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Democratic and Republican Government

By James H. Nolt

Contrary to what the title might suggest, this article is not primarily about the two main U.S. political parties, but about what their names mean in political theory. It is common today to conflate republican and democratic forms of government. One such example can be found in an otherwise excellent book by Akhil Reed Amar’s America’s Constitution: A Biography: “Article IV guaranteed every state a ‘Republican Form of Government’—that is, a government ultimately derived from the people, as opposed to an aristocracy or monarchy. (The word ‘republican’ came from the same etymological roots—publica, poplicus—as the pivotal Preamble word ‘people,’ whose Greek counterpart, demos, in turn underlay the word ‘democracy.’” Even Amar, a first-rate scholar, cannot tell the difference between democracies and republics.

The reason why goes to the heart of the difference between liberals like Amar and political economists like me. Amar has a legalistic understanding of the term “constitution” as a body of law. But ancient theorists, most notably Aristotle, distinguished types of constitutions on broader terms than just the form of the laws. Aristotle’s notion is closer to the modern terms “political system” or even “political-economic system,” rather than the way “constitution” is typically used today. The American founders, like many other 18th-century Western political theorists, still understood these terms the way Aristotle did.

Aristotle distinguished six forms of constitution, not based so much on laws but on who ruled and in whose interest. Amar echoes one dimension of Aristotle’s categories in the quote above: He contrasts democracy with aristocracy or monarchy. Indeed, Aristotle distinguished these three forms based on whether the rulers were many (democracy), few (aristocracy), or one (monarchy). But, like most modern liberals, Amar ignores Aristotle’s other dimension. Aristotle’s other dimension is whether the “constitution”—we would say political system—is virtuous or corrupt.

The reason Amar’s account is particularly confusing is that he mixes up Aristotle’s categories. Democracy is a corrupt form for Aristotle. The virtuous form of democracy is a republic. Thus, his six forms are virtuous (republic, aristocracy, monarchy) or corrupt (democracy, oligarchy, tyranny). Each is also distinguished by whether the rulers are many, few, or one. Plato used the term “republic” similarly, as a virtuous or ideal form of rule by the many. The distinction between virtuous and corrupt was for Aristotle the difference between rule in the “public interest” versus self-interested rule. Furthermore, Aristotle clarified that “the many” are the poor and “the few” are the rich. Therefore, oligarchy is rule by the rich according to their own selfish interest and democracy is rule by the poor in their selfish interest. At Aristotle’s time, most Greek city-states were polarized between democratic and oligarchic parties, as Thucydides emphasizes throughout his History of the Peloponnesian War. James Madison was explicit in Federalist Papers #10 that the U.S. Constitution was designed to create not a corrupt democracy, but a virtuous republic, with rule by the many in the broader public interest. Likewise, Article IV of the Constitution requires states to have republican governments.

Modern political discourse has largely lost this crucial distinction between virtuous and corrupt political forms that intrigued political theorists from the ancient Greeks through the early modern period to the American founders. Until the last century and a half, nearly all the great political theorists struggled with these distinctions. Even classical Chinese political thought includes a version of the distinction between corrupt and virtuous forms of rule. Modern political discourse has short-circuited this discussion.

As I have argued in previous articles, modern conservatism largely replaces the traditional view of a virtuous republic with the myth of a “virtuous” market economy. What we have today is a preponderance of self-interested private power, not an egalitarian market. As Aristotle also understood, the distribution of property matters. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other founders of the Republican Party (which, confusingly, had morphed into the Democratic Party by the 1820s as the popular associations of “democracy” evolved) were opposed to the formation of national banks, for instance, because they believed (correctly) that this would lead to a concentration of private power and a new form of oligarchy. They preferred a more equal distribution of private power based on widely distributed land ownership (and, unfortunately, slavery) so that “the many” constituting the virtuous republic would be independent and largely self-sufficient farmers. In an idealized Jeffersonian world, market relations among approximate equals would be virtuous in the classical sense.

Yet by the end of the 19th century, not only in the U.S., but in all the industrial countries, a small and immensely rich oligarchy dominated the economy through interlocking financial-industrial conglomerates. In Europe, the Marxist-influenced labor movement replaced traditional notions of virtue with class-based mass parties: socialist or social-democrat. These movements assumed all political forms must be corrupt unless or until the majority class—the poor workers or proletariat—could dominate in its own class interest and finally institute a virtuous post-class society. The propertied classes formed countervailing mass parties, whether labelled liberal, Christian democrat, peasant, etc. Class politics, explicitly self-interested, seemed to replace the traditional idea of virtuous republican government, except in the U.S.

Both major American political parties continued to represent themselves as public-spirited representatives of a virtuous democratic republic, but these latter two terms became increasingly interchangeable. There were enduring policy differences between the two parties around questions such as the tariff and credit/monetary policy, but both claimed, in traditional republican fashion, that their favored policies were in the universal public interest. Yet whichever party ruled, business continued to concentrate and dominated the economy largely unchallenged. It was increasingly far from the Jeffersonian ideal of economically self-sufficient and independent citizens capable of virtuous self-government. Instead, private power has become enormously centralized.

The modern American liberalism of the Democratic Party, somewhat different than the European bourgeois version, emerged during the New Deal after the catastrophe of the Great Depression made it obvious to all that a capitalist economy is not inherently stable and virtuous. Departing from its roots in Jeffersonian political economy, the role of government was to regulate a chaotic market, but not challenge its fundamental forms and distributions of property. Government grew large in part as a “countervailing force,” in the words of John Kenneth Galbraith, to the overweening private power of business.

Modern conservatism, expressed in the U.S. in the Republican Party, took up the Jeffersonian idea of individual liberty, while completely ignoring the absence of its economic context and pre-requisite: self-sufficient producers. Worldwide, property ownership is shrinking and concentrating. The declining middle class still owns its own houses or apartments in much of the world, but this is not productive property. Productive resources are largely centralized in corporations.

Thus, whether we even have a possibility of democracy, in the Aristotelian sense, depends on whether we can sustain a public interest that transcends the self-interested greed of capitalism, and whether public interests might still prevail against self-interested politics corrupted by money. Conservatism largely rejects this formulation because its supposes that virtuous rule by “the market” is already close to perfect, so any influence of the public interest through the democratic political process is necessarily corrupt. It seems that the Republican Party (and like-minded conservatives abroad) has virtually abandoned commitment to republican government, preferring rule by private power idealized as “the market.” Ironically, if we were to read Article IV according to the original intent of its authors (something many conservatives advocate), the Supreme Court might have to rule many state governments as unconstitutional insofar as they lack republican virtue.



James H. Nolt is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at New York University.

[Photo courtesy of Pixabay]


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