Do we live in a democracy or a republic?

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that we began referring to ourselves as a “democracy” more frequently at the same time that our country became more (directly) democratic.

Do we live in a democracy or a republic? Let’s ask Google. I used Google’s ngram viewer to search TONS of books written since 1780. 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. Here’s the chart from Google (click to enlarge):

Democracy or republic? An n-gram

Democracy or republic? An n-gram

Why would there have been such a shift in usage in the early 1900s? I have a guess. 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.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that we began referring to ourselves as a “democracy” more frequently at the same time that our country became more (directly) democratic.

Coincidentally, references to our second and third presidents seem to follow the same pattern. Maybe that’s not a coincidence either. Here’s the chart (click to enlarge):

Jefferson vs Adams ngram

Jefferson vs Adams ngram

Makes me wonder if we’ll see a movement to build a “John Adams” monument in Washington DC that’s as beautiful and prominent as the Jefferson Memorial.

Update (7/11/2011): See a far more thorough treatment of this topic in “Do we live in a compound constitutional republic?

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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