From Thomas Koenig at National Review, A Republic Not a Democracy:

As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, a republic is a form of government “in which the scheme of representation takes place.” Madison recounted how flawed “popular government” had proven historically: “The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” In lamenting the historic inability of popular governments to “break and control the violence of faction,” Madison held forth a republican form of representative government as a way to square the circle: Without rebuking the basic logic of popular sovereignty, a republic could introduce a bit of reasoned reflection into the governing process, mitigating the dangerous popular passions that dominate purely democratic systems.

For Madison, wedding the republican form of government to the nation’s extensive slice of physical territory was the antidote to the well-known vices of direct democracy. While there would still be a danger of representatives of “factious tempers” and “sinister designs” leading their constituents astray, the hope was that “the delegation of the government . . . to a small number of citizens elected by the rest” would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”

Madison and his fellow Founders gifted us this republic, but we will fail to heed Ben Franklin’s charge to “keep it” if our representatives persist in treating it like a pure democracy. Those entrusted with great political power cannot act as mere vessels of public opinion; they are tasked with leadership, with refining the views of their constituents.

Voters have lives to lead, jobs to keep, and families to feed. They are not meant to live and breathe politics. So it makes sense that their opinions on public affairs — while often quite reasonable at heart — may be rather rough around the edges and misguided in certain important respects. The role of the elected representative is to harmonize the interests and passions of his constituents with the dictates of reason and the common good. This requires a certain independence of mind and spirit, as well as a hefty dose of prudence. In the famous words of Edmund Burke: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”


What distinguishes a republic from a democracy is recognition of the need to say ‘no’ to the majority every now and then.