In the early 1800s, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Marshall, wrote, “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.”
There has been quite a bit of misleading information around on whether America is a democracy or not. The simplest explanation is that the United States is a republic, which is a form of indirect, or representative, democracy. A republic must comply with a constitution that specifically protects the rights of the minority. A direct democracy, on the other hand, is a pure form of majority rule.
To break it down further, imagine that you and nine of your friends are a democracy. It’s a Friday night and the options are to go to the movies or the high school football game. A vote is taken and six pick the game while you and three friends choose the movies. As a democracy, you are forced to go to the game.
In a true democracy, or a direct democracy, the people vote directly on every issue. Most democratic governments in the world today are actually some form of representative democracy, in which the people elect representatives to make laws for them. Some of these are more democratic than others, but because the officials are elected by the people, many just think of them as democracies.
A democracy is a form of government where laws are made by the voting majority, leaving the rights of the minority largely unprotected. But in a republic, laws are made by representatives chosen by the people and they must comply with a constitution that explicitly protects the rights of the minority from the will of the majority. In practice, Americans vote for senators and representatives who stand for them in Congress. Of course, it can be risky to trust these representatives, and the system is based on trust that the elected members of Congress will represent the will of their voters.
Another place the functioning of a republic can be seen in U.S. society is in the Electoral College. A direct democracy would simply elect a president with the popular vote, but the Electoral College system was put in place to protect the rights of smaller states.
The Founding Fathers were clear in the creation of a constitutional republic for the United States. James Madison described the difference most clearly:
“It [the difference] is that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person: in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, must be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.”
A round of letters between Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris also insisted the new nation be a republic rather than a democracy:
“But a representative democracy, where the right of election is well secured and regulated & the exercise of the legislative, executive and judiciary authorities, is vested in select persons, chosen really and not nominally by the people, will in my opinion be most likely to be happy, regular and durable.”
There is no mention of the word “democracy” in the Declaration of Independence nor the U.S. Constitution.