Utah Legislature Watch: Debate over ‘Democracy’ or ‘Republic?’

Worth it or not, it’s an interesting discussion…for political scientists.

Just kidding. But really: I do think it is an interesting discussion, and I do think it ought to be taught right in our schools. But should Utah legislators be getting their panties in a bunch over it? I’m dubious. They aren’t the most educated gaggle of geese out there honking in the wind; dictating every bit of what ought to be in the public education curriculum might be a bridge too far for me to concede is worth their time.

But back to the point: democracy or republic? One of my favorite blogs to follow–Utah Data Points–has done a little research into the use of ‘republic’ versus ‘democracy’ over the last couple centuries. Adam Brown (who writes the blog) makes two observations I find both interesting and relevant:

  1. Republic‘ and ‘democracy’ have fluxed and flipped over our history; and
  2. Each word’s popularity correlates to references to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, over the same time period.

Have a look at the first graph from Utah Data Points, showing which word was more popular:

As Brown explains

It turns out that the word “republic” was far more common than “democracy” up until around 1900 in American English. There was a rapid shift between about 1900 and 1920 as “democracy” came into vogue, displacing “republic.” This shift peaked around 1940.

Now, here’s the graph showing references to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson over the same time:

Interesting, eh? Brown speculates that the reason for the shift was the increase in democratic type initiatives around the turn of the last century.

Initiatives, recalls, and referendums are collectively known as “direct democracy.” Just about every state that adopted some form of direct democracy did so between 1898 and 1918. In fact, Utah was among the first to adopt direct democracy institutions. We have both an initiative (e.g. failed ethics reform initiative) and a referendum process (e.g. vouchers overturned) here but no recall.

And the correlation between the two graphs? Perhaps no link… or perhaps there is. Jefferson did tend to talk and write more about the right of individuals and democratic rule, while Adams tends to be seen as fearing “the mob” that was the masses, preferring rule by the more educated elites.

In other words, Jefferson was a populist associated with direct democracy while Adams was an elitist associated with governance by the elected representatives of the people.

And there’s an irony for you: Jefferson is the man who conservatives and the Tea Party seem to quote most often, even while crying “foul!” at the appellation of the label “democracy” on the type of government we have.

John Adams was opposed to promotion of officer...

John Adams, late in life. Image via Wikipedia

 

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4 responses to “Utah Legislature Watch: Debate over ‘Democracy’ or ‘Republic?’

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