Stupid People and False Dichotomies

While tag surfing, I came across an blog discussing the differences between a republic and a democracy. I used to trot this one out as a party piece, until I realised that I had fallen into a trap of triteness. But as there is nothing new under the sun, this seems this specious argument seems to have attracted new proponents amongst up and coming American conservatives. Some of them even call those who don’t know the alleged difference “stupid people”.

The juxtaposing of “republic” and “democracy” is a false dichotomy. This is principally because is it based upon false definitions. A republic is not, by definition, a form of representative government. A democracy is not, again by definition, a government by referendum. Perhaps if both of these were true, a valid point could be made.

That being said, a republic can be based on a representation. A democracy can be by referendum. But this does not a dichotomy make.

A republic is simply government with a head of state who is not a monarch. A republic can be democratic, where the head of state and/or other governmental decision-makers (whether executive, legislative, or judicial in function) are chosen by the general population or even by other representatives chosen by the general population. However, as the proliferation of “People’s” variety in the 20th century demonstrates, there need be no consent of the governed in a republic. On the other hand, in theory a republic could have no representatives whatsoever and do everything based on referenda. I don’t know of any example of this in history, but perhaps there is one or more.

A democracy is simply a government where the authority rests in an enfranchised segment of the general population. The United States is a democracy. The voting population (the criteria of membership of in this group having changed throughout its history) has the right to choose leaders at various times and places. In the US, these times are fixed by statutes. In other democracies (such as the UK), the government of the day may have flexibility in choosing the time of elections. A democracy can be a republic or a monarchy. It can be an elected monarchy or a hereditary monarchy.

I don’t know who first began this urban legend of political nomenclature, but I wouldn’t call people who fall into this fallicy “stupid”.


3 Responses to Stupid People and False Dichotomies

  1. Dictionary definitions are often behind the curve, but the meaning of words is ever-changing, and based on the conventions of language. That is, whatever other users of the language understand a word to mean can be included in the meaning of that word.
    I certainly do not know the origin of the contrasting of democracy and republic, but I know that in the writings of many of the “founders” of the US, including Madison and Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, the dichotomy exists with more or less the same connotations as are commonly used today. The broadening of the term republic has a lot to do with the many “communist” (although not at all communistic) and some other states in the mid-twentieth century and a few that still exist which call(ed) themselves republics (although not at all similar to the connotations of the term as used by Madison et. al.). The connotation of democracy, as usually defined when used as a contrast to republic, is from its etymological roots from the ancient Greek words “demos” and “kratia,” meaning people and rule, respectively, thus resulting in a translation from Greek to English as “rule by the people.” The connotation of republic, as used in this contrast, has less to do with its etymology than it does with the first state to call itself a republic. The origin of the word is from Latin, and the meaning of its roots aside, the Roman form of government at the time, that of legislative assemblies elected by the people, is the basis for the connotation of the word as used in this contrast.

  2. Dave says:

    I had originally intended to include a discussion on the changing nature of language, but it would have made the entry too unwieldy. My point would have been that it is not stupid for people to use terms in a perfectly legitimate way, even though they may have had different connotations in another time and/or another place.

    Some of the Founding Fathers did want to distinguish between societies being too democratic, i.e., having too much mob rule, and those simple had people chose which of their betters looked after them. This is feature of working out the details of a republic in the context of the 18th century hegemony of western European monarchies.

    This idea of having a republic that avoided referring to democracy too much went out of vogue in the mid-19th century, only to be resurrected by some conservative movements in the late 20th century. To say that people referring to democracy in a legitimate definitional sense are stupid because they don’t use it in an 18th century connotational sense is, well, stupid. It can be used is a contrasting way, but it certainly need not be.

    Just to clarify, the term “republic” wasn’t broadened in modern times with Communist regimes. It was used in that sense long before Lenin was a glimmer in Marx’s eye. The term is not an exclusively American word. Those countries are republics, whether or not they fit the connotational sense used in the American experience.

    The term republican is used in this country (and throughout the Commonwealth) all the time with no particular connotation about the representative structure of the central government. The only focus is on whether or not the Queen should be the head of state. This is the sense used by over 1.7 billion people in the world, none of them in current or former Communist state.

  3. Steve says:

    I’ve seen this assertion that “America is a republic, not a democracy”, but I can’t pretend to understand it. It seems to be a rather infantile word game.

    I would agredd, however, that North Korea is a republic but not a democracy. I wonder it the people who use this argument would like America to become like North Korea.

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