Is the United States a Democracy or Republic?

atkins bookshelf triviaThe date: September 18, 1787, the close of Constitutional Convention of 1787 held at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Because the deliberations of the convention were held in strict secrecy, crowds had gathered around Independence Hall waiting with bated breath to learn of the final outcome. As soon as Benjamin Franklin stepped outside Independence Hall, a woman, Mrs. Eliza Powell,  approached the eminent statesman and asked: “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy? Franklin turned to the woman, and without any hesitation replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

If Benjamin Franklin were alive today, after witnessing today’s political circus mired in the post-factual milieu, he would climb back into his grave, quick as lightning. It is apparent that America’s elected representatives are struggling to keep the republic that the Founding Fathers created as an alternative to the abuses of the monarchy that forged the country in the first place. But, let’s return to Franklin answer to Powell’s question; he states that America is a republic (and presciently hints that it is fragile). America is indeed a republic, defined as a system of government where supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and has an elected or nominated president (as opposed to a monarch). A democracy, on the other hand, is a system of government were citizens exercise power directly or indirectly, i.e., by elected representatives that form a governing body. You can immediately see the dilemma: it is difficult to pigeonhole America in to one or the other; in fact, America is a bit of both. In the late 1700s, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson used the term “representative democracy”; alternatively, you could say “democratic republic.”

However, there is another dimension to American government — it is also a constitutional democracy. A constitutional democracy is defined as a system of government based on popular sovereignty in which the powers, structures, and limits of government are clearly stated in a written constitution. A constitutional democracy provides an inclusive political system with checks and balances to keep the branches of government independent and accountable, and allows the electorate to modify the government and remove elected representatives from office by majority vote.

Therefore, the short answer to “what kind of government does America have?” is this: America is a constitutional democratic republic. However, in recent years, many believe that America is really a plutocracy, a government ruled by the wealthy (the so-called 1%). The current president and his cabinet (all of which are billionaires or millionaires) reinforces that perspective.

In discussing America’s form of government, perhaps the most critical question is the one implied by Franklin: can we keep it? Only time will tell…

For further reading: A Republic, If You Can Keep It
What is the Declaration of Independence Worth?

For further reading:

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