The terms are interchangeable descriptions of the American political system, yet a fight over their meaning could have outsize consequences.
One of this age’s great crank ideas, that the U.S. is a “republic” and not a “democracy,” is gaining so much ground that people in Michigan are trying to rewrite textbooks to get rid of the term “democracy.” And the discussion is such a mess that a New York Times article about the fight manages to get it wrong.
The truth is actually simple: For all practical purposes, and in most contexts, “republic” and “democracy” are synonyms. 1 The big difference is that the first comes from Latin and the latter from Greek. To say that the U.S. is a republic, not a democracy, is like claiming to eat beef and pork but not cows and pigs.
The debate may seem like hair-splitting, but it is important in the same way all assaults on knowledge are important – it’s part of the never-ending fight against attempted partisan intervention into education, whether it’s denying evolution or pretending the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. But it’s most important because opposing the idea of democracy can be a step toward opposing the reality of democracy, at a time when voting and other structures of formal equality are at risk.
In the Michigan case, the eradication of the word “democracy” is being pushed by conservatives, who want the K-12 social studies curriculum to “be based on a close, originalist reading of the United States’ founding documents,” according to the Times. Why they care isn’t really clear. Perhaps it’s in service to ultimate policy goals, but it may just be yet another form of identity politics, setting off True Conservatives from everyone else. At one point, conservatives were equally obsessed with being for “liberty” and not “freedom.” Now it’s this one.