Through recorded history, quite a few countries have considered themselves to be republics, nations governed by a regime formed from republican principles. But it is clear that simply claiming the title of republic by itself is not what makes a nation a republic rather than some other form of nation. One need look no further than to North Korea whose official name is the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea to realize that not all regimes that claim to be republican are, in fact, republican. The qualification I think makes the most sense is say that republican states are those states which have governance based on republican ideals such as being an expression of the general will of the people (which means, in part, respect for both individual and minority rights) and having a separation of powers between the executive function and the legislative function. The political party most opposed to these two principles in modern American politics is the ironically named Republican party, also known as the Grand Ole Party or GOP, which in its current incarnation at least, is based extreme democratic principles will threaten to reduce the US to a despotic rule of the mob rather from its intended role as a republic.
Perhaps the best place to start in defining a republic is with a brief passage James Madison wrote in Federalist 39 concerning what it means to be a republic. He wrote that a republic was a nation with, ``a government which derives all of its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people.'' I find this definition to be interesting for both what it says and what it does not say. Madison did not opine that a republic is a government which is formed from ``the greater body'', i.e. from the majority faction, but from ``the great body'' of the people. By considering the basis of republicanism to consist of the will of the people as a unity, Madison is excluding pure democracy from the definition of republicanism.
Madison does this because he has observed that democracy in its purest form, save for those few situations where an entire people has a total unity of mind and purpose with regards to governance, is mob rule. One need only consider the trial of Socrates in democratic Athens or the democratic regime set up after the French revolution to see the abuses to which extreme democracy is prone. In this sort of regime, if fifty percent of a people agree on a particular policy, there are effectively no limitations on its implementation. Such a majority, or even a large pluarality, can dominate the minority in any way it pleases. This very point is addressed by Immanuel Kant in To Perpetual Peace, A Philosophical Sketch.
Among the three forms of government, democracy, in the proper sense of the term, is necessarily a despotism, because it sets up an executive power in which all citizens make decisions about and, if need be, against one (who therefore does not agree); consequently, all, who are not quite all, decide, so that the general will contradicts both itself and freedom.A pure democracy, Kant argues, is only free for those in the majority which have effectively replaced the general will, the will of the people as a whole, with the will of the largest faction of the people. In such a state of affairs, the will of the minority, where it differs from the minority, is always frustrated. Such a state is not a republic by a tyranny of the majority.
But notice that Kant also hints at something else, that part of what is non-republican about pure democracy is that this form of regime entails that the same institution (the majority voice) claims responsibility for both making laws (the legislative function) and enforcing laws (the executive function). Kant's complain is not entirely about the fact that the will of the majority is being conflated with the will of the people as a whole, but also that there is no division of powers. Hence, we have in Kant the second principle of republicanism.
Republicanism is that political principle whereby executive power (the government) is separated from legislative power. In a despotism the ruler independently executes laws that it has itself made; here rulers have taken hold of the public will and treated it as their own private will.Consequently, we see that pure democracy is the very definition of despotism, the enforcement of the will of one human being upon one or more human beings. This order (the imposition of the will of one or more men over the will of other men) in government is precisely what lead Blessed Augustine to conclude that government was akin to slavery. The subordination of the will of one man to the will of another man is the very definition of slavery.
In one of his lectures on the philosophy of world history, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel makes the same observation. If the will of the minority is left out of the picture, there is no true freedom.
If freedom is defined as a state to which all individuals must give their assent, it is easily seen that no law can be upheld unless everyone agrees to it. This in turn gives rise to the principle that the minority must yield to the majority, so that the majority in fact makes the decisions. But as J.J. Rousseau has already observed, this can no longer be described as freedom, for the will of the minority is no longer respected.A state that is run by a simple majority rule, then, is not a republic, but is a form of despotism, and lacks true freedom.
All of the above is why I find it deeply disturbing that the modern GOP is pushing for extreme democracy in the US at the expense of republicanism. Whether it be by attempting to remove republican mechanisms such the filibuster when the Republican party was in the majority in both houses of the US Congress or attempting to derail legislative independence by killing any bills the president of their own party threatens to veto while they are in minority, the Republicans in the US Congress are trying to both reduce US politics to the mathematics of fifty percent plus one calling all the shots and remove the constitutional separation of powers meant to ensure that the US remains a republic. But it is not the Republicans in congress alone that share this tendency. With the use of signing statements to modify the intent of laws passed by the legislature and declaring a fifty one percent victory in 2004 to be an mandate to put his policies into place, George W. Bush has made it clear that he wants the US to be reduced to a pure democracy.
In Federalist 51, Madison warned against this very state of affairs. He observes that in a republic, the people as a whole need to guard against not only oppression by a ruling class, but also against oppression by a majority block and offers two mechanisms by which the tyranny of the majority can be kept in check.
It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority--that is, of the society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable.Madison himself would be amazed and astounded at the ability of the GOP to dominate the politics of the United States by a simple majority. By doing so, the Republican party has shown that Madison's proposed solution of preventing the republic from devolving into a despotic form of democracy is weak in some aspects able to be surmounted through the partisan politics of division.
What these things amount to is a full assault on what it means to be American. The values fought for with so much bravery and loss of life and property by our founding fathers are being crapped on by a political party arrogant enough to think that its private interest is the interest of the nation as a whole. The results of this approach are plain. Public corruption in government is at an almost unprecedented level. Billions, if not trillions, of dollars are being squandered due to neglecting conventional accounting principles, no-bid contracts, and outright fraud and embezzlement. The US is involved in a prolonged and intractable war over falsified evidence and dubious judgment. Civil liberties such as the right to a writ of habeus corpus which have been held sacred in almost western nation for hundreds of years are being ignored by various government agencies.
But all of the present abuses pale in consideration to the true danger posed by the failure to properly separate powers and the adoption of a fifty percent plus one ruling strategy. Such a climate sets the stage for a charismatic and talented individual who is intent on being a despot to rise to power. History shows us a large number of dictators, strong men and despots that have risen to power through democracy such as Papa Doc and Il Duce. In a republic, such men can, indeed, do very real damage but the damage that they can do is severely limited. But in a pure democracy, one such men grab the reigns of power, the damage that they can do to their own people is unlimited, frequently leading to the problem in many fledging democracies of `one man, one vote, one time.'
What the antidote to this tendency in today's Republican party is, I do not know. One could certainly argue that simply because the cacophony of interests that the original federalists proposed has demonstrably from time time to prevent the oppression of the minority by the majority, it does not follow that such an approach will always fail. One can, in fact, argue that for much of US history, this approach has been adequate. What I do know is that this approach is presently failing. Further, I can say unequivocally is that I fully support republican ideals and for that reason, I am not a Republican.