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at the water's edge
A republic (from Latin res publica or "public matter") is a form of government in which power is delegated by law rather than heredity. This is in contrast to those systems of government where the ultimate power resides with the head of state, typically a monarch, theocrat or dictator, rather than a set of laws. Republican forms of government are the antipode of hereditary monarchy.
In the case of democratic republics, power is usually held by elected representatives of the people.
In a constitutional republic, those powers are derived from (and limited by) a constitution.
In other republics, this power could be delegated to a traditional group of elders such as the jirga in the transitional government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The leaders of Islamic republics such as the Islamic Republic of Iran are typically a group of elder clerics who govern in accordance to Islamic law. The mostly extinct class of People's republics are Communist countries which pretend to be governed by the people but where in reality the people have very little power, such as the People's Republic of China. In most cases (if not all), a non-democratic republic is essentially a form of aristocracy since all the power is in the hands of a group of elites. (And a lot of democratic republics can be seen as slowly going in the same direction due to the existence of an entrenched political class.)
Republics and democracies
In the United States, a slogan popular among conservatives is that "the US is a republic, not a democracy," usually served with a wink towards the names of the two major parties (the Republican and the Democratic).
The two labels are not mutually exclusive, though, as nothing prevents a republic from being a democracy.
A common definition of “republic” is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, “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” — we are that. A common definition of “democracy” is, “Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives” — we are that, too.
This false dichotomy is usually justified by using a very narrow definition of "democracy" — a pure direct democracy — and then howling about how much the Founding Fathers hated democracy and how republics prevent tyranny of the majority. What those people fail to realize is that nowadays "democracy" is usually a shorthand for "representative democracy with a constitution and/or separation of powers" (guess which was the first major one), and those angry Founding Fathers specifically stated that they were talking about direct democracies:
It may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: [...]
It should also be noted that in modern times, there are only two types of functioning democracies — democratic republics and parliamentary monarchies (such as the UK).
Anyway, republics do nothing to prevent tyranny of the majority; that's what constitutions are for.
Also ironic is that up to the 1900s, the political affiliations of Democrats and Republicans in the US were pretty much flipped around, and that both evolved out of Jefferson's "Democratic-Republican Party".
Republics are usually headed by a President. The powers of presidents vary wildly, from mere figureheads (for example, in Germany) to absolute dictator. Figurehead presidents are often appointed by the national parliaments, dictators often force their way to power, and the rest, with limited powers, are usually popularly elected. There are a few hereditary presidencies, but these are de facto inheritances rather than constitutional provisions. The UAE president, for example is customarily held by the emir of Abu Dhabi—himself a hereditary ruler.
- We are a republic, not a democracy, Tribune-Review, April 12, 2016
- America is a Constitutional Republic . . . NOT a Democracy, Daneen G. Peterson, Ph.D. September 9, 2006
- Strangely enough, you never hear Democrats going on about how the United States is "a democracy, not a republic".
- Is the United States of America a republic or a democracy?, Eugene Volokh May 13, 2015
- The Federalist Papers : No. 10, November 23, 1787. James Madison
- That's why there's a lot of Lincoln haters in red states.
- Appendix A. Political Parties in the United States, 1820–1860 (graphic)