Sep 28, 2011

Democracy vs Republic - Essential differences & Speculations on Future Politics of the world: Part 1

Signing of the US Constitution: A great political milestone in Human History
I have, by now, come across enough people innocent of the difference between Democracy and Republicanism to conclude, with justified confidence, that the two terms exist entangled and enmeshed in the political imagination of most ordinary folks.

(What follows is a slightly discursive foray that might help contextualize the crux of the article)

Upon some reflection it does however become obvious that such an obscure and hazy understanding of the finer points of distinction between the two is, in fact, a contingent relic of modern history. It (the confounding of democracy and republicanism with each other) is  a part of the normative 'common sense’ in a period of world history where the dominant form of political organization is supposed to be both - republican and democratic. 

Indeed, except for the odd Kingdoms, Principalities and Emirates almost every polity in the world today officially calls itself a Republic and a majority of those also append Democracy to their formal names for good measure.
Surely, much of that is just political posturing, an attempt to legitimize the status-quo by those who benefit from it. In the Economist Intelligence Units’ Democracy Index, only 26 countries are characterized as Full Democracies and just another 53 as Flawed Democracies… meaning thereby that the rest of them are less democratic than whatever measure of Democratization is conveyed by the adjective Flawed when used to adjectivize the noun Democracy!!!!

It is even more problematic, to categorize a polity in terms of its Republican character as such a characterization would be utterly dependent on how expansively (or narrowly) we conceptualize a Republic. We run the risk of trivialization in attempting to frame it too broadly, say, if any polity governed by limited power is supposed a Republic then it could imply that ALL the polities in the world today are Republics, as even the Kingdoms, Emirates and Principalities are NOT (and CAN not be), as a matter of practice, ruled by unlimited unrestrained absolute power.

In fact, one might add that at least since the times that the human socio-economic-politic organization attained the level of complexity implied by an agricultural society, and most definitely by the time the first Empires emerged, absolute authority of the ruler was only conceptual and in practice several factors did make limitation (by tradition, religion, sharing, delegation etc) of power necessary. Of course, since the issuance of the Magna Carta in 1215, one can discern a historical shift in the direction of explicit limitation of all Monarchical authority. In a meta-narrative of history this will feature in the section on progressive ‘Republicanisation of politics’.

On the other hand in trying to very precisely and strictly determine Republican character of a polity we might be tempted to operationalise the value-contructs of its constitution and compare the deviance of its political affairs form the ‘pith & substance’ of those value-constructs. Evidently, that’ll be a very messy undertaking laden with historical, cultural and hermeneutical landmines all the way.

(Back to the main thesis now)

So what really is the essential difference between a Republic and a Democracy?

Prior to stating what I think of it, I wish to qualify my claim by emphasizing that the difference, so being spoken of, is not so much in the nature of an inherent mutual contradiction between the two as it is like strains, stresses and contingent mutual contradictions that emerge as circumstantial by-products of complex political processes.(More on this later)


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. It is primarily the latter with which one can and should meaningfully engage in an academic analysis, as the former is merely a semantic reference to “popularity” of the ruling dispensation and does not mean anything conceptually. (for instance, even a dictator can be popular or a king can be benevolent or anarchy might be brought about by a ‘direct democracy’). The parliamentary system of representative democracy without any limit to the sovereign power of the parliament, as in Great Britain, is a fairly good (though not exact) example to quote here.


A pure (non-republican) democracy can, due to no more than emotional swings of public mood or fervor of a group aroused in pursuit of self-interest, become indistinguishable from an Ochlocracy or Mobocracy (Historian Edward Gibbons has furnished gruesome tales of episodic Rule by Mobs in ancient Rome. I will also examine the contemporary instances of Rule by Crowd in the second part of this article). Alexis De Tocqueville, the French historian and political thinker, meant something not dissimilar by the popular phrase that he coined in 1800s - ‘Tyranny of the Majority’. Potential tyranny is inherent in a system of Unlimited Rule by an Omnipotent Majority.

Seal of the short-lived Republic of Massachusetts:
the first modern Republic of the World (est 1780)
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. So a genuine republic means, in contemporary political context, a one that is bound by the values of its Constitution. But political thinkers (from antiquity and ever since) have refined and elaborated upon this basic framework to expound certain operative principles, which by  the doctrine of Necessary Implication, must of essence constitute a true republic. 

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. Call it Representative Constituionalism with certain inalienable rights.

The essence of the modern Republic then is embodied by two principles.
  • The Rule of Law (Constitutionalism) including a separation of powers between the judiciary, executive and the legislature.
  • Deemed-fundamental or Deemed-Inalienable Rights.

The foregoing is to say that EVEN if a majority of the citizenry (through direct action or through Factions/Interest Groups) wishes to, it can NOT be an authority unto itself and legitimately do something that violates the Constitution or negates any of the deemed-inalienable Rights. In James Madison’s words “a pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party” while a Republic is built to arrest precisely such a development. A republic is a guarantee against Elected Despotism as much as against Royal Despotism.

In Conclusion

We can, in the light of the above, see that in the public sphere the labels ‘Democracy’ and ‘Republic’ are often (in fact mostly) applied imprecisely incoherently and somewhat misleadingly (often to suit one or the other political agenda). 

Another peculiar thing, peculiar esp. in the context of the discussion above, is the heavy affective cloak of romantic idealism shrouding and shielding Democracy from criticism in spite of such massive structural shortcomings and imminent vulnerabilities to violation of Law and Alienation of rights of individuals and minorities. It continues, in the layman’s’ imagination, to be the ideal polity. The reasons for this, I would argue, are in psychological-history of humanity. Democracy, in most polities anyway, emerged or had to be fought for, against a Dictatorship, Colonial Government or an Imperial despot. In such circumstances, the prospect for people of ruling themselves was a powerful Utopia around which their will to freedom coalesced. The indifference, exploitation and subjugation by the power-wielding entities of the older polities resulted in Idealization (even Sanctification) of Democracy as a value. Democracy became a slogan for emancipation, a chant for political mobilization and a frame-of-reference for liberating mass action.

In a limited but nonetheless very real sense then, Democracy was a great political achievement for Humanity. But ONLY in conjunction with Republican ideals did Democracy lead to the promise of equality, liberty, fraternity and justice FOR ALL. It is for that reason that most polities in the world today aspire to be Democratic Republics! Democracy strengthened the philosophical, moral and conceptual foundations of Republics all over the world and rooted the system of governance in the hopes and aspirations of those governed. The 'Democratic Republic' proved to be an engine of history that led it into an era of unprecedented freedom and dignity for a vast majority of mankind.
But do these great political ideals always operate in a resonant accord with each other? Did Democracy always in the past, does it always in the present and will it always in the future continue to strengthen the Republic? Having been instrumental in realization of deep human longings so far, will Democracy continue to be the political paradigm within which sustainable  and equitable solutions to the many profound global and local challenges of the present and future emerge? Did the international and intra-national axes of Democracy get compromised by the excessive socio-political and intellectual focus on the nation-state axis? How does Democracy philosophically impinge on the notions of National Sovereignty and Territoriality? Can Political democracy co-exist with Social democracy? What circumstances justify forsaking democracy in favor other operating principles?

Can the hegemony of systematic majoritarianism, the dangers of philistine populism, the menace of unyielding parochialism, the threat of paralyzing factionalism and the other inherent-internal contradictions of Democracy be overcome? or will they overwhelm humanity’s political, as indeed, existential future?

These are some of questions that ought to be injected into the discourse, widely publicized and rationally interwoven into the civilizational narrative because at stake is everything!!

I will explore these and other questions in the next part 2.


Asha Negi said...

To me, the notion of Democracy continues to remain hazy. It is either the Utopian Heaven that led the masses in countries like Egypt and Libya to a bloody struggle that is, in all probability, going to put them in a vicious circle of anarchy and newer forms of dictatorship- two of the evils they thought they had free themselves from. (Somehow, I'm reminded of Orwell's Animal Farm here). Or, it is the haughty self-righteousness of the messiahs of reform, who ride on the media-generated publicity to mobilize naive millions into a virtually ephemeral revolution.

Siddharth Kaushal said...

Yes Asha.. it does oscillate between being a vague universalist slogan and a targeted specific political program for change.

The Arab spring was an example of the erotics of this idea.. of its sheer seductive prowess as it morphed into a promise of "freedom" and "dignity" for the "oppressed". Taken this way, Democracy is a conceptual pillar for a constructed narrative of 'victimhood' and it plays an important role in waging a class struggle towards a more egalitarian social order.

But Democracy is inherently anarchic.. no doubt it.. it can(and should) NEVER be the operating criterion in ordinary times.

What disturbs me is frequent usurpation, misappropriation and inauthentic drafting of 'democracy' by all and sundry for their political causes. (like the Anna drama that fed on middle-class's appetite for tele-activism).

in the end, as i will argue in the next part of the article, we need to be faithful to certain principles in making political choices... and not always go by "public sentiment".

Asha Negi said...

The "sheer seductive prowess" of Arab Spring? Yes.

There was this tiny piece of news in last week's issue of The Economist: Malaysia's half-a-century old Internal Security Act that allowed indefinite criminal detention,has been repealed. Although this is a government decision, the excited people now want to compare it with the Jasmine Revolution, and some have gone to the extent of calling it the beginning of a 'Hibiscus Revolution'.
Made me smile :)

durgesh said...

even with its shorcomings and imperfections i believe this (democracy) is the best possible option.( can u suggest smthing better?). do u have anything to say about maturity/readiness of public for democracy to be successful?.

Siddharth Kaushal said...

Ah well Durgesh.. you are right.. Democracy is indeed the best of the worst.

My intention was not so much to advocate for abolishment of democracy as it was to caution about the shortcomings of it.

I think there is no alternative as of now.

But what must be understood and thoroughly well established.. is that popular sentiment, public demonstrations, Media Advocacy and other forms of pressure tactics must NEVER be allowed to compromise the constitution. they are valueble for ensuring accountability... but ultimate allegiance must be to the constitutional values.

special care must be taken to spot the scoundrels who use the name of democracy to trample on republican values.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

Yes, the words of democracy and republic is intertwined. The Renaissance and the so-called 'Enlightenment' changed the meaning of the term 'republic'. Lorenzo Valla and Machiavelli changed the definition of republic to "Any government without a king". That is totally false.

All the ancient republics on Crete, Sparta and Rome were all started under kings. Sparta is a true republic, a politeia, as described by Aristotle, the mix (or combination) between aristocracy and democracy. A Republic is mixed government.

Here is a peer-reviewed paper on a true republic:
"The Spartan Republic"

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...