August 29, 2019 | Reading Time: 2 minutes

‘Republic,’ ‘democracy,’ and ‘liberal democracy’

The Times’ Jamelle Bouie debunked the whole “we’re a republic, not a democracy thing.” For those unfamiliar with it, this is a tired trope that racists (for the most part) roll out to justify minority rule (think voter suppression). Bouie writes that while the founders were skeptical of direct democracy, they nevertheless aimed to create…

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The Times’ Jamelle Bouie debunked the whole “we’re a republic, not a democracy thing.” For those unfamiliar with it, this is a tired trope that racists (for the most part) roll out to justify minority rule (think voter suppression). Bouie writes that while the founders were skeptical of direct democracy, they nevertheless aimed to create a government that was representative as well as majoritarian.

There’s no difference between “republic” and “democracy” in today’s America. They are one. Those insisting they are two don’t have in mind either. Apartheid (or feudalism) is their real goal. Bouie:

The point of the slogan isn’t to describe who we are, but to claim and co-opt the founding for right-wing politics — to naturalize political inequality and make it the proper order of things. 

This puts me in the mind of how we usually use the word “democracy.” Liberals tend to think of it as synonymous with liberalism, but they really are not the same thing. I mean, Turkey is a democracy, but it’s autocratic. Same with the Philippines. Same with Russia. Same with a host of countries.

If democracy means popular sovereignty with members of the political community being ostensible “equal,” that could fit any number of regimes, some of which we’d never call democratic, like Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. Democracies, in other words, can be terrible horrible no good very bad.

With respect to Donald Trump, I think what we’re really taking about isn’t democracy. When we say the president is a threat to democracy, democratic norms, democratic values, etc., what we’re really saying is that he’s a threat to liberal democracy, liberal democratic norms, liberal democratic values, etc.

This is important to bear in mind, as voter suppression and conservative jurisprudence are being used to create an illiberal democracy in America—i.e., minority rule. So far both tactics are unpopular to a degree that suggests love of liberal democracy remains strong. It’s just not in charge at the moment.

—JS

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

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