America: Republic or Democracy?

It has become fashionable among Republicans to refer to their opposition as “the Democrat Party”. This is intended as a reference to both their internal candidate selection process, which even a political neutral must acknowledge more closely resembles monarchy in its use of coronations, and as a derogatory method of condemning their broader policies, the which is rather less just.

Democrats, being by nature an inclusive, forgiving, and understanding people, have responded in large part by terming anyone who disagrees with them Fascists, Nazis, and downright evil.

(Fascists and Nazis are, understandably, quite upset at being conflated with one another — they are two very different groups, after all — and, which is worse, with Republicans. Blame them for what you will, at least the Nazis never supported a bloated corrupt plutocrat like Donald Trump, or so they say. Personally, I’ve never much cared what Nazis have to say, but on the face of it there does appear to be some merit in this specific contention. -Editor)

This leaves our political process in rather a precarious state, as it’s difficult for any two parties to achieve consensus and therefore progress while they’re engaged in mutual vilification.

And yet, as with many other petty disputes, the arguments between Democrat and Republican often come down to disagreements over definitions. To begin with, what, when all is said and done, is a democracy? For that matter, what’s a republic? Which are we?

The short answer is, we’re neither. Also, we’re both.

People regularly dismiss this sort of question by labeling it “mere semantics”, as though attaching such a label somehow makes it irrelevant. Semantics by its very definition is the search for truth, for that which is important. It cannot be “mere” in any sense but that we stand on the edge of a vast ocean of meaning beyond easy comprehension. Semantics is, indeed, vitally important, and this is why:

Honest communication can only take place when there is mutual understanding of which words refer to what concepts.

In applied sciences and technical fields, we create jargon words to convey complex meanings in short time. So to a computer programmer, “kludge” is a technical term that would take normal people hours to define; using it saves a lot of time. The use of jargon, however, intrinsically limits the user in the way they think about the concepts thus simplified. They look at kludge and call it kludge and never consider that, yes, it’s ugly and inelegant code, but it does the job. Debug it at your peril.

It’s long been recognized in oratory (and other forms of salesmanship) that the framing of a question determines its answer. “Can I help you?” is a question that invites “No”, but “How can I help you?” denies the very possibility. How much more so if we can redefine the very words these questions are made of!

And so the Democrats (or, rather, those that control spin for them) like to call the United States a democracy, which it only is in the broadest sense of the word, in order to associate the name of their party with the foundations of American patriotism. For identical reasons, Republicans would like us to believe that we’re living in a republic, which also we’re very much not except, again, in the broadest sense of the term.

Democracy is rule of the majority, which seems like a good thing — and is, at least for anyone not in the minority. Any group that loses they sympathy of the mob for even a brief time can be discriminated against, punished, attacked, deprived of property and freedom. Any pure democracy is unchecked and without balance. As an ideal it is not to be pursued but rather feared, as are many pure ideals. That’s the reason behind the intricate systems of checks and balances incorporated into our government, the which make us very much not a democracy.

For the definition of a republic, we go immediately to Plato; his ideal would have us forbid imitative arts, hold our wives in common, espouse a philosophy of reincarnation, and select a Philosopher King to lead our aristocracy. Clearly that doesn’t apply either. Speaking in more modern terms, a republic is that form of government which relies on elected representatives to come together and decide issues among themselves. The presence in this country of a powerful Executive, a codified bureaucracy, and an unelected Judiciary means a republic is not what we are, but rather more precisely what we’re not.

Thus, we’re neither republic nor democracy.

And yet, broadly speaking, our representatives are democratically elected, as is the president (in a sense). The Judiciary is appointed and serves at the pleasure of the legislature; it is subject to impeachment. The bureaucracy is, similarly, answerable to the Executive. Thus, we broadly qualify as a subtype of representative democracy — and as a variant of a non-oligarchic republic.

In short, the answer is not so simple as picking one of two words. Anyone who frames the question that way is, in fact, trying to force-feed you their chosen answer. Resist anyone who ever does this. (If you like, you can practice by saying, “No, you can’t help me.” Unfortunately, you may well starve to death before you get your food, but that’s a small sacrifice.)

America thus is and remains a nation that has a specific form of government that cannot be simply defined either as a democracy or a republic. It is what it is, and shorthand — jargon — doesn’t aid us in the definition. However, it can be broadly referred to in non-technical conversation as having a form of democracy, just as it can be called a type of republic — and with equal accuracy, if almost no precision.

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