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Difference Between Democracy and Republic

Difference Between Democracy and Republic

“Democracy” and “Republic” are often confused, and the terms are arbitrarily exchanged and misused. The similarities between the two concepts are many but, at the same time, Democracy and Republic differ in several substantial and practical ways. Moreover, while “Democracy” and “Republic” have standard definitions, we have several concrete examples that prove that reality and theory do not always coincide.

Democracy

The concept of democracy has been largely debated and analyzed in the past. While the origin of the world is univocally recognized, many disagreements remain on the definition of the concept.

The term democracy is a combination of two Greek words: ‘demos’ which means “people” and ‘kratein’ which means “rule”. Therefore, the word democracy means ‘the rule of people’. Yet, while the “rule of the majority” seems to be the core of the concept, associating democracy only with free and fair elections can be misleading and not sufficient to conceptualize the complex idea of democracy.

The existing scholarship suggests that the “democracy is a demanding system, and not just a mechanical condition (like majority rule) taken in isolation,”1 and that there are various degrees and subtypes of democracy. For instance, Dahl identifies in the continuative responsiveness of the government to the preferences of the citizens (that are considered political equals) a key feature of any democracy. In addition, he believes that the two pillars of a democratic system are:

  • Public contestation; and
  • Right to participate2.

Both dimensions need to exist at the same time for a democracy to be effective, and their proportion defines the inclusiveness and the degree of democracy of the government.

Another interesting perspective on the conceptualization of democracy is provided by Fareed Zakaria, famous author and political scientist, who defines liberal democracies in opposition to “illiberal democracies”3. Zakaria believes that a liberal political system should be characterized by:

  • Rule of law;
  • Separation of powers, and
  • Protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property.

According to his perspective, economic, civil and religious liberties are at the core of human autonomy and dignity, and a liberal democracy must respect such fundamental rights. Today, 118 of the world’s 193 countries are democracies. They all have free and fair elections but half of them are illiberal.

Yet another theory is brought about by Schmitter and Karl4. The two scholars believe that there are many types of democracies and that “their diverse practices produce a similarly varied set of effects.” In other words, they believe that the degree of the core characteristics of the government defines the difference between the different subtypes of democracies. According to their view, a modern democracy:

  • Functions “by the consent of people”;
  • Should provide a wide variety of channels and means to allow the citizens’ free expression of interest and values;
  • Should follow specific procedural norms; and
  • Must respect the population’s civic rights.

Finally, some authors also argue that the feature of a democratic government vary according to the geographic area. For instance, Neher suggests that Asian countries are, indeed, moving towards “Western-style liberal democracies”5 and that they are adopting liberal features such as free and fair elections, access to non-censored media and freedom from governmental interference or surveillance in the private sphere. Yet, because of the domestic problems each country faces in dealing with economic development, national security and internal insurgencies, we can still identify authoritarian elements within these “Asian style democracies”.

Clearly, today there is no such thing as “pure” Democracy: the unique features that characterize different countries and historical situations inevitably shape the structure and the actions of the government. Therefore, while all liberal democracies have free and fair elections and are characterized by the rule of the majority, in the 21st century we have various examples of different types of democratic governments.

Republic

While the word “Democracy” derives from ancient Greek, the term “Republic” is the combination of two Latin words: “res” which means “thing” and “publica” which means “public”. Therefore, a Republic is “a public thing (law)”.

Today, a Republic is a form of government ruled by the representatives freely elected by the people. Once elected, the representatives (generally headed by the President) can exercise their powers but have to respect the limitations set out in the national Constitutions. In other words, the Republic is a Representative Democracy.

Even though many countries label themselves as “democracies”, in actual practice the majority of modern representative governments are closer to a republic rather than to a democracy. For instance, the United States – proud largest democracy in the world – is, in fact, a Federal Republic. The central government has certain powers but the individual States have a certain degree of autonomy and exercise home rule. Conversely, France is a centralized Republic where districts and provinces have more limited powers.

The two most common types of republic are:

  • Federal Republic: individual states and provinces have some autonomy from the central government. Examples are:
  1. United States;
  2. Argentine Republic;
  3. Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela;
  4. Federal Republic of Germany;
  5. Federal Republic of Nigeria;
  6. Federated States of Micronesia;
  7. Federative Republic of Brazil; and
  8. Argentine Republic.
  • Unitary/Centralized Republic: all departments, individual states and provinces are under the control of the central government. Examples are:
  1. Algeria;
  2. Bolivia;
  3. Cuba;
  4. Ecuador;
  5. Egypt;
  6. Finland;
  7. France;
  8. Ghana;
  9. Greece; and
  10. Italy.

Democracy vs Republic

The main difference between Democracy and Republic lies in the limits of the government and on the impact that such limitations have on the rights of minority groups. In fact, while a “pure” Democracy is based on the “rule of the majority” over the minority, in a Republic a written Constitution protects minorities and allows them to be represented and included in the decision-making process. Even if today there is no pure Democracy and most countries are “Democratic Republics”, we will stick to a purely theoretical level and will analyze the differences between “pure Democracy” and “Republic”. The differences between the two types of government are listed below6.

  • A Democracy is a system of the people and entails the rule of the omnipotent majority over the underrepresented (or not represented at all) minority while a Republic is a form of government in which people freely choose representatives to represent them;
  • In a Democracy the rule of the majority prevails, while in a Republic is the rule of law to prevail;
  • In a Democracy, minorities are underrepresented and overridden by the majority, while in a Republic minorities are (or should be) protected by provisions contained in the Constitution;
  • In a Democracy, sovereignty is held by the entire population, while in a Republic sovereignty is held by the elected representatives (headed by the President) and enforced through the law;
  • In a Democracy, all citizens have equal say in the decision-making process, while in a Republic all citizens have equal say in the election of their representatives;
  • The purest example of Democracy can be traced back to ancient Greece, while today we have several examples of Republics (or Democratic Republics), including the United States, Italy and France;
  • In both cases, individuals enjoy freedom of choice: in a Democracy, such right is provided for by the very nature of the government (all citizens have equal rights and freedoms to participate in the public life), while in a Republic such right is protected by the law;
  • In both cases, freedom of religion is allowed. Yet, in a Democracy, the majority may limit the minorities’ rights in this regard, while in a Republic the Constitution protects freedom of religion; and
  • In both cases, citizens should not be discriminated. However, in a Democracy the majority may end up discriminating the minority, while in a Republic discrimination should be constitutionally prohibited.

Summary

Democracy and Republic are often analyzed in opposition to the authoritarian forms of government. Democracies and Republics are (or should be) based on free and fair elections and see the participation of the entire population. Yet, while both systems entail a high degree of freedom and protection of fundamental rights, they differ on the limitations imposed on the government and on the rights to which minority groups are entitled to. A “pure” Democracy is based on the rule of the majority over the minority; there are no limitations imposed on the government and the sovereignty is held by the entire population. Conversely, in a Republic, citizens elect their representatives who exercise their power within the boundaries set out in the national Constitution.

However, in actual practice, we do not see examples of “pure” Democracy or “pure” Republic, and most countries can be considered Representative Democracies or Democratic Republics.


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4 Comments

  1. A Democracy is fairly easy to define once we make a mental note of an important distinction between two very different ways the term democracy is used in popular discourse. One is the nebulous populist conception of democracy as a “popular-type” of government (how someone like Paris Hilton would define it “democracy you know… like the government that… like… does what the people want”) and of a more precise intellectually honest notion – Democracy as a systematic exercise of power by, or in faithful accordance with, the wishes of the largest number of people in a polity, i.e., Majority Unlimited. Call it Systematic Majoritarianism.

    A Republic, on the other hand, is basically a polity in which the political power that is exercised is somehow limited. In most modern republics, the basis of such a limitation is usually a rational-legal charter known as the Constitution.Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, three of the founding fathers of the United States of America, argued in the ‘Federalist Papers’ that to achieve a genuine structural limitation of power while preserving the functional effectiveness of a republican polity the doctrine of ‘Separation of Powers’ and ‘Universal Inalienable Rights’ is indispensable… both practically and as a matter of principle, i.e. Majority Limited

    you can see the full detailed article on my blog – http://cerebralfrenzy.blogspot.com/2011/09/essential-differences-between-democracy.html

  2. The United States of America is a constitutional republic with laws and not a democracy with mob rule or majority rule . Under the US Constitution an individual’s rights are protected . Were as in a democracy an individual’s rights are determine by the majority . We The People are a free and constitutional republic .

  3. Republic is a way to create workforce for the capitalist industries, and using the people to form contract for the union the centre gov. Has more power than federal democrats. Creating a divide of people having a interest in legal and promoting racism taking taxes uqually and spending on certain social groups called minority, certain countries like… has spent money on specific religion in its budget like islam in the year 2014 on the other side it says it a secular country. Long term effects are high population, poverty and scarcity of natural resources and creating disturbance in whole territory, less climate protection and violtion of gross human rights. A very risky form of government enslaving citizens.

  4. Your ideas are the problem. Writing crap as if you know, your definitions fool many that have come here to look for truth and you pass on a cancer. Cheers, with non-americans such as yourself passing themselves off as the intelligent. We are in trouble. I know this maybe hard for you to grasp, but political ideas and policy work in reverse. People that have critical thinking understand this, Ill give you an example. When the rights of the individual are protected which is what The Republic stands for….you end up protecting the rights of the masses. Democracy is the opposite protecting the masses, this destroys the individual and in turn that destroys the masses shortly after. Democracy has always failed. If people like the whom wrote this article keep spreading their misguided understanding of how things work and do not promote critical thinking….. Well look whats happening…nuf said, wake up people! Question everything and be free or question nothing and be told you are free….

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References :


[0]1 Sen, Amartya. "Democracy and social justice." Democracy, Market Economics & Development, an Asian Perspective. Washington: World Bank (2001): 7-24.

[1]2 Dahl, Robert Alan. Polyarchy: Participation and opposition. Yale University Press, 1973.

[2]3 Zakaria, Fareed. "The rise of illiberal democracy." Foreign affairs (1997): 22-43.

[3]4 Schmitter, Philippe C., and Terry Lynn Karl. "What democracy is... and is not." Journal of democracy 2.3 (1991): 75-88.

[4]5 Neher, Clark D. "Asian style democracy." Asian Survey 34.11 (1994): 949-961.

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