By Charles Layton (Originally posted on BF in 2012)
Are the Democrats democrats? That question arose this week when the leader of the Neptune Democratic Club tried to prevent a group of Ocean Grovers from expressing their opinion at a Club meeting. One of those Grovers said later that the meeting was “undemocratic.”
But here are two other questions: Are Republicans democrats? Are Democrats republicans? While the answer to that first question may be unclear, the answers to the latter two questions are, for the most part, “yes” and “yes.”
What am I talking about?
I’m talking about what the names of our two major parties actually mean. Here’s some history. In the beginning, the United States was non-partisan – that is, it had no political parties. The writers of the Constitution didn’t want parties to take root here, as they had in England. George Washington was not a member of a party while he was President.
But because of a policy split within Washington’s administration, we soon had a Federalist Party (led by Alexander Hamilton) and then a Democratic-Republican Party (led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson). After the Federalists went into decline, there arose the pro-Andrew Jackson Democrats and the anti-slavery Republicans, and although the policies of those two parties have altered in various ways over time, the names have stuck. But what do those names mean? What did they ever mean?
Well, a republic (notice the lower-case “r”) is a government that’s not a monarchy or a dictatorship, but rather is run by officials elected by the “public.” After the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had completed its work, a group of citizens gathered around Benjamin Franklin and asked him, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
A democracy (again, small “d”) is technically a government in which all the citizens make public policy. But really, it’s almost always a “representative democracy” rather than a “pure” one, which is to say we elect people to make laws and run things, and if a majority of us don’t like the way they do that, we kick them out. Not much distinction, really, between that and a republic.
In a 1964 convention speech, President Lyndon Johnson, quoting Jefferson, said, “We are all Democrats. We are all Republicans.” But Johnson misquoted Jefferson. What our third President actually said, at his 1801 inauguration, was this: “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.” (Federalism refers to a system in which power is shared between a central authority, the “federal” government, and other units within that – states or provinces).
What I say is, we are all republicans, we are all democrats, we are all federalists. But what I also say is, Jefferson and Johnson both had their capitalization wrong; they were referring to republicans small-r, democrats small-d and federalists small-f.
And that is today’s language lesson: when you’re referring to members of the Democratic Party, it’s upper-case D. When you’re referring to “democrats” meaning people who believe in “democracy,” the d is lower case.
Thank you, my fellow federalists.