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. I didn’t realize that we functioned as both a democracy and a republic. Now that it was broken down to me, I understand. I’m glad that I now know this information. It was well compared as well.

  2. This article helped me understand what a Democratic Republic is and how it affects us. I find it interesting that we work through a policy/system that allows everyone involved to voice their opinion(s).

  3. I believe that it is extremely valuable to have a Democratic Republic to ensure that everyone is heard. This type of Republic looks at all sides and allows everyone to have an equal vote that is heard and taken into account. Having a democratic republic allows for a more fair and simple election process.

  4. I constantly here arguments around whether the United States is a republic or a democracy, and they’re almost always used in conversations around politics. Being mixed between the two objectively has its advantages and disadvantages. When it comes to the popular vote having more of a direct impact, many people feel that the electoral college is not needed, however, populations are not necessarily representative across areas of every state, and this limits one area from holding too much power or say over the rest.

  5. The article provides a clear understanding of what the United State’s government is. It also provides clarity on the individual parts that make up the definition of a Democratic Republic. I really like how many Representatives, Senators and electors make up the electoral college. I also love how our country falls back on our constitution and I think other countries should take a similar approach to governing.

  6. This is a very difficult concept to get your head wrapped around, and tends to cause issues in the voting population. Because the presidential election falls under the representative democracy, voters have a habit of believing that their vote doesn’t matter. This is not true because, even if it does not directly effect who is elected your voice is still being hear. It is also incredibly important to realize that not all elections are held this way. Therefore, it is incredibly important for all people of voting age to participate in the smaller, state elections.

  7. I always thought of the US government as just a democracy, but I think it is interesting to learn that it’s not a pure democracy, it has aspects of republic and constitutional democracy. Whether we know the exact term to describe our government or not, I think it’s kind of nice that we can’t exactly define it because it means the government doesn’t have to live in a box of following the perimeters of the term’s definition.

  8. The American political system takes the best of the Greek democracy and the Roman Republic.  Direct democracy is bad because well,   the framers thought that general voters were too uninformed to make big decisions.  The republic was bad because it was only for the elite and wealthy.  Therefore, we democratically elect someone to represent us and be our voice.  

  9. A common misconception about the United States is that we are a democracy. We are not – the U.S. is actually a representative democracy, which is slightly different. The Founding Fathers wanted to ensure that tyrants could not easily seize power by abusing a direct democracy system – the United States’ representative democracy system prevents this by giving the voting power to each states’ electors rather than to individual citizens. While not a perfect system, it has done a very good job of giving every state a voice in the election process, whereas a direct democracy would result in an unequal voting process, since states like California and Texas would dominate over smaller states like Wyoming and Montana (smaller in terms of electoral votes, that is).

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