Article IV of the U.S. Constitution guarantees to every state a Republican form of government. Unfortunately, the Constitution does not define or explain what is meant by the term. What we do know is that the Framers were not using the term in any way as a reference to the Republican Party of today (the Republican Party was formed in the middle of the 19th century and the Constitution was ratified in the late 18th century). Understanding the reference to a Republican form of government is important to the overall discussion of democracy in the United States and around the world and merits a closer look.
Some believe that the answer is to be found in the writings of various Framers; or in the pages of the Federalist Papers. Others believe the matter has been resolved by the courts or by various acts of Congress over the years. In reality, the term continues in popular and academic circles without a definite understanding. Generally speaking, “republicanism” provides an alternative to monarchies, dictatorships, and other forms of non-democratic government. There appears to be widespread agreement on the role that representation plays in republics if by representation we mean that legitimate government power is based on the consent of the governed. There is also widespread agreement that republican forms of government provide an alternative to forms of direct democracy (government that allows for citizens to directly make laws without the participation of elected or otherwise empowered officials). This latter point raises some questions; for example, what do we say about governments based on the decisions of elected representatives that also allow for initiatives, propositions, referendums and other direct forms of participation? Are such governments “republican” as far as the Constitution is concerned?
For a different take on the meaning of a republican form of government read Tim Heald’s piece in the Telegraph. Republican forms of government abound throughout the world. How does our’s compare.