What Is a Democracy?

Author's Note

An American Thing?

In its simplest definition, democracy is rule by the people — in Greek, the demos. On the face of it, you’d think that this would be not only a very good thing, but also a very American thing. The famous first three words of the Preamble to the United States Constitution are a statement of the people’s authority to establish a government and its Constitution. “We the People” sounds very democratic.

Then there’s that short, most celebrated speech by President Abraham Lincoln. In the last sentence of the Gettysburg Address, delivered at the famous battlefield on November 19, 1863, he speaks of “a new birth of freedom,” and the desire “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” That sounds pretty democratic too, doesn’t it, especially the words “by the people”?

So democracy must be a good thing. Or maybe not . . .

What Is a Republic?

Author's Note

It’s a Republic

Let’s look carefully at the meaning of the word republic.

In Utah and especially in the Alpine School District, there has been much discussion in recent years about the United States’ national government being a republic, not a democracy. For that matter, the United States Constitution guarantees every state “a Republican form of Government” (Article 4, Section 4) as well. This is an important discussion — so important, in fact, that it requires us to use our words carefully and with precision. Imprecision, no matter how passionate, does not serve us well.

A republic, it is said in the local discussion, is a representative government, where the people elect their lawmakers. It is characterized by the rule of law, not the personal rule of some person, such as a king or an emperor. It is intended to avoid the considerable evils of pure, direct democracy.

Most of this is mostly true; there is a certain kind of republic which fits this description. There is also another valid term for the same sort of government, representative democracy, but we’ll leave the word democracy for another time. There’s plenty to say about the republic itself .