The Ribald Reign of King George the Second

The "Not a Democracy" Gnomes

If you've spent enough time writing about politics, you've seen them: the "not a democracy!" gnomes. The old soft-shoe routine goes a little like this:

  1. Someone posts a web page with the observation: "...and so, democracy is being skewered again..."
  2. A "not a democracy!" gnome pops up to offer a quick jab before disappearing beneath the underbrush: "Sigh. How many times must I say this? WE DO NOT LIVE IN A DEMOCRACY. This is a Republic! You are so ignorant. Did you pay attention in high school? Get over it, Sore Loserman! Haw haw!"

Since November 2000, I have seen the "not a democracy!" gnomes at work again, and again, and again. In the interest of clarity, may I make two simple points?

  1. The Gnomes Rely on an Absurdly Narrow Defnition of "Democracy": as absolute, direct, simple and immediate majoritarian authority on matters of policy. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, they find problems with "democracy" so defined. They then depend on the reader to assume that their narrow definition of democracy matches the much broader common definition of democracy, and that therefore their criticism applies to that broader definition.

    The ridiculous nature of that argument is clear with the knowledge that a republic (the gnomes' contrast to democracy) is actually itself one variety of democracy. Let's look at the Oxford Modern English Dictionary definition of the word:

    democracy. 1a) a system of government by the whole population, usually through elected representatives. b) a State so governed....

    A "republic", which provides for governance indirectly through elected representatives, is covered as a possibility under this definition.

    The definition of "democracy" stretches back much further, of course, to the Greek, in which demos refers to "the people" and "cracy" to rule or authority. The broadest definition of "democracy" is therefore simply "the rule of the people," the ideal of a citizenry engaged in civic life and enfranchised to take part in some meaningful fashion in politics, the exercise of decision-making in a sphere of authority (see Oxford here as well). Now why would some parties have a problem with this democratic ideal? Any ideas?

    When most of us write of "democracy" in this community, we're using this broad yet legitimate sense of the word. Criticisms based on a narrow, picky, obsessively myopic definition of the word are therefore trivial.

  2. Proponents of democracy recognize it is an ideal. We do not live in a full democracy, since it has not yet been achieved. Especially after the latest election debacle, we're all too aware of that. But the pursuit of the democratic ideal in the United States is a righteous quest with a long history, involving an ever-broadening emancipation of citizens. It is an overwhelmingly popular quest, and one which, in my opinion, should continue.

    The democratic quest requires for its support a thoroughly educated and informed public, a tolerance for the questioning of authority and the spirit of community. For those who are opposed to these conditions and to their ultimate end, sending out the "not a democracy!" gnomes is a pleasant diversion. But the more educated, the more questioning, and the more civic we become, the more clear it is that the gnomes' verbal minuet is trivial and therefore irrelevant.

A Gnome at Work

The following is a transcript of a point-counterpoint between Theodiclus Lock, a managing editor at Irregular Times, and "Bill Bennett, Jr." of Chicago, IL, USA!. Read on and you, too, can learn how to argue like a gnome:

Date: 4/11/2002 - 2:05 AM
Name: Bill
Location: Chicago, Ill, USA!

Comments: I stumbled upon this site (unfortunately) and had to comment on the first words that came to my attention. "Excuse me, our Republican friend has helpfully reminded us that "we don't live in a democracy." Ok, that explains things." That does explain quite a bit. It explains the average ingnorance level of left wing fruit cakes like yourself. We do not live in a democracy, we live in a cunstitutional republic. Big difference to anyone who remembers anything about even grade scholl civics. Just goes to show that the fools on the Left who piss and moan so much about this great nation of ours, hev not the foggiest idea of how it works.

Date: 4/11/2002 - 10:05 AM
Name: Theodiclus Lock
Site: http://
Location: Sydeville, NY, USA

Comments: Chortle, chortle! "Cunstitutional Republic," what a good one there! Hee, hee! "Grade scholl" was a nice topper. The fruit cake thing was a good insult, too. Oh, boy, I'm rolling on the floor here. Gotta get my composure or I'm gonna pee...

Sigh. OK: Oxford Modern English Dictionary definition of the "democracy": "1a) a system of government by the whole population, usually through elected representatives. b) a State so governed...". A "republic", which provides for governance indirectly through elected representatives, is a form of democracy under this definition. The original Greek simply means "the rule of the people." Against that, huh? And Republicans have the gall to call progressives elitist...

Date: 4/11/2002 - 11:39 AM
Name: Bill
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA!

Comments: Theodiclus Lock: To respond, yes most leftist are elitist pricks. But I was simply pointing out that you and most of your cohorts do not know how our government works, or is supposed to, on a fundamental level. It is almost ironic that this mass of self righteous, academic, intellectual wannabes does not even know that we are a Republic, not a Democracy. The distinction between our Republic and a democracy is not an idle one. It has great legal significance. The Constitution guarantees to every state a Republican form of government (Art. 4, Sec. 4). No state may join the United States unless it is a Republic. Minority individual rights are the priority. The people have natural rights instead of civil rights.

Date: 4/11/2002 - 12:27 PM
Name: Theodiclus Lock
Location: Sydeville, NY, USA

Comments: Bill, Bill, Bill. An anti-democratic politico railing about elitists is a bit like a feather calling styrofoam lightweight. As for your own oh so tired "lightweight" accusation, we at Irregular Times have taken our full load civics classes. In fact, some members of our staff actually study politics for a living. Let's go one better than high school civics: as politician and Boston University Chancellor John Silber puts it, "a republic is a kind of democracy, just as a collie is a kind of dog." Do you get it? Or do I need to spell it out in tiny words?

A side note: I suggest readers go to Google and do a search just on the phrase "not a democracy". You'll get about 12,000 resulting web pages that using amazingly similar vocabulary and arguments. The vast, vast majority of these pages come from an odd cobbling together of John Birchers, radical libertarians and conservative authoritarians. They talk to each other and teach each other how to say this stuff, with the interesting notion that if they say it often enough, it might somehow actually be true.

Date: 4/11/2002 - 2:25 PM
Name: Bill
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA!

Comments: A collie may be a kind of dog, but a collie is not a grate dane. A republic and a democracy are two distinctly different types of governments. If they are teching poly-sci majors something else, then it is litle wonder why you all end up working at Burger King after graduation. The United States of America is a Constitutional Republic, not a Democracy. Your point is moot, it cannot be proven, it is patently FALSE. We are a republic. Mu original position is correct.

If as you claim, Mr. Lock, that a republic is simply nothing more than a type of democracy, then why does a democracy operate in a fundamentally different way than a republic? Why does every dictionary I go to have different definitions for each of them, and none of them mentioned Democracy in their definitions of a Republic? It is not just a matter of mere semantics. There is a world of difference between a government by the people (a republic) and one of the people (a democracy).

Date: 4/11/2002 - 5:25 PM
Name: Theodiclus Lock
Location: Sydeville, NY, USA

Comments: I'm not a polisci major - I TEACH polisci majors. Enough academic authority for you there? I don't like to lord it over people by mentioning it, but you've been playing the "my opponents are unschooled game," so thereyou go. Think carefully for one minute about your dictionary strategy. If a republic is a kind of democracy (and therefore the two do not operate in a fundamentally different way), the former ought to include the possibility of the latter, but NOT VICE VERSA. You're thinking backwards. Duh.

And gosh, Bill, I just followed your links. The first set of dictionary definitions offered were by the Cambridge International Dictionary of English. Their definition of "democracy:" "noun; the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves." Their definition of "republic:"noun; a country without a king or queen, usually governed by elected representatives of the people and a president."

Goodness gracious, great balls of fire! The liberals are everywhere! They've changed the dictionary definitions to include the concept of "republic" as one possible type of "democracy" while you were sleeping! In merry olde England, even! Man the cannons! Into the bomb shelters!

But let's not just trust ol' Cambridge, that bastion of Commie bastard traitors. How about the following?

  1. Merriam-Webster collegiate dictionary definition of "democracy": a) government by the people; especially : rule of the majority. b) a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly orindirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections. Gee, option b) sure looks like it contains the notion of "republic", dud'nit?
  2. American Heritage definition of "democracy:" "a) Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives." Gee, that contains the notion of the REPUBLIC, dud'nit?
  3. Wordsmyth Educational Dictionary definition of "democracy:" "1. a form of government in which power ultimately rests with the people, either directly or through elected representatives." Hmmm, sounds like....BINGO! REPUBLIC as a form of DEMOCRACY again!
  4. Oxford English Dictionary definition of "democracy": "1. Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them." OOOH, LOOK!!!! THE WORD "REPUBLIC" IS IN THERE IN SUBSIDIARY FORM! Is the Oxford English Dictionary part of the vast left-wing fruitcake homo commie media conspiracy to make you look stupid, or are you just wrong?

Don't expect pesky things like "evidence" and "dictionaries" to confuse Bill. He's got truth with a capital T straight from God. Let's wait for him to shoot off some more baloney...

Date: 4/12/2002 - 1:46 AM
Name: Bill

Comments: Oh boy! You actually tech poly sci. Now I know why most LAS programs are such a joke these days. Seeing as how your many reading of Marx would have never exposed you to the federalist papers or any other works by the founders, you may not realize that there is a distinct and marked difference in both the form and exucution of a constitutional republic and a democracy. Figure it out before you dig your hole deeper.

Oh, and all those 'definitions' you prattled out, very nice. It shows that elements of democracy do exist in a republic, but just because a dog and cat both have four legs, fur, and a tail does not make them the same animal. There are veryfundamental differences. Differences so great that it alters the way in which they work so substantially that no one could say they are the same thing. But keep trying, I am getting a good laugh out of your feeble attempts.

Date: 4/12/2002 - 6:59 AM
Name: Theodiclus Lock

Comments: I was right. Bill doesn't little things like "definitions" confuse him. I'll offer some new information now, and he'll dance around it without addressing it. Then he will insult me again as a tactic of distraction. Watch for it!

I have read the bloody Federalist papers, so don't presume. They are a document of the language of the BEGINNING OF THE 19th CENTURY. Furthermore, they are not actual laws or constitutional amendments or anything peskily "formal" like that. They are the PARTISAN POLITICAL writings of one man that use spin to further one side of what was a very dynamic intellectual argument. Don't take them at face value or as holy writs. The only dictionary definition that agrees with Madison is Webster 1818, in other words a contemporary of Madison. Madison is dead; language lives, and the people you complain about are using the accepted definitions of a living language.

Fast forward two centuries, Bill, and you'll find that the word "democracy" is defined to include ideas like "republic." Shall I pull out some more dictionaries? Nobody except those on the right fringe and two-centuries-dead folks restricts the meaning of "democracy" to direct, immediate, absolutely majoritarian rule. I used multiple bleedin' dictionaries to show you that. What does it take, Bill? What does it take? I think a previous poster had it right - you're using this linguistic charade, but really and truly you just don't like democracy of ANY kind. You don't trust the average person to know what's best for them. This is why people call you names like "reactionary," "elitist," and "snob."

So let's try again, Bill. A quote from the Enycyclopedia Britannica, hardly a lefty fruitcake operation: "The term has three basic senses in contemporary usage: (1) a form of government in which the right to make political decisions is exercised directlyby the whole body of citizens, acting under procedures of majority rule, usually known as direct democracy; (2) a form of government in which the citizens exercise the same right not in person but through representatives chosen by and responsible to them, known as representative democracy; and (3) a form of government, usually a representative democracy, in which the powers of the majority are exercised within a framework of constitutional restraints designed to guarantee all citizens the enjoyment of certain individual or collective rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, known as liberal, or constitutional, democracy." So, Bill, is the Encyclopedia Britannica wrong, or are you?

A final set of quotes, from an Encarta Encyclopedia contribution, by Richard Pious, PhD, professor at Columbia University: "In many democracies, such as the United States, both the executive head of government and the legislature are elected." Is Professor Pious of Columbia University wrong, or is Bill wrong?

Date: 4/12/2002 - 1:41 PM
Name: bill

Comments: So you are telling me that you and modern day academics know more about the way our government was set up and run than James Madison, who incidentally helped write the constitution? Wow! Now that is rich. Talk about elitist SOB's. Anduse all the dictionaries you want, it will never show that republic, based on certain democratic principles, is a democracy. Point, set and match for Bill and the '200 year old dead guys'.

Date: 4/12/2002 - 2:47 PM
Name: Theodiclus Lock

Comments: Bill, you miss the point by a mile. You came to this web site and made the strong claim that the United States does not fall under the definition of "democracy." Yours is an extraordinary claim. You need to back it up. You have not. Meanwhile, I have provided exhaustive documentation that the word "democracy" as used in modern usage is consistent with the U.S. system of government.

You seem to be responding with the bizarre claim that widely-respected authorities on modern usage of the word "democracy" are wrong. If people use the dictionary as a reference for what a word means, and the dictionary clearly includes an American form of government as a legitimate case of the word "democracy," you're kind of spitting in the wind, Bill. What you're left with is "all these dictionaries are wrong; the word means what I SAY it means. Stop using the dictionary definition!" Kind of arrogant.

Must it be said again? Madison is no god, your obeisance notwithstanding. Madison's papers do not represent an authorative, eternal, unchallenged declaration. They represent one man pushing his cookie, just like you are one man pushing your cookie. There is a long and continuing argument, involving Madison and hundreds of others, about what documents like the Constitution and concepts like "democracy" involve in practice. You don't get to step in and use one antiquated source to halt the use of language by others, particularly when their use of a word is consistent with modern practice and yours is not.

Looking forward to your next volley...

Don't let us do all the talking. Talk back!
Send us an Irregular Retort!

We're eager for your contribution, so submit your irregular essay for publication!

Return to Irregular Times