What is the difference between a Republic and a Representative Democracy?

Are these the same thing and merely an issue of semantics, or is there a functional difference?

  • 2
    Is there a particular reason you think they are describing the same thing? There are examples of representative democracies that aren't republics (Japan, the UK) and some countries which describe themselves as republics which aren't particularly democratic.
    – origimbo
    Jun 28 '16 at 21:39

A republic is a system of government ruled by "the people" via election instead of having a monarchy. In the real world however not all republics are elective. Many of the Middle East's republics, for instance, are/were ruled by a president-for-life who often groomed their son for leadership. Both the republics and kingdoms of the Arab world are ruled by a leader until they die. One way of looking at it is that a republic is just not officially a monarchy. With a republic there has to be the pretence of some sort of democracy. Even North Korea is the "People's Democratic Republic" and holds elections.

Democracy does not require a republic, though a republic is a form of democracy. Britain has been a constitutional monarchy for centuries, which has a democratic parliament. The monarch has limited executive power which is rarely exercised, and even then they as individuals are separated from the crown as an institution. Power is deferred to parliament with the monarch's consent after elections.

In some American political discourse "republic" has been given an odd meaning. I'm not sure if that's where you're approaching the question from, but I'll cover it to be sure; some Americans say "America is a republic, not a democracy" which is absurd, because it doesn't make any sense. America is both a republic and a representative democracy. A republic is a democracy. Whether that's fake or genuine democracy, representative or direct, is another question.

It's also important to point out that republicanism and constitutionalism are not the same. Israel is a republic, and yet like Britain does not have a codified constitution (like America's). That doesn't mean that either lacks rule of law, either de jure or de facto.

Whether a nation is a republic or has a constitution is besides the point. What makes or breaks society is the independence of its public institutions, the formal separation of powers is irrelevant. The suggestion that a republic's codified constitution somehow makes it less open to abuse is not proven, other factors are more important. Russia is an interesting example, which is a constitutional republic... and yet a "mafia state". Even so, Putin was keen to be constitutional, opting to let Medvedev hold the presidency. This conformed to the constitution's requirement that no president should serve for more than two consecutive terms.

Representative democracy is often differentiated from direct democracy. The former is where the people vote for representatives to govern on their behalf. Direct democracy is somewhere along a spectrum between having representatives who defer to frequent referendums, or having all government decisions decided by referendums. The latter case is highly impractical, but Switzerland has something close enough to it since any given year sees lots of referendums. Enough that "voter fatigue" is sometimes considered an explanation for lower turnout.

Just as a "republic" can be practically anything, so too can a "republican"... in America it means someone of the Republican Party (far right), in Ireland it means someone with sympathies to revolutionary Irish nationalism (far left), and in England it just means someone who'd rather there not be a monarchy. There's not much overlap between them.

  • 1
    @DrunkCynic I don't understand. Your comment isn't intelligible. Republican and otherwise models of democracy both pass and change laws, and the enforcement of those laws ("rule of law") with regards to the establishment of police forces, how corruption is tackled, etc, are a separate issues. Jun 29 '16 at 12:33
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    @DrunkCynic that is just one interpretation of the difference (modern democracies vs, say, polis democracies). Interpreting the question as "Republic vs Parlamentarian monarchies" is valid too, and in those the rule of law is not a factor (unless you claim that there is no rule of law in, say, Norway or Sweden -both of them democracies but neither of them republics-).
    – SJuan76
    Jun 29 '16 at 14:23
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    @DrunkCynic, actually in a representative democracy they'd be electing the head of the department for choosing what's for dinner.
    – origimbo
    Jun 29 '16 at 14:31
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    @DrunkCynic that is a very personal definition of republic, based in an USA-centric document. The common definition of republic is an state where the head of state is democratically elected (see Republic of France vs. Kingdom of Belgium). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republic
    – SJuan76
    Jun 29 '16 at 14:48
  • 2
    "In a democracy, the populace suffers the whims of the majority" This statement claims that (I assume you mean) constitutional republicanism is better than "democracy" (republicanism is a sort of democracy) in terms of protecting individual rights. But it's not, and the American model is no different. Slavery, treatment of native peoples, the mass internment of Japanese Americans during the second world war, were completely unconstitutional and not "strict enforcement of the rule of law". Your statement is not true because it is not demonstrable. Jun 29 '16 at 15:51

The distinction is a very, very fuzzy one. Especially because there are many countries which describes themselves as democracies or republics, but are in practice the other one or are actually neither republics or democracies.

Both describe a government form where the sovereign is the voting population and the government their elected representatives.

The difference is that in a democracy, the sovereign, and by extension their representatives, do not pose any limits on what they can or can't do. A republic, on the other hand, binds itself to a constitution which puts restraints on what laws they can make. For example, a republic might have constitutional laws which prevent itself from discriminating against certain minorities or from restricting certain basic liberties. What makes this distinction fuzzy is that a republic usually gives itself the power to change their own constitution and thus alter the rules which limit themselves.

A democracy usually has the concept of parliamentary sovereignty, which explicitly puts the elected parliament over all non-elected state organs. But in a republic, the different state organs are explicitly put on the same level. Although the parliament might decide the members of certain organs, that does not give the parliament any authority over them. No organ is explicitly above the others and they control each others through separation of power, checks and balances.

By the way: as an US citizen, please do not mistake these descriptions for the official positions of the US democratic party or the US republican party. The philosophical distinction is not a notable influence on their political positions of today.

  • The specific phrase you're missing is rule of law. Jun 29 '16 at 12:25
  • A very clear and straightforward answer. Thank you.
    – Derek718
    Apr 21 '20 at 15:03

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