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Liberal Democracy or Democratic Republic?

Liberal Democracy or Democratic Republic?
W.L. Ormsby/Library of Congress via AP

Dear Reader —

“America isn’t a democracy; it’s a republic.” It’s something of a cliché, typically deployed for polemical purposes, implicitly claiming the mantle of historical accuracy or constitutional fidelity. It is true that America is a republic; it is also a democracy.

There is more than one type of republic, just as there is more than one type of monarchy. Machiavelli’s Florence was a republic, though of a more oligarchic than democratic flavor. The Roman Republic was, at least in one sense, more democratic than ours — citizens, not their representatives, voted directly in the legislative assemblies — though essentially patrician. Cicero praised this particular “mixed” government for balancing the virtues of aristocracy (the Senate), monarchy (the consuls), and democracy (the assemblies) while tempering their vices. Our government could also be described as mixed. But since the Constitution vests power ultimately in the people, it is essentially democratic, albeit representative rather than direct. 

It is true, though, that outside some universities and right-leaning think tanks or journals of opinion, one is far more likely to hear talk of “democracy” than republicanism these days. As Jackson Lears points out, by the mid-century the term “liberal democracy” began to replace the “republican idioms” that were commonplace in American discourse up until then. Why?

“Democracy” highlights equality, whereas “liberalism” counterbalances this by highlighting the autonomy of the individual — a rhetorically powerful combination in an era of totalitarianisms that vitiate both. Neither connotes the classical idea of republican self-governance. This, Lears argues, expands the concept of liberalism well beyond the economic sphere to provide an explanation and justification of the modern welfare state. (The same goes for the term du jour, “neoliberalism.”) 

By contrast, Enlightenment-era liberals, though committed to a conception of man as a rights-bearing individual, had distinguished between the domains of economics and those — moral, religious, political, etc. — that cannot be reduced to the logic of self-interest. The latter, they argued, were in fact necessary both to facilitate and to domesticate the former. A particular moral ecology was needed not only for the free exchange of goods and services — but also self-government. 

The linguistic shift may point to a deeper one. We are nowadays encouraged to see ourselves not as moral and political beings engaged in economic (and other) relationships — citizens of a free republic — but as economic individuals, self-interested rational maximizers, enmeshed in moral and political relationships. There follows a temptation to de-politicize our politics by delegating governance to experts and replacing deliberation with more efficient and “rational” techniques. Push that logic to its extreme and America would wind up neither a republic nor a democracy — nor, perhaps, all that liberal.

These are some of the many issues lately taken up at RealClearPolicy. Below you will find just a few highlights.

— M. Anthony Mills, editor | RealClearPolicy


Mick Mulvaney, Defender of the Constitution. Matthew Spalding counters critics who say Mulvaney flip-flopped by running the CFPB, an agency he had wanted to eliminate. 

Five Facts You Need to Know About the Diversity Visa Lottery. The bipartisan group No Labels offers an overview of the controversial program.

In Case of Revolution, Spend Out. Michael E. Hartmann considers what current divisions among conservatives mean for policy-oriented philanthropy. 

DACA Deal Must Put Pragmatism Over Principle. Jeffrey H. Dorfman makes his case in our pages.

Trump Is Already Lowering Drug Costs for Millions. David Williams explains in RealClearHealth.

The SEC Is Falling Down on the Job. Paul Alexander contends that the agency must do more to combat excessive corporate secrecy. 

Why Go to College? In RealClearEducation, Carol D’Amico spotlights news polling data indicating students’ primary motivation. 

HQ2 Hopefuls Offer to Let Amazon Play Taxman. Andrew Wilford urges local governments not to resort to “corporate welfare” in their efforts to woo the company. 

Put Driverless Cars Back in the Slow Lane. Ross Marchand spotlights data suggesting self-driving vehicles have a long way to go before they can safely go mainstream. 

Don’t Withdraw From NAFTA, Modernize It. Rep. Ron Estes touts the benefits of free trade for American agriculture. 

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