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Peter Levine takes on the question “Do we live in a republic or a democracy?”

I am excited to see the latest post on scholar Peter Levine’s blog, which tackles the bewildering question (I’ve found it bewildering, anyway!), Do we live in a republic or a democracy?

My pat answer to that question has been both — the U.S. is a democratic republic or a representative democracy; that in a large country you need some combination of elected representatives and direct citizen voice.  I’ve also said that this is partly a question of semantics and of changing definitions over time.  I’m happy to see I wasn’t far off. 🙂

But Levine has taken the time to answer this question thoroughly, with quotes and details from throughout America’s history. As many of our field consider themselves to be part of a movement towards a more deliberative, engaged democracy (NCDD members have written many books with titles like Democracy in Motion, Slow Democracy, the Tao of Democracy, and the Next Form of Democracy), we’d better be able to channel Peter an perhaps quote Ronald Reagan (see below) when we’re on the receiving end of this question!

Peter begins with a quote from Ronald Reagan:

“You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.”

– President Ronald Reagan, Normandy, June 6, 1984

Here are some pertinent excerpts from this valuable post:

From World War I until recently, leaders of both major political parties routinely claimed that the United States was a democracy. Politicians often called us “the greatest democracy on earth” and asserted that the purpose of both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War had been to defend democracy. The main debate was whether we had attained a democracy or were still struggling to be one, with the strongest skeptics on the left. A perennial argument pitted left critics–who asserted that our domestic and foreign policies were anti-democratic–against conservative defenders of our credentials as a real democracy.

This consensus about goals has broken down because the hard right now says that we were not founded as a democracy and should not be one….

How did this semantic ambiguity arise? The word “democracy” is of Greek origin. It literally means “rule of (or by) the people.” One could hold that the sovereign power in the US is the people–and hence we have a democracy in the etymological sense. Like all old words, however, “democracy” has accumulated resonances beyond its etymological origins. It may invoke the Greek city-states (whether seen as ideals or as disasters) or mass modern societies.

“Republic” comes from the Latin. My Latin dictionary says that “publicus” means “belonging to the people.” Thus “res publica” means the “thing belonging to the people,” whereas “democracy” is the “people’s rule.” If there is a significant difference in the etymological sense of these words, it is the difference between something that the people have (a republic) versus a power they wield (democracy)…

Ultimately, the United States can be called republican and democratic. The two words have interestingly different origins and resonances but are not sharply distinguishable. Nor do we have either a pure republic/democracy. Some limitations on the republic/democratic element are wise, but our current system is flawed by most standards. Although our democratic/republican aspirations are only partly realized, they remain beacons.

Check out the full post at http://peterlevine.ws/?p=12096.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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