Ian Reifowitz, SUNY-Empire State College – Republic or Democracy?

On SUNY Distinguished Professor Week:  Is the United States a republic or a democracy, and why does it matter?

Ian Reifowitz, SUNY distinguished professor of history at SUNY Empire State College, breaks this question down.

Ian Reifowitz is a SUNY Distinguished Professor, and has taught history at SUNY-Empire State College since 2002.

Additionally, Ian is the author of three books: The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump, Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity, and Imagining an Austrian Nation: Joseph Samuel Bloch and the Search for a Multiethnic Austrian Identity, 1846–1919.

His articles have also appeared in the Daily News, Newsday, the New Republic, In These Times, and the Post-Star among other outlets. He has published a number of academic articles, most recently in The Forum: A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics.

Republic or Democracy?

On the right, many have argued that the U.S. is a republic, not a democracy. Let’s call this radical idea RNAD for short. It might seem like an academic or esoteric distinction, but it’s used to justify the some very anti-democratic actions.

As Cornell historian Lawrence Glickman noted, “RNAD has a long genealogy on the American right.” The ultra-conservative John Birch Society spouted this kind of anti-democracy rhetoric, as did those who opposed FDR’s New Deal.

In the English-speaking world, a republic has long meant one thing above all else: not a monarchy. A republic is a country where the government claims to derive its power not from a monarch, but from the people. That’s it. Some republics are democracies, and some are not. The Soviet Union was a republic—that’s what the “R” stands for in USSR.

So why go through the rigamorale of twisting words like republic and democracy into something they don’t mean? Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times broke it down beautifully:

“The point isn’t to describe who we are, but to claim and co-opt [America’s] founding for right-wing politics—to naturalize political inequality and make it the proper order of things. What lies behind that quip…is an impulse against democratic representation.”

Democracy cannot survive if one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election: Either they win or they were cheated.

Today, these extremists use RNAD and other arguments to justify simply not accepting the results of elections, as we saw with the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. Too many of them don’t believe we should be a democracy at all. And if enough manage to get into office, they’ll be in a position to turn their nightmarish dream into our reality.