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What are the key differences and similarities between republics and democracies?

Here on politics.SE there are a fair number of questions like "Is X a Democracy?" or "Is Y a Republic?". There are also a lot of comments and answers which rely on notions that a republic or democracy are similar or different. (Example: Is the U.S. a democracy now that the President lost the popular vote? and the accepted answer) So what are those differences or similarities?

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    In a Democracy corrupt people elect other corrupt people but in a Republic, it's the other way round – Clint Eastwood Feb 21 '17 at 22:31
  • These answers are all wrong.Republic? Democracy? What’s the Difference? – SoylentGray May 5 '17 at 17:39
  • @SoylentGray - An answer with a new perspective would be interesting, if you want to flesh it out into a full answer. – indigochild May 5 '17 at 18:39
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In one sense a republic is a kind of democracy, while in another sense, it is separate from a democracy

The main difference is that a republic puts legislative authority into representatives, while the rights of the minority are maintained. That is the powers of the representatives are specifically assigned and limited. A democracy is a strict enforcement of the will of the majority, while the minority has only those rights which the majority is willing to allow it.

For example, the electoral college forces a republic type of voting system. A strict democracy would enforce the "popular vote" total over the entire United States. However, the winner takes all system in the individual states is a democracy type of voting system, as the minority gets none of the electoral college votes. Note that Maine and Nebraska distribute the electoral college votes by Congressional district.

Another example is the parliamentary type of system as in Britain. Each party gets the appropriate percentage of seats in parliament. In a pure democracy, all seats would be held by the majority.

There used to be a system in Poland where the king was elected and then served for life with all the prerogatives of a king. This (if the election was of all the citizens) would have been a democracy type of system.Royal elections in Poland

A pure democracy would not (necessarily) have the Bill of Rights as the majority could enforce whatever restrictions on the minority that it desired. .

Note that the definition of democracy below distinguishes the source of the power of the ruler[s] rather than the power of the ruler[s]

Another point is that at any time, it is the 51% of those voting at any individual point in time that would enforce their views. Once that is done, the definition of a "free voting citizen" could be changed.

This could mean that apartheid in South Africa (as an extreme example) could have been voted in by the majority of voting citizens in a democracy.

In ancient Greece, the definition of free voting citizen was restricted, but they were still called democracies.

SOME DICTIONARY DEFINITIONS

Government. ....the government is but an agency of the state, distinguished as it must be in accurate thought from its scheme and machinery of government. ....In a colloquial sense, the United States or its representatives, considered as the prosecutor in a criminal action; as in the phrase, "the government objects to the witness." [Black's Law Dictionary, Fifth Edition, p. 625]

Republican government. One in which the powers of sovereignty are vested in the people and are exercised by the people, either directly, or through representatives chosen by the people, to whom those powers are specially delegated. In re Duncan, 139 U.S. 449, 11 S.Ct. 573, 35 L.Ed. 219; Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 162, 22 L.Ed. 627. [Black's Law Dictionary, Fifth Edition, p. 626]

Democracy. That form of government in which the sovereign power resides in and is exercised by the whole body of free citizens directly or indirectly through a system of representation, as distinguished from a monarchy, aristocracy, or oligarchy. Black's Law Dictionary, Fifth Edition, pp. 388-389.

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    I would note that "The minority only has those privileges granted by the dictatorship of the majority" and related comments only apply when there is a solid majority. If the body in question is made up entirely of several different minorities, then there won't be a consistent "majority" to impose its will. – Bobson Feb 13 '17 at 16:44
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    @Bobson Not necessarily. The 51% majority applies to every individual vote. Thus the 49% minority is regarded for the results of that vote as not counting. If the 51% changes, then the new minority does not count – sabbahillel Feb 13 '17 at 17:01
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    -1. A republic is not inherently democratic. You can have a republic that has 0 aspects of a democracy. For example, representatives in a republic can be chosen by oligarchical means, or by meritocracy. Also a republic does not inherently put legislative authority in representatives, it just puts some generic authority into representatives. It could easily be executive (thats getting close to a parliamentary system) – Reinstate Monica Feb 13 '17 at 17:02
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    @Sentinel If the majority votes for something (51%) then it is defined as the will of the people and the minority has no option. – sabbahillel Feb 21 '17 at 10:22
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    @Sentinel Are you saying that you define democracy as requiring a universal consensus? That is not the way the Greeks ruled. – sabbahillel Feb 21 '17 at 10:29
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While the notions of a republic and a democracy are often times times heavily intertwined in the modern world, the two are not inherently related based on their true definitions.

A republic is a form of government whereby representatives are elected to represent groups of people. Note that the election process is not inherently democratic. A great example of this are the merchant republics of old. It was essentially the upper merchant class that would elect representatives, totally bypassing the masses.

A democracy is where the general population is allowed to vote directly. This does not have to be voting for representatives. The obvious example here would be the ancient Greeks who had true democracies where all the people voted on everything. This of course has problems of scale - who wants to send all their time voting on everything? That is why every "democratic" nation since ancient Greece has incorporated elements of other government systems (usually republicanism) to optimize the process.

  • Why the downvote? – Reinstate Monica Feb 13 '17 at 17:14
  • Representative democracy and direct democracy are both types of democracy. Direct is not the only type. – endolith Feb 13 '17 at 17:16
  • @endolith No where in my answer do I mention representative democracy. I explicitly make a difference between a republic and a democracy. – Reinstate Monica Feb 13 '17 at 17:17
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    @DavidGrinberg - I'm not the downvoter, but you should provide references to your definitions (especially since you are alleging that there is a "true" definition out there somewhere). – indigochild Feb 13 '17 at 17:19
  • I'm referring to "A democracy is where the general population is allowed to vote directly." – endolith Feb 13 '17 at 17:22
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What is a Republic?

Generally, any kind of state is a republic. Starting in the 15th century, a republic became differentiated from a monarchy by having power ultimately reside with the people.

In the ancient world, a republic meant any kind of state. The historical root of republic is poplicus, meaning "pertaining to the people". Republic is formed by the combination of res + publica: affairs or things related to the public. This usage was preserved in middle French throughout the 15th century.

Beyond etymology, the usage of this concept is clear in the works of ancient authors. In The Republic Plato describes five different kinds of republics (aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny). Aristotle has six, based on the number of rulers and whether they govern for the common good or their own personal good. Generally, a republic could have one ruler (monarchy and tyranny), a few rulers (aristocracy and oligarchy), or common rule (polity and democracy). This kind of typology would be common up until the rise of republican authors in the 15th century.

In the 15th century, a group of republican authors created a new, more focused, usage of the word motivated by their political climate. If a "republic" is what the people have in common, they reasoned that monarchies could not properly be called republics. Their monarchies were ruling in the private interest of the royal family and aristocracy, indifferent (or hostile) to the interests of the people.

Probably the most famous republican is Machiavelli. In Discourses on Livy he argues for a state in which power is shared between the people and a strong executive, and in which there are a variety of factions competing for power [Short summary of Machiavelli's republican views here] . Other examples include John Locke, who devoted much of his Second Treatise to rebutting paternalism (an argument supporting monarchy) and contrasting it with his view of democracy.

In layman's terms a republic sometimes seems to mean a representative government (for example, one of the definitions on Merriam-Webster). However, this usage is not developed in political theory or political science.

What is a Democracy?

A democracy is a kind of government in which relatively-equal citizens are empowered to make meaningful contributions to a group decision-making process.

That's a pretty general (and I hope, common) view of democracy, so I won't spend much time on it. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a lengthy article from a more general-philosophy perspective, while Oxford Bibliographies can point you to some decent further reading.

This leaves open the possibility that citizens either contribute directly or through elected representatives.

How do they differ?

In the ancients' usages of "republic", a democracy is a kind of republic. A republic is kind a state and democracy is one way to organize a state. This is how both Plato and Aristotle did it.

In the writings of the republican authors, republics and democracy are the same. If ultimate power resides with the people (that is, if X is a republic), they can exercise that power in the decision-making process (then X is a democracy). The reverse is true: if you have the people involved in making important decisions (if X is a democracy) than it is true that the people have power (then X is a republic).


Being Greek, Plato doesn't use the words 'res publica' (which are Latin). He instead uses the word 'politeia', which means 'citizens' or 'cities'. This is the root of our English word 'politics' - the meaningful political unit of ancient Greece was the city-state, which connects the concept of 'citizen' to 'city', as well as our current usage.

For an excellent discussion on the nuances that seperate 'politeia' and 'res publica' see this summary.

  • Very good, possibly the best answer, because it shows the historical development of the concepts, and includes references. But the democratic voting system left you with -1. (0, after I upvoted). – Craig Hicks Mar 6 '17 at 4:54
  • @CraigHicks - I am open to suggestions. What's up with the democracy section? – indigochild Mar 6 '17 at 14:12
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    LoL! I meant the democratic voting system of stack exchange left you with only a -1 (until I upvoted you to 0). – Craig Hicks Mar 6 '17 at 19:12
  • However, I do now have an issue: "The word, republic, derives from the Latin, res publica, which referred to the system of government that emerged in the 6th century BC following the expulsion of the kings from Rome by Lucius Junius Brutus and Collatinus."[wikipedia]. Plato and Aristotle were alive in the 5th through 4th centuries BC, so they could have could have been aware of the Roman term "res republica", but is that what they were referring to, and did Plato Plato actually use the Roman term "Republic" to title his book? – Craig Hicks Mar 6 '17 at 19:12
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    @CraigHicks - You might see my foot note. He uses the Greek word 'politeia'. We call it "The Republic", largely following from Cicero's latin translation. I know of a great discussion on this, I'll add it to the foot note. – indigochild Mar 6 '17 at 19:49
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Democracy derives from the Greek word "demos", meaning "the people," and implies a system where all members can exercise power, either directly or through systems of representation.

A Republic is a State that shares common features of a democracy, where the sovereign power is shared by its members, either directly or through representation. To be nitpicky about it, "republic" could refer to the system of government but only of a country and it defines the country as being publically shared (as opposed to belonging to a king, oligarch or other private individuals)

The key difference is that "democracy" refers to an organisational system. So companies or groups of individuals could spontaneously form a democratic system of themselves. A Republic is a State, and it would be highly irregular to describe a firm or collection of individuals as being a "Republic"

  • Commenting on my own answer. I wonder if an interesting implication of this is that corporate-state fusions like today's USA must be described as abstract democracies, as opposed to nation states, because they are transnational, and the corporate lobby is part of the governmental system – Sentinel Feb 21 '17 at 11:24
  • I am open to the idea, but it needs to be put in the answer and attributed to experts - not wikipedia. Basically: back it up – indigochild Feb 21 '17 at 14:18
  • @indigochild - I agree that knowledge in the world should be 'enlightened' expert reviewed, scientific, etc. In general, I agree that there is a problem with feedback loops of fake opinion and news through 'open' channels like Wikipedia, reinforcing notions through collective delusion and groupthink.However,with these demands of backing things up with paid access to scientific journals,you are essentially asking "can someone do research for me?".If you disagree on principal that an answer is not attached to an expert opinion, then you are not asking for answers, and you should not participate. – Sentinel Feb 21 '17 at 16:07
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Republic is superset of Democracy. In a Republic the Rule of Law and Government by representatives of Public are required, but there is no specific prescription on how the Rule of Law to be applied or how the Representatives are to be selected. In Democracy the Rule of Law is to apply to everyone equally and the representatives are to be chosen in free and fair election. (This usually means one citizen one vote. Except in Ankh-Morpork, where The Patrician is The Citizen and he has The Vote.)

Notice that for example, the United States are not a Democracy, even though they are a Republic, although individual states could be considered Democracies. In United States the representatives are Selected by States rather than Elected by People. (Regardless of the way how those states choose to select those representatives - which might be by an election in the state.) Only the lower half of the legislative branch is elected by people, but still the states decide on the form of this election and the shapes of the districts in which the election takes place. The 3rd branch of the government - judiciary - Is selected by President and confirmed by Senate. So no elected representatives take part in election of federal justices only their selection. Some states elect state and municipal judges, but that again points to the states being democracies, while the federal government is not.

  • Comment when you downvote... this is not the answer, but it is an answer. It was meant to be a bit simple and simplistic and short. – Jiri Klouda Mar 2 '17 at 1:25
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    The answer could be improved with references to many of these claims. Who says that a republic has to have a rule of law or representatives? Who says that in a democracy rule of law must be applied equally? Or that a democracy has to have elections? – indigochild Mar 5 '17 at 19:23
  • @indigochild You are right. The last sentence should have said 'election' as the senate confirmation hearing is the election process, but the selection is done by an elected representative. I'll edit to fix it. – Jiri Klouda Mar 5 '17 at 20:06
  • "The 3rd branch of the government - judiciary - is elected by people in lower courts" This is simply false. There are some procedural differences, but every federal judge in the US is appointed to a lifetime term by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate (absent a recess appointment). State and municipal judges may (or may not) be elected. Each state is different. But they aren't lower courts of the same system. They are different systems. – Brythan Mar 9 '17 at 3:21
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Definitions (from Wikipedia):

A republic is a form of government in which the country is considered a "public matter" – not the private concern or property of the rulers – and where offices of state are elected or appointed, rather than inherited. It is a government where the head of state is not a monarch and government leaders exercise power according to the rule of law.

Hence, a rebuplic is one of the possible administrations of any country whether that country is a UN member or not.
A republic is in essence "just" and "plausible" participation of the governed people of a country. This is what it should be, or put somewhat differently, "as to be" (real republic). But, "as is" (so-called republic) can be different than "as to be". Hence, a "rebuplic" may be a dictatorship though it names itself as republic:

Examples of so-called republics:
North Korea (Democratic People's REPUBLIC of Korea),
Syrian Arab REPUBLIC, etc.
Definitely, there is no "just" and "plausible" participation of people in these countries.

Example of real republics:
Northern Cyprus (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus).
Even if a country may not be a UN member, it may shine as a real republic as can be felt from the other side of the world.
UNITED STATES’ FEDERAL COURT (09.10.2014): "TURKISH REPUBLIC OF NORTHERN CYPRUS IS A DEMOCRATIC COUNTRY. Although the United States does not recognize it as a state, the TRNC purportedly operates as a DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC with a president, prime minister, legislature and judiciary...TRNC is NOT VULNERABLE to a lawsuit in Washington"

The news of the Court decision (13.10.2014)
Page of the Court case (The Defendant: Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus)
Decision of the Court

Democracy is a system of government in which the citizens exercise power directly or elect representatives from among themselves to form a governing body, such as a parliament. Democracy is sometimes referred to as "rule of the majority".

According to Diamond, democracy consists of 4 key elements:
1. A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections;
2. The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life;
3. Protection of the human rights of all citizens,
4. A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

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    This comment has opinion based rather than fact based sections in it. There would be a good case to be made that Syrian Arab Republic is not a democracy. But it indeed is a Republic. The power is in the hands of representatives of the people and there is rule of law. The law might not apply equally to all and the representatives might not come from free and fair elections, but that is not requires under Republic, it is a requirement of a Democracy, though. North Korea is essentially a Monarchy. – Jiri Klouda Feb 27 '17 at 5:06

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