Democracy? Republic? Who cares?   Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg
Democracy? Republic? Who cares?  Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

I’m a big fan of the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein, but he really slipped up here:

The important point to remember is that the United States was never intended to be a pure democracy, but a representative republic.

As the late political theorist Robert Dahl argued, “democracy” and “republic” are best used as synonyms. It’s true that Madison and other 18th century writers didn’t use them that way, but for us to emulate their language is just asking for trouble. The main difference, as Dahl said, is simply that one word is from the Romans and the other from the Greeks. Saying that the U.S. is supposed to be a republic and not a democracy is sort of like saying that we prefer to eat beef, not cows.

In fact, what Madison meant by democracy had little to do with Athens, and the Constitution certainly has little to do with Rome. There was a fad for all things Roman in the late 18th century; it seemed as natural to prefer the Latin term as it did to call one chamber of the new legislature a “Senate” -- even though neither term corresponded to Roman institutions. That’s probably why we wound up with a Tiber Creek, too. It just doesn’t help us describe our system of government.

While democracy and republic may be best used as synonyms, neither is sufficient because there are lots of different types of democracies that differ on several dimensions. A democracy can be direct or representative. It can be majoritarian or it can emphasize minority influence, in which case we can call it anti-majoritarian (or, perhaps, Madisonian, although Madisonian might also be used for the entire array of variations on the U.S. Constitution). It can be federalist or unified. If it stresses the process of decision-making, it might be deliberative. Mix and match: There are dozens of varieties.

What we cannot say is that any particular combination of factors makes one particular type of democracy “pure.” There’s no such thing. Athenian democracy? Well, in some sense they did invent the whole thing, but their ideas about democracy (and Rome's about republics) are so foreign to anything we know in the past two millenniums, not to mention highly problematic to modern sensibilities, that it’s more confusing than useful to call their version a “pure” democracy.

To contrast U.S. democracy with purity encourages sloppy thinking, including excuses for some seemingly undemocratic practice that we have no other reason to support. Note, by the way, that no one ever talks about a “pure” republic, whatever that might be; note, too, that “pure” democracy is generally a term reserved for criticism of whatever real democracy is under discussion.

Madison’s Constitution needs no sloppy defense; it can and should be supported as a strong version of democracy. It is anti-majoritarian, representative and federalist, with plenty of built-in deliberation. It is hardly perfect; the malapportionment of the Senate cannot be successfully defended on “democratic” or “republican” principles. It's just a political mistake we’re stuck with. Where the Framers got it wrong (often for good political reasons, sometimes because they were doing what had not been done before), we should acknowledge it. Not excuse it on the basis of semantic games.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.