What is the difference between a republic and a democracy

You’ve probably heard countries like the U.S. and France referred to as democracies and you’ve also heard both of those countries called republics. So, is democracy and republic the same thing or different?  What is the difference between a republic and a democracy, anyway?

Knowing the difference between a republic vs a democracy is important and in this post, you’ll get to know the definitions of a democracy and a republic, how they operate and the difference between them.

What is a Democracy?

A democracy can be defined as government by the people. A form of government in which the ultimate power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system known as democracy.

The term democracy comes from the combination of two Greek words – “demos” which means the people and “Kratia” which means power or authority.  Thus, a democracy is a type of government where the power to govern rests with a country’s people rather than a ruling family – meaning that citizens control how their government operates, usually through voting.   

Origins of Democracy

The word democracy first pops up in the 5th century BCE in Ancient Greece in the city-state of Athens. Between 508 BCE and 322 BCE, ancient Athenians governed themselves and didn’t have anyone to represent them in government, this gave everyone a voice literally.

Public debates on topics of governance were held in what was known as The Athenian Assembly. In the Athenian Assembly, and every male Athenian citizen had individual voting rights and top qualified citizens were given time off of work and a stipend to help to ensure every voice was heard.

Through the Athenian Assembly, every voice could weigh in on every issue, and all laws and rules of governance were established based on majority rule.

Types of Democracy

There are three major types of democracy today i.e. direct democracy, representative democracy, and constitutional democracy.

1. Direct Democracy

Direct democracy is also called pure democracy. It is democracy in its most basic form. It is a type of democracy where citizens are directly involved in the political process.  

In a direct democracy, political decisions are made based on what the majority of voters decide. Each qualified individual casts a vote and the category with the most number of votes wins.

The benefits of a direct democracy is that it allows each person, regardless of race, class, or economic position have a voice.

However, direct democracy doesn’t always work well on a large scale because there’re an overwhelming number of decisions that need to be made for the government to run smoothly.

Examples of Direct Democracy in Action

Although direct democracy can be too large to function efficiently on the national level, there are still a few countries that use it as a primary government system. Direct democracy exist and here are some examples of where you can see direct democracy in action.

i. Switzerland

Switzerland is a country of about 8.5 million people and uses direct democracy to run its local, regional, and federal governments.

In Switzerland, every citizen of over 18 years of age lend a voice on how the country should be run. Voting is held two or four times a year and can even be scheduled decades in advance.

However, as a direct democracy, Switzerland lacks an elected Head of State but instead has a Federal Council which is elected by the Federal Assembly every four years. Every year, a new person from the Federal Council is elected to serve as president.

ii. Local Elections in the United States

Because of their small population, local, municipal, and county elections in the U.S. often rely on direct democracy to make sure government is serving the will of the people.

iii. State Elections in the United States

Fourteen states let its citizens to design legislation and put it up for a vote through what is referred to as ballot initiatives.

Each of these state allow a citizen to create a ballot initiative, and if it gets enough signatures through petition, it will be put on a state-wide ballot where it passes by majority vote. However, in order to go on the ballot, each initiative must be ruled constitutionally by the state courts.

2. Representative Democracy

Representative democracy sometimes called indirect democracy is a system of government where certain individuals are elected to represent the will of the people.

The people elected as often referred to as elected officials and are chosen to vote on behalf of a specific group of citizens. The group can be defined in different ways. Sometimes people are grouped by neighborhood, by county, city, or even by state.

The idea behind this type of democracy is to streamline the process of government. Since elections where everyone lends a voice are logistically difficult, having a small number of people representing what the majority wants, makes decision-making faster.

However, representative democracy also comes with drawbacks. One of the main problems is that in most cases, representatives are not required (by law, constitution, etc) to actually represent the will of their constituents but are able to make their own decisions – this means that elected officials are more prone to corruption.

Examples of Representative Democracy in Action

Most democratic western countries operate a representative democracy system because representative democracy works best on a larger scale. Below are a few examples of a representative democracy in action.

i. The United States Legislature

The United States is a federal representational government. This means that the representatives who serve, create laws that apply to the entire country.

The legislative branch is divided into two houses i.e. the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the Senate, each state elects two people to represent their interests on the national level whereas, in the House of Representatives, the number of representatives from each state is determined by population.

In both the Senate and the House of Representatives, all the representatives are elected by majority vote in their respective states.

ii. U.S. State Legislatures

The U.S. state legislature works like the federal legislature but on a smaller scale. Every U.S. state has both a senate and a house of representatives.

The residents of the state except for Nebraska which has a unicameral state government elects representatives based on the districts they live in thus letting each state’s residents have a say in how their state is governed.

iii. Canada

Just like the U.S. Canada also holds popular elections where a handful of representatives are chosen to represent the citizens at both the provincial and the national level.

The elected officials in Canada serve in The House of Commons and each of the provinces in Canada is also a representative democracy where elected officials represent the will of their province’s citizens.

3. Constitutional Democracy

A constitutional democracy is a type of democracy that whereby structures are put in place to limit the power of the majority.

In another way, a constitutional democracy has constitutions or other governing documents that help regulate the power of elected officials.

A constitutional democracy function is based on a combination of democratic principles and the rule of law.

A country’s constitution serves as the highest form of law and outlines citizen’s rights as well as what the government can do and can’t do. This means that a constitutional democratic government must uphold the constitution and still represent the will of its people.

However, a constitutional democracy limits an individual citizen’s ability to participate in government because there are strict legal parameters around what people can and can’t do.

Examples of a Constitutional Democracy in Action

Constitutional democracies are one of the most popular forms of democracy in the world today. Below are a few countries that use constitutional democracy.

i. The United States of America

The USA relies on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to create all new legislation. The judicial branch including the Supreme Court determines whether new laws violate the Constitution or American’s constitutional rights.

ii. Mexico

The constitution of Mexico was ratified in 1917 and was the first constitution in the world to create guidelines for the social rights of its citizens.

iii. Germany

After the Second World War, Germany was divided into two: East Germany and West Germany. When West Germany was created by the Allies, it was created as a constitutional democracy but in 1991 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany was unified under a single constitution.  

So, can a country be more than one type of democracy?

While reading through this section, you probably realize that the U.S. and many other countries fall into more than one type of democracy. That is because a democratic country can use more than one democratic category to run its government.

For example, a city can use direct democracy to vote new laws and select state and federal representatives. The representatives elected will then participate in a representative democracy where they speak and vote on behalf of their constituents.  

And lastly, all these actions i.e. policy decisions, citizen’s rights, government structure, and the creation of new laws are governed by the constitution – meaning that countries like the U.S., Canada, Mexico are constitutional democracies as well.

what is the difference between a republic and a democracy

Characteristics of Democracy  

There are four main characteristics of democracy and they are:

1. Free and fair elections

To ensure that citizens’ voices are heard accurately, a state or nation governed by democracy has to make sure that all voting processes are free and fair. But what exactly does “free and fair” election mean?

For an election to be free and fair, it has to be administered in a way that lets its citizens vote and treat all political parties and candidates equally. This means that the process needs to be accessible to everyone who meets voting qualifications as well as be as unbiased as possible.

Also, for an election to be fair, the election needs to occur at a regular interval. If elections only happen every two decades, it means that the people’s ability to make their voices heard will be denied.

2. Citizen participation

For democracy to function, its citizens have to participate in the process of government – meaning that people have to fun for office, create ballot initiatives, petition for laws and causes they believe in, and vote.

Remember that the word democracy means that the power to rule belongs to the people and only by exercising that power can a country’s citizens ensure that their will is reflected in the country’s laws and structures.

It is also important to note that in democracy, all citizens are given an equal right to participate in the election regardless of where they live, what culture they come from, and what they do for work.

3. Protection of citizen’s human rights

It is important to note that democracy believes in freedom. Citizens should have the right to express their opinions and participate in this form of government without intimidation or fear.

Democratic nations that protect their citizen’s human rights create a better life for their citizens as well as helps keep governmental power in check.

4. Equal rule of law

All democratic systems have in common “the rule of law”. The rule of law is very important to democracy because it protects the rights of citizens, maintains order, and limits the power of government.  

It’s crystal clear how laws work in a constitutional or representative form of democracy. In a representative democracy, laws are created by the elected officials to ensure that their constituent’s concerns are being addressed.

In a constitutional democracy, the constitution itself lays out some basic laws, and no other legislation can violate them.

Laws are tools citizens can use to make sure the ideals of democracy (freedom and basic human rights) are maintained.

What is a Republic?

By now, we’re sure you know a lot about how a democracy functions and its main ideas. Now let’s look at a republic and how it functions.

The term “republic” was derived from the Greek word politeia meaning the “rights of citizens”. It also comes from the Latin word res publica which means “public affair”.

So, a republic is a government system where the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them.

For a country to be called a republic, its head of state has to be an elected official. For example, countries like Germany and France which have elected presidents as heads of state are republics. However, countries with a monarch as head of state like the United Kingdom is not a republic.

In summary, a republic is a form of government where the power rest with the people and is exercised through representative government, and has an elected head of state.  

The main concept of the word “republic” is that the leader of this form of government (or state) is not a hereditary monarch but a president, whether they are elected or installed.

Origin of Republic

Most ancient states were republics but one of the most notable was the Roman Republic that existed between 500 BCE and 27 BCE. During this time, Rome had expanded to cover most of modern-day Europe plus other parts of Asia and Africa.

This meant that Rome was home to various cultures, and its citizens spoke 21 different languages. This was also the time Rome switched from a monarchy to a constitutional government.  

The last Roman king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus was overthrown and sent into exile in 509 BCE. The Roman Senate decided to institute a new type of government (Rome would be led by two elected consuls who had equal power and would serve one-year terms).

These consuls were elected by legislative assemblies which comprised of male citizens of Rome. These assemblies also voted on laws created by the Roman Senate.

The Roman Senate was made up of Patricians – members of Rome’s noble class. The patricians were appointed by the Roman consuls, and they served as senators for life. The job of the Senate was to create new laws that would be voted on by the Assembly.

Centuries passed and the government of Rome developed a set of rules that govern the country that coalesced into the Roman Constitution.

The constitution later remained one of the foundational governing documents of the Roman Empire until its collapse in the 5th century CE.

what is the difference between a republic and a democracy

Types of Republics

There are many types of republics functioning today, but here, we’ll briefly discuss the five major types of republics.

1. Constitutional Republic

A constitutional republic is a type of republic where the government is limited by laws created by a formal constitution, generally secular in nature.

Also, a constitutional republic government is run by elected officials who are voted on by the people, and those officials are required to follow the rules of government laid out by the country’s constitution.

Some examples of constitutional republics today are countries like South Africa and India.

2. Presidential Republic

A presidential republic lets its citizens elect a president to serve as the country’s head of state. However, the president in a presidential republic also serves as the head of the government.

Some examples of modern presidential republics are Brazil, Mexico, and Indonesia.

3. Federal Republic

Federal republics are countries that are also a union of states that operates on a republican form of government.

To qualify as a federal republic, states have to have independence in order to make their own laws and decisions, as long as those laws don’t conflict with policies created for the whole nation on the federal level.

This way, the states function as a mini-republic, complete with elected officials and an elected head of state, like a governor.

Some examples of federal republics today include the United States, Nigeria, Germany, Brazil, and Switzerland.

4. Theocratic Republic

Theocratic republic is a type of republic that is governed primarily by religious law. In this form of government, religious texts are the pillars of the country’s governing structure and are often drafted into a religious governing constitution.

This also means that additional laws and policies developed by the government must be in line with religious law.

Some examples of theocratic republics today include Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.

So, what is the difference between a republic and a democracy?  

You must have already noticed that a republic and a democracy have a lot in common. They are both systems where the power to govern rests with the citizens, So, what exactly is the difference between a republic vs a democracy?

The main difference between a republic and a democracy is that a republic is a form of government while democracy is an ideology that helps shape how a government is run.

In other words, a republic is the system of government that lets a country be democratic. People often use the terms “republic” and “democracy” interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.

But wait, can a country be both a republic and a democracy?

Yes, a country can be both a republic and a democracy. The United States for example is both a democracy and a republic.


We hope the question “what is the difference between a republic and a democracy” has been answered and you have fully understood the difference between the two terms.

Although the two terms are not the same, what you should take note of here is that, in both a republic and a democracy, the power ultimately lies with the people who are able to vote. So, vote if you are eligible to vote because that’s what makes true democracies and republics.

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