Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Is the U.S. a democracy?

A "vote here" sign is seen at the Danville Area Community Center which serves as the polling place for Danville's Second Ward in Montour County. Pennsylvania's primary election is being held on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A "vote here" sign is seen at the Danville Area Community Center which serves as the polling place for Danville's Second Ward in Montour County. Pennsylvania's primary election is being held on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

For decades some conservative scholars and politicians have asserted the United States is a constitutional republic, not a democracy. So which one is it?

Today, On Point: Is the U.S. a democracy?


Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling professor of law and political science at Yale University. Author of “The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840.”

Edward Miller, professor of political history at Northeastern University.

Adam Brandon, President of FreedomWorks. Author of “Republic, Not a Democracy: How to Restore Sanity in America.”

Also Featured

George Thomas, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Eugene Volokh, professor of law at UCLA.

Heather Hendershot, professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.


Part I

SCOTT: Hi, this is Scott in Pittsburgh. During a recent Jackpod, my ears perked up when Meghna mentioned an interest in talking about the increasingly common argument that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. Now there’s a news hook. Look at the resolutions passed by the recent Republican State Convention in Washington.

This is a silly debate that I’ve thought about a lot because I overthink everything.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Okay. First of all, let that be proof that we actually listen to all the feedback that On Point listeners give us, and Scott, we may or may not know exactly what you mean by being chronic overthinkers. And second, for those of you who don’t know, Scott was referring to the Jackpod.

That is our special and truly excellent weekly conversation with Jack Beatty, On Point’s news analyst, where he provides some very special and singular analysis on politics and literature only in the way Jack can, and it’s only in our On Point podcast feed. So if you haven’t already subscribed to that, do.

The On Point podcast feed and you will definitely be able to hear Jack Beatty every Friday in the Jackpod that way. And third, Scott’s right. I did mention in the Jackpod a couple of weeks ago that maybe we should do a show about whether the United States is a constitutional democracy or not. Actually, I should turn that around.

Whether the United States is a constitutional republic or a democracy. I don’t want to get my terms wrong here. And fourth, Scott packed a lot into his little voice message to us. When Scott mentioned Washington State, he was talking about this.

SHANNON BEDDO: Good afternoon, Washington State Republicans! (CHEERS) Thank you all so much for coming here today.

We are truly part of a historic convention. And I am so excited to be able to give you —

CHAKRABARTI: Two weeks ago at the Washington State GOP 2024 convention in Spokane, delegates debated the usual. Party platform, candidates, taxes, etc. And then one delegate walked up to the microphone and spoke out against democracy itself.

BEDDO: My name is Shannon Beddo. I’m with Kitsap County. I do think we should repeal the 17th Amendment. Madison said, democracies are as short in their lives as they are violent in their deaths. We do not want to be a democracy. The more and the more diverse ways that power is divided, the more secure are our liberties.

BEDDO: Originally, congressmen were elected by a direct democracy. Senators were elected by their state legislatures and presidents are elected by the electoral college. We are devolving into a democracy because now congressmen and senators are elected by the same pool, a direct democracy, and with the national popular vote coming, we’re gonna be electing our president by a direct democracy, too. Bad idea.

Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: So once again, that was Shannon Beddo with the Kitsap County GOP in Washington State. She was talking about the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1913, which gives the people the right to elect their U.S. Senators directly, rather than legislatures picking senators. Now, the Washington State GOP also considered another resolution calling on Republicans to stop using the word democracy altogether, saying, quote, Our nation is intended to be a republic, not a democracy, end quote. And that the Republican Party should, quote, oppose legislation, which makes our nation more democratic in nature.

End quote. And when each resolution came up for a vote.

Okay, all in favor of passing the resolution signify by raising your hand, opposed raise your hand. Motion carries. (APPLAUSE)

CHAKRABARTI: So the Washington State GOP is just the latest state party to express some doubts about what we conventionally consider democracy. At the Indiana Republican State Convention back in 2022, delegates voted to strip the word democracy from the party’s platform altogether, replacing it with republic.

Then, there’s also Dan Cox, who ran as the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Maryland’s 2022 race.

DAN COX: As governor, I can’t change law. That’s the legislature. That’s the beautiful thing about our constitutional republic.

CHAKRABARTI: And here’s Fox’s Sean Hannity, ahead of the 2018 midterms.

SEAN HANNITY: Our rights and future as a constitutional republic are at stake.

CHAKRABARTI: Perhaps the most eloquent advocate of seeing the U.S. as a constitutional republic and not a democracy is Utah Senator Mike Lee. He’s written extensively and often about this, and back in 2022 he published an op ed titled, Of Course We’re Not a Democracy. He’s also tweeted similarly many times. That position is also held by the current speaker of the House of Representatives.

Here’s Mike Johnson talking about the American system of government in an interview during his first congressional race back in 2016.

MIKE JOHNSON: So we set up this system called a constitutional republic. We don’t live in a democracy. because a democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what’s for dinner.

Okay. It’s not just majority rule. It’s a constitutional republic and the founders set that up because they followed the biblical admonition on what a civil society is supposed to look like.

CHAKRABARTI: Speaker Mike Johnson back in 2016. So okay, today we’re going to do it. We’re going to take this head on. What is the difference between a democracy and a constitutional republic?

Which one is the United States? And shocker, if we’re both, why does this distinction matter? to some people, more and more each year. So today we’re going to start off with Akhil Reed Amar. He’s the Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University. One of the nation’s foremost constitutional law scholars and author most recently of The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760 to 1840.

Professor Amar, it is a delight to have you back on the show.

AKHIL REED AMAR: It’s always good to be with you. Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I did a quick word search in the Constitution itself. And in fact, I think the words republic and democracy barely, if ever, appear in the actual text of the Constitution. How would you define which one the United States is?

AMAR: It’s both. They’re pretty synonymous, and I’m perfectly comfortable calling it a constitutional democracy. So it is important to understand that whether we say Republic or democracy, potato. These big concepts are defined by specific rules and principles in our constitution itself.

Now, the word Republic does appear prominently or cognate in Article 4 of the Constitution, which guarantees to each state a Republican form of government. But what I and most scholars who have looked very carefully at the issue believe is that a Republican form of government and a democracy are roughly synonymous.

If I could just give you one person who I quote pretty prominently in my latest book and in other work, this is John Marshall. He’s going to be the greatest chief justice in American history. He was an important founder. He was there at Valley Forge along with Hamilton and Washington as in Washington state.

Here’s what he says in the Virginia ratifying convention. This is the group deciding whether to say yes to the constitution.

Here’s a quote, “Supporters of the constitution claim the side of being firm friends of the liberty and the rights of mankind. We consider it the best means of protecting liberty. We, sir, idolize democracy. We prefer this system to any monarchy because we are convinced it has a greater tendency to secure our liberty and promote our happiness. We admire it because we think it a well-regulated democracy. We contend for a well-regulated democracy.” So that’s John Marshall. Now, we heard actually someone invoke Madison and we’re both going to talk a lot about Madison.

Madison himself actually uses the words interchangeably over the course of his lifetime. The words republic and democracy. I’ll give you one other important founder since we’re hearing lots of appeals to the founders, and I love it. I’m very, I’m into the founders having written several books on this.

So the world is finally coming around to my obsessions as well. So here’s James Wilson. James Wilson is a man who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He’s one of just six people who did both. Ben Franklin was another, Washington, George Washington is going to make him one of the first five associate justices on the Supreme Court. By acclamation, he’s probably considered the most impressive lawyer in America.

He plays a big role in framing the Constitution. Here’s what he says in defending the Constitution in the ratification period. This is in Pennsylvania. “All authority of every kind is derived from representation of the people, from the people, and the democratic principle is carried into every part of the government.”

So he’s really proud of the idea of democracy and it could be, and he says, look, it’s a representative democracy, it’s a constitutional democracy, but he wears the label proudly. So does John Marshall. So at times does James Madison and the party that Madison and Jefferson will later found, alternatingly calls itself the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the Democratic Republicans, potato.

CHAKRABARTI: So it seems here that often times when this debate can devolve down to just, the strict definition of democracy in the ancient Greek sense, right? That everyone gathers together and raises their hand in a true, majoritarian style rule. And as you very clearly laid out their Professor Amar, that’s not at all what anybody’s talking about, except for perhaps maybe in small towns in New England that still have town meeting. But on the Republican side, in terms of crude definition, Republic side, is it where the founders looking to think of, I don’t know, the Roman Republic.

AMAR: So they do talk about the Roman Republic.

They talk about Greek democracies. They admit that the representation principle is very important. But let’s think about, juries vote rather directly. You mentioned New England town meetings and the New Englanders are very proud of their town meetings. Later on in America, especially in the Western States, we’re going to have various forms of plebiscites, initiatives, referenda and the like. Here’s again James Wilson to repeat maybe America’s greatest lawyer and most significant.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Amar, I didn’t want to cut you off in the middle of your quote of Wilson, because we just have a few seconds. We have to take a quick break. I’ll let you pick it up when we come back and we’ll try to further understand how America is both a constitutional republic and a democracy or a constitutional democracy overall.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Amar, I had to cut you off when you were going to give us another quote from Wilson, if I remember correctly.

AMAR: Exactly. And since you mentioned the Roman Republic, let’s just remind ourselves of where these two words come from. And then I’ll give you the Wilson quote, a Republic comes from Latin. It two words, race publica, race means thing. So publica, the people, or the public, the people’s thing.

That’s a republic. Democracy is rooted in the Greek, Demos, Kratia or Kratos. It’s ruled by the people. So you see even in their etymology, they’re pretty similar. The people’s thing ruled by the people. Here’s how James Wilson actually describes both of these concepts, he says here’s the key idea.

Quote, “Whether we call it a republic or democracy,” quote, “The people at large, retain the supreme power and act either collectively or by representation.” So you can have a representative republic or a representative democracy. And there are many advantages of the representative principle. And this is a big theme of Madison’s in the Federalist number 10.

And I suspect we’re going to hear more about the Federalist number 10 in the conversation to come.

CHAKRABARTI: So Professor Amar, here’s what I’d like to do, because the terms once clarified, make this debate almost seem moot, but it’s not, obviously, because it’s clearly a matter of passionate debate now, and I think it has a lot to do with the kind of government that the founders were trying to create.

Because as you very clearly laid out, it was a government of the people. There’s no question about that. But how that governance would actually take place is another matter. Because again, in the late 18th century, we were looking at a bunch of folks who soundly rejected monarchism, right?

They were not going to go down the path above of the rule of a select few. But the question was, does of the people mean simply majoritarian rule, because that would indicate the majority of the people. Or a kind of government that protects against majoritarianism and therefore protects the rule of the minority, not the rule, but the rights of the minority.

And I guess the truth is the founders tried to come up with something that combined the two.

AMAR: They did, but let’s remember that every branch of government derives directly or indirectly from the people. There’s no hereditary principle whatsoever. There’s no hereditary king, as in Britain. There’s no hereditary house of lords, as in Britain.

So now we’re just talking about different forms of popular government, how direct or indirect, how filtered, how representative or not. In the earlier quote from the Washington state convention, Madison was invoked, and the indirect election of the Senate was mentioned, that the founding state legislatures pick senators.

They weren’t directly elected by the voters. Now, the irony of course, is that James Madison himself, at the Philadelphia Convention, wanted direct election of senators. He lost on that, but Madison himself had no quarrel with direct election. Let’s remember that the Constitution itself was put to a special kind of vote.

Yes, in a special convention, in a representative assembly, but it was put to a vote. It begins with the words, We the people, it promises that every two years ordinary people are going to be able to pick their member of Congress in the House of Representatives. That was not true under the earlier Articles of Confederation.

So the Constitution is actually moving toward more powers of ordinary people than was true in Britain, than was true under the Articles of Confederation. So now we’re just talking about exactly how we blend and temper and implement this basic idea, which the first three words, the Constitution, and they’re really important.

We the people. And to repeat, the thing was actually put to a vote. That sentence, We, the people is actually describing what they did. We, the people do ordain and establish this constitution. They actually voted for it and in a process in which more people were allowed to participate than had ever been allowed to participate in anything in the history of planet earth.

We, the people, indeed, in actual fact. And all of the framers believed in that, even the opponents of the constitution. So now we’re just talking about exactly how we cash it out, but you’re right. The debate is heated today. And here’s my take on why. Two points. One, the Republican party likes the word Republican, so they tend to emphasize that at the expense of the other party, the Democratic party.

And two, in several of many of the past elections, recent elections, Democrats have actually won a national popular vote majority for the president, but have lost the electoral college, at least, Bush in 2000. And Trump in 2016. So that’s put them a little bit on their heels.

Republicans on the defensive that they lose the popular vote, but have won the electoral college. Now they played by the rules fair and square. The rules are the electoral college. So I’m not quarreling with the results of that, but I’m trying to tell you, here’s why I think we’re seeing some of these debates right now.

CHAKRABARTI: So Professor Amar, hang on for just a second because then you’ve allowed me to segue quite nicely to our next voice, because when these debates over whether the United States is a constitutional republic or a democracy tend to come up at particular points in U.S. history. So Edward Miller is with us here in the studio.

He’s a professor of political history at Northeastern University. Professor Miller, welcome.

EDWARD MILLER: Oh, it’s a great pleasure to be here. Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: So let’s jump forward in time. You wanna take us to the New Deal? Why?

MILLER: Franklin Delano Roosevelt argued that the new deal was essential to keep democracy alive.

Critics countered that the United States was a republic, not a democracy. They said FDR was undermining the republic’s system of checks and balances. A hallmark of Republicanism, small r republics, these critics suggested, curbed the will of the masses. Critics believed FDR was adopting totalitarian techniques and that the New Deal threatened the republic’s foundations, which were built on property rights, free enterprise, and individual freedoms, indeed, as the historian Matthew Dallek argues, when the far right used the phrase, a republic, not a democracy, they meant that certain groups, white men in particular, were meant to rule. And it suggested that a republic was preferable because it would protect and maintain the country’s traditional white, male, heterosexual character.

FDR’s critics believed that America, as it became more diverse, that a republic would protect unregulated capitalism. And then as World War II approached, this debate even intensifies further, particularly among members of the America First Committee, such as John Flynn, Garrett, and Clarence Manion, who reflected on World War I.

They believe that the war to end democracy, as Woodrow Wilson called it, had failed to secure global democracy.

CHAKRABARTI: The First World War, just to be clear.

MILLER: The First World War. Something that Wilson promised. And their views were reinforced by the 1934 and 1935 findings of the Nye Committee, which attributed U.S. involvement in the war to New York bankers and the armaments industry. It was a conspiratorial assertion that was false. Garet Garrett, writing for the Saturday Evening Post, argued that the New Deal revolutionaries, as he called them, were covertly transforming the republic into a democracy.

He called it a revolution within the form. And that’s where it reaches its crescendo with the Roosevelt administration. And–

CHAKRABARTI: So what is the pattern then that you’re seeing?

MILLER: I’m seeing a pattern here when Issues of race come up. Issues of civil rights come up. There is a response from the right to use the argument that we are a republic.

That’s generally how I’m seeing this. When America is becoming more heterogeneous you have the Black soldiers coming back from the war demanding a double victory, and the far right is arguing that we are a republic. To stifle that they make that case.

CHAKRABARTI: So I actually have a rebuttal to that, but I’ll save it for a little bit later.

What about moving forward, … So you talked about the First World War, the second World War, this pattern, as far as I understand, also even extends into the Cold War.

MILLER: Absolutely. Absolutely. H.L. Hunt who was then the world’s richest man. Along with the other three, three big Texas oil men, he supplied 25% of the allies’ oil during World War II.

He began to enter conservative or ultra conservative politics. And what he did was he created a media empire. It was called Facts Forum. It included discussion groups, a newsletter, and a 15-minute radio commentary show hosted by Dan Smoot. Now, Dan Smoot is known for his unemotional delivery. He once said on the air, and this is the fascinating impact of Hunt’s relationship on Dan Smoot.

He once said on the air that the American democracy is the political result of Jesus, is Jesus Christ’s teachings. And that quote, Christianity was crucial to our democracy’s development. Now, Hunt was apoplectic. By Smoot’s statement. He was absolutely furious. He insisted that America was a republic, not a democracy.

And in 1952, Hunt argued that democracy was created by the devil.

CHAKRABARTI: Democracy was created by the devil. Okay, so this is interesting because I think one of the best known broadcast utterances from that period of the United States being a republic, not a democracy, came from Smoot himself.


CHAKRABARTI: Yes. So with that thought actually we spoke with Heather Hendershot, who’s a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, and she had a lot to say about this because she too has written extensively about Dan Smoot.

HEATHER HENDERSHOT: Dan Smoot had been in the FBI in the fifties, and he thought that they weren’t doing a good enough job getting the communists out of the federal government, which is amazing. When you look back on the cold war and the attack on communists, and he thought they weren’t hard line enough. So he left to pursue a career with, initially with H.L. Hunt, a Texas oil billionaire who was funding a lot of right-wing broadcasting.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so that’s exactly what you said about Smoot and Hunt. But apparently Smoot went on to actually start his own show after parting ways with Hunt. And Hendershot told us that Smoot’s audience grew very quickly to a peak of around 17 million in 1966. Here’s part of one of his broadcasts that year.

BROADCAST: The writers of the Constitution were anxious to safeguard liberty. against dictatorship, monarchy, they called it. But their chief anxiety was to protect the country against democracy.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so Hendershot says that Smoot was a very big supporter, ardent supporter of states rights, and that his opposition to direct democracy was tied to his opposition of expanding voting rights.

HENDERSHOT: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and implicitly the Supreme Court decision of 54 for Brown v. Board of Education as a kind of kickoff point for anxiety about people increasing their rights in the society. He felt it was lawful for the states, as per the 10th amendment, for them to come up with their criterion for who would be allowed to vote and basically qualify voters to vote. And if an individual state said you needed a literacy test or a poll tax or going back to the Constitution, being a landowner to vote, then he felt that was totally legitimate in a democracy.

SMOOT: If a majority should develop hatred for all blue-eyed babies and order them eliminated, the babies could be legally executed because whatever a majority wants at any given moment.

His supreme law of the land in a democracy. How can liberty be safeguarded against the mindless, soulless tyranny of majority rule?

HENDERSHOT: Democracy, sometimes he called it mobocracy, the idea that if we had a popular election of the president, for example, instead of the electoral college, he said that all of the welfare recipients in the cities would be voting in mass and would take over.

And amazingly, he’s using a sort of dog whistle there instead of being overt. He means people of color in the cities, but he would say welfare people, the big cities, and they could outvote everyone in Montana and Nevada. So true democracy would be a mobocracy and would destroy our beautiful republic as it was intended to be.

SMOOT: A democracy always degenerates into dictatorship, which promises government guaranteed equality and security, but it delivers nothing but poverty and serfdom for the people it robs and rules. America was founded as a constitutional republic. To safeguard the liberties of the people against the tyranny of democracy or of one man dictatorship.

CHAKRABARTI: So that was Dan Smoot from one of his late 1960s broadcasts. And you also heard Heather Hendershot, Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. She’s author of some really interesting books, including What’s Fair on the Air: Cold War Right Wing Broadcasting. And more recently she’s author of a book about broadcasting and the Democratic Party.

It’s called When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America. Professor Miller, we’ve got about a minute or so to go before we have to take another break here, but your thoughts on how these themes, in terms of around voting and the expansion of the circle of we the people, is one of the things that seems to trigger the debate of today.

MILLER: Yes, I think the timing is very important. Because Smoot is speaking in 1966 now in 1964. First of all, I’ll take a step back and in 1954, you have Brown v. Board of Education. In 1964, you have the Civil Rights Act. And in 1965, you have the Voting Rights Act. And I think it’s a direct response to the expansion of the suffrage to African Americans, who in Mississippi, prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1964, were just not able to vote.

This article was originally published on

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit