A Democratic Republic: What is That???

(c) 2006 Bonnie Jacobs

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

What is a Democratic Republic?
The United States government is a complex entity known as a democratic republic. This essentially means that the government operates on the principles of both a republic and a democracy. In other words, the nation functions upon principles that are common in both republics and democracies. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a republic as “a political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines democracy as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” In other words, in a republic there are a group of citizens elected or appointed to represent the people, but with a democracy the power is theoretically in the hands of usually all voting citizens. A democratic republic is a mixture of the two.

Direct Democracy Versus a Representative Democracy
Although we hear often that the US is a democracy, it is not fully a direct democracy in the purest sense. Presidential elections are not decided by a direct democracy, but by the electoral college (Electors are officials appointed by each state). A 2016 article in the Huffington Post outlines the process very clearly. The article states that when voters go to the polls they choose “which candidate receives their state’s electors. The candidate who receives a majority of electoral votes (270) wins the Presidency. The number 538 is the sum of the nation’s 435 Representatives, 100 Senators, and 3 electors given to the District of Columbia.” Thus at the federal level, the US is a representative democracy. Many aspects of the United States function as a direct democracy such as local elections for mayor, city council and school board members. State governors are another well known example; in each of the fifty states the governor is elected by popular vote.

Constitutional Democracy
Having said that, like many large entities, it is difficult to find one term to define the US political system. For instance, in many cases the government is described as a constitutional democracy because governmental power is defined, limited, and regulated by a constitution and the electorate (General voting populace). The court system is involved with matters of interpreting the constitution. To make matters even more complex, Native American tribes within the United States are sovereign nations within US borders that are governed by their own separate constitutions. But that is another article for another time. Below are resources social studies teachers can use to assist students in understanding the complexities, nuances, and their rights within the United States as a democratic republic.


Lesson Plan Resources

Fundamentals of a Representative Democracy

OneVote Lesson Plan Part 1: Political Parties

Federalist 10: Democratic Republic vs. Pure Democracy

Civic Center of Education- Lesson Plans

Types of Government Lesson Plan

What is a Republican Government- Lesson Plan


The United States is Both a Republic and a Democracy — Because Democracy is Like Cash

What Is The Electoral College? How It Works And Why It Matters

Definition of Republic


Democratic Republic

Tribal Constitutions of Indian Nations Located in the United States

The Volokh Conspiracy Is the United States of America a Republic or a Democracy?



  1. The article provides a good overview of the concept of democratic republic, which is the form of government of the United States. It explains how a democratic republic combines elements of both a republic and a democracy, and how the power is divided between elected representatives and the general voting populace. Additionally, the article mentions the difference between direct democracy and representative democracy, and how the US has aspects of both. It also notes how the US is described as a constitutional democracy because of the importance and regulation of the constitution, and the involvement of the court system in interpreting it. Overall, the article is a helpful resource for social studies teachers and students to gain a better understanding of the US political system.

  2. A few days ago I was approached by an “educator” friend concerned about lack of teaching knowledge of our government in the schools. While I have made a quick overview of your material, I find it very helpful as a guide. Am referring it to someone trained in teaching techniques and more contacts with the educational system.

  3. Throughout education I do not remember learning the different distinctions between governments. I do not feel like it was hit on hard enough throughout the curriculum. The United States is a very complex political system that can be difficult for students to understand as a constitutional democracy. One resource I like that is included is the Center for Civic Education that breaks down the different parts of the government.

    • I can say we were taught about the branches of government, the different roles and responsibilities of branches. But, I can’t say it all stuck with me. And it didn’t come under the rubric of civics. I was also somewhat sheltered, I went to private school from Nursery 3 to my BA, in History.

      I need to give myself an updated Civics education. Ignorance of History is very disturbing. Despite my interests and education I know far too little, nor do I refresh myself or revisit events as I probably should.

  4. This may sound very dull of me, but I honestly didn’t know all of what went into being a democratic republic. Thankfully, after reading this article I have a better understanding.

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