on the original meaning of democracy

We call ourselves a democracy and a republic. There’s a current right-wing talking point that we are only the latter, but I’ve argued that this claim deviates from a long bipartisan consensus that the US aspires to be a democratic republic. But what do these two terms mean?

This definitional question is challenging because the words come, respectively, from Greek and Latin, and they were coined to name specific regimes that had lots of eccentric features (huge juries in Athens; a host of executive officials in Rome) that no one considers definitive. The words have subsequently been used by many writers in many languages to name a wide variety of regimes–and sometimes as terms of abuse.

For instance, a “republic” presumably must name a regime that has something in common with the original, the ancient Roman res publica. One defining feature of the Roman republic was simply that it wasn’t a monarchy. Thus people who want to remove Queen Elizabeth II as the titular monarch of Australia (or Britain) call themselves “republicans.” Their proposal would change virtually nothing about the power structure; it would be almost entirely symbolic. But they have precedent for calling a regime without a monarch a “republic.”

In a very different vein, Jefferson defined a republic “purely and simply” as “government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally, according to rules established by the majority; and … every other government is more or less republican, in proportion as it has in its composition more or less of this ingredient of the direct action of the citizens.” For Jefferson, a “republic” is what others would call a direct and participatory democracy. Yet the original Roman republic was composed of legislative bodies and officers who represented various classes and interests. Some were elected and others were appointed. All were limited by various laws (albeit unstably so). Thus, for some, a republic is a government that avoids direct and participatory democratic elements.

Still other writers have noticed the ancient Roman penchant for civic duty and public service and have used the word “republic” for a regime that demands a great deal from its citizens and that encourages public engagement as a positive good. It is an alternative to the kind of liberalism that favors individual rights. Meanwhile, another tradition takes seriously the etymology–“res publica” means “public thing [or good]”–and translates the phrase as “commonwealth.” A “commonwealth,” in turn, could mean all the things that are commonly owned by the people. And if the people’s wealth extends to the land, then a certain kind of agrarian socialism emerges as the definition of republicanism.

That’s all about “republic,” but I’d like to address the term “democracy,” relying on a fascinating article by Josiah Ober.* Ober notes that if the Greeks had wanted a word that meant rule of the many (or the common people), they would have used pollo- as the suffix prefix. To name a regime in which all rule, they could have used “panocracy.” If they had wanted to emphasize the equality of all, they would have used iso-. For instance, isegoria meant an equal right to participate in deliberations in the agora. But they chose demo-, which refers to the whole people as one, without sociological distinctions.

Meanwhile, if they had wanted to specify who governed, in the sense of casting votes or holding offices, they would have used the suffix -archy. A monarchy has one ruler, an oligarchy has a few, and anarchies have none. The suffix -kratia is different. It does not imply an office or action but rather power, in the sense of capacity or an ability to make things happen.

Thus, in its original form, a democracy is a regime in which the whole population has the power to make things together. By the way, this definition comes close to uses of the word “republic” that emphasize the public’s role in making the res publica. So perhaps “democracy” means “republic” after all.

*Josiah Ober, “The Original Meaning of ‘Democacy’: Capacity to Do Things, Not Majority Rule,” Constellations, vol. 15, no. 1 (2008)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.