Myth: The U.S. is not a democracy.

Fact: The U.S. is a representative democracy in every branch of government.


The U.S. is a democracy -- just not a direct one. Every branch of our government -- executive, legislative, judicial, monetary -- ultimately derives its power from majority rule or approval. By making our democracy indirect instead of direct, the Founders prevented unrestrained mob rule, allowing a more reasonable pace of majority rule, and greater room for compromise.


Conservatives continually point out that America is not a democracy, but a constitutional republic. This is a quibble over definitions, because a constitutional republic is a type of democracy. Democracy comes in two forms: direct and republican. In a direct democracy, the people vote directly on proposed laws, and government (to the extent that it exists) serves only to put their laws into action. By contrast, a republic is a representative democracy, where laws are passed not by the people, but their elected representatives. Adding the term "constitutional" to the word "republic" is frivolous, since all nations have constitutions.

Why, then, do conservatives insist on this distinction? There are two reasons, both of them trivial. One is to embarrass those who make casual use of the term "democracy." Another is that conservatives are so hostile to democracy that they seek to deny its very name.

But a democracy we are. No matter which branch of government you look into, you'll find the fingerprints of democracy everywhere:

Congress: the people vote on their Senators and Representatives, who then vote on their laws.

The White House: the people vote on a slate of electors, who then vote for the president.

Supreme Court: nine justices vote on the constitutionality of laws.

Supreme Court justices: an elected president nominates a Supreme Court justice, who must pass a vote of confidence from the people's elected Senators.

Constitutional amendments: the people's elected representatives vote on the amendments, which must pass by a supermajority of elected state legislatures.

Cabinet appointees: an elected president nominates cabinet officials, who must pass a vote of confidence from the people's elected Senators.

The Federal Reserve: a board of Federal Reserve governors votes on monetary policy.

The Federal Reserve Board: an elected president nominates members to the Federal Reserve Board, who must pass a vote of confidence from the people's elected Senators.

Notice that a spectrum of democracy exists within these examples. On the more direct end lies the House of Representatives, which elects legislators from relatively small districts every two years. On the more republican end lies the Senate, which elects legislators from much larger states every six years. The extreme in republicanism is the Supreme Court, where the people's representatives elect justices to lifetime tenure.

Also notice that there is no such thing as a 100 percent direct democracy, since voters would be overwhelmed with the requirements of voting on the nuts and bolts of every government operation. Inevitably, democracy requires some degree of delegated authority. Still, the Founders feared more direct forms of democracy, since they believed -- with historical justification -- that they increased the volitility of mob rule, reduced the chances of compromise, allowed more uninformed legislation to pass, and were usually short-lived. Thus, they insisted on a more republican form of government. However, they also knew the danger of going too far in the opposite direction. Too republican, and representatives become impervious to the will of the people. The challenge in designing a democracy is to find the right balance between direct democracy and republicanism.

Ultimately, all democracies -- including republics -- operate at the consent of the majority. By making our democracy more indirect than direct, the Founders did not stop majority rule; they merely slowed it down somewhat. We could fine tune our position on this spectrum either way, of course, but we would have to go miles in the direction of republicanism before we were no longer a democracy.

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