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STPS: “The US is a republic, not a democracy”

May 2, 2022

Often said in response to some discussion of American democracy, this claim overlooks the fact that nations can be both republics and democracies. Examples include France, Japan, Ireland, and Germany, among quite a few others.

There are democracies that are not republics. Because Denmark’s head of state, Queen Margrethe II, inherited that role, it is not a republic. It is a parliamentary monarchy, where the monarch has a defined and limited role.

Some who make the claim above point to the fact that the US is not a direct democracy. No modern nation is. Modern states are both too populous and too complex for that to work. Not even Iceland is a direct democracy.

The world is full of republics. Inherited power has fallen out of style. Many of those republics are not democratic. Iran is an easy example. It is a constitutional republic. It is not a democracy. Even though the people vote for representatives and president, what Iran lacks are important democratic elements: secular law independent of religion, protected civil rights, open access to standing for office, mechanisms that check the power of the chief executive (Supreme Leader), and much else.

There are several groups that rank nations by how poorly or well they meet a variety of democratic mechanisms, often compiling those into a democracy index. The Democracy Matrix at the University of Würzburg ranks Denmark as the most democratic nation (index, 0.96, a working democracy), while ranking Iran a moderate autocracy (index, 0.25).

It is far more important that a nation is a democracy than that it is a republic. It is quite plausible that the US could become an authoritarian nation like Iran, while staying a republic. And that often seems the goal of those who say it is a republic, not a democracy. The current trend is not promising. The Democracy Matrix counts the US as a “deficient democracy.” IDEA says it is back-sliding. There is reason those who want to save American democracy now see themselves in a fight for that.

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