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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Public University
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God….”
We have all recited this oath numerous times. But why does the Pledge of Allegiance characterize the United States as a republic and not as a democracy?
True Democracies Are Rare in Human History
When it comes to government systems (such as a monarchy, a parliamentary democracy or a theocracy), democracy refers to the direct participation of all eligible citizens in making policy decisions throughout the country.
There have been only a few true democracies in history. There was a form of direct democracy in the ancient city-state of Athens, where all wealthy men were eligible to vote. In a republic, on the other hand, eligible voters elect officials to represent them at various levels of government, from local to national.
Direct democracies can quickly become unwieldy when the population of communities, cities or countries grows too large. Conversely, republics are a much more efficient and effective form of government because there are significantly fewer people eligible to vote on policies.
For example, in the U.S. today, each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives represents approximately 743,000 citizens. In the 100-member upper chamber, each Senator represents approximately 3.23 million citizens.
Why Do Most Americans Believe The US Is A Democracy?
The notion that the United States of America is a democracy stems from how some parents explain the country to their children. This concept is then often reinforced in elementary and middle schools.
What most people have in mind when they speak of democracy is the freedom to vote in private for our elected officials. Secret balloting has been around since the ancient Greeks and was practiced during the Roman Empire.
Also, when speaking of democracy, most people have in mind the liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and the freedom to peacefully assemble and protest. In essence, democracy means to live freely as opposed to living under a dictatorship with limited or no freedoms.
Where Is Direct Democracy Found in the US?
Does direct democracy exist anywhere in the United States today? Yes, it exists at the local levels of governance, such as at town meetings, at parent-teacher conferences and in homeowner associations.
Homeowner associations, for example, might meet quarterly, semi-annually or even annually with every homeowner invited to participate. During these meetings, issues of importance to the community are discussed and voted on as required. Members who cannot attend the meeting can still participate in the decisions by using proxy votes.
Town meetings have been common in the six New England states since colonial times. The people of a small town (usually fewer than 6,000 residents) gather once a year as a legislative body to decide local policy issues, such as the town’s annual budget. For example, the communities of Freetown and Lakeville, Massachusetts, conduct town meetings every year to vote on the budget for their combined school districts.
Direct democracy will not threaten our republican form of government. However, as the country continues to grow in population, we can expect to see more direct democracy in action at the local levels of society.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. His book about military base closures was published in 2009.