislead others and confuse the issue, as well as to insult the Founding Fathers to whom we owe so much.


The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty is the Founder and Honorary President of the Center for Applied Philosophy and The Radical Academy.