Is the United States of America the premier democracy in the world? Considering the political rancor of the last few decades concluded by the 2000 presidential election debacle, maybe not. Indeed, many Americans must be wondering exactly what form of government is the United States?

There are those who say it's not a democracy, it's a republic. But it's not a communist republic like the People's Republic of China or the People's Republic of Cuba or North Korea -- all patterned after the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. So, how can they be people's republics or republics at all, when they are authoritarian, totalitarian Communist Party dictatorships? It just sounds good to call them "People's Republics."

A republic is defined as a form of government with an elected president instead of a monarch, in which sovereign power is widely vested in the people through elected representatives responsible to them. However, a republic is also defined as a form of government wherein the head of state is not a monarch and the people are involved in similar or equal activity. The latter definition must be how dictators get away with calling their nations people's republics. It's politically correct for them.

A democracy is defined as government by the people either directly, or through elected representatives. The question again: Is the United States a democracy or a republic? We have an elected president and we elect representative who are supposed to be responsible to us. Therefore, we must be a republic of representative democracy. And we must be more of a democracy than a republic, right?

Probably not. There are few, if any, forms of government in history that could be described as pure republics because it's vaguely defined, but there has been a form of government that was a pure democracy. In fact, it was not only a pure democracy, it was where democracy was born in 5th century B.C. Athens, Greece. Athenian democracy was truly government by the people and it resulted in one of the greatest early civilizations.

Athenian democracy lasted for over 200 years. Democracy was practiced briefly in Rome and Florence, but it did not surface again until the American and French revolutions. And, of course, we know that America's constitutional democratic republic was better conceived in its institutions, and stronger and more resilient than any other to this day.

Greek philosopher, Plato favored a republic over pure democracy because he felt that the people were too ignorant and unsophisticated to govern themselves. But Plato's Republic and his dream society of Atlantis were markedly different from what Americans recognize as their republic. Indeed, Plato's idea for society was to have a philosopher king. Some say he had ambitions for himself to replace Athenian Democracy as a philospher king. Plato turned against democracy because be blamed it for mentor Socrates' death.

Though he did not invent it, Pericles was the Athenian who refined direct democracy and their culture. Plato was born the year after Pericles died. He went on to deride Pericles and Democracy, which only survived another 50 years. The most comprehensive study of the first democracy can be found in Donald Kagan's book, "Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy."

Constitutional founders, Madison and Hamilton subscribed to Plato's view that pure democracies were short-lived and violent in their demise. They opted for a scheme of representation that was supposed to control the effects of factions, but it hasn't worked very well. George Washington and Thomas Paine knew better. And Athenian democracy was Thomas Jefferson's dream for America.

And that brings us to what could be described as a disturbing conclusion:
By whatever definition, our 225 year-old democratic republic is in trouble and the people are steeped in uncertainty. The federal government has become too large and powerful. It has usurped too much power from the states and, with the growing global economy, corporate America has attained too much influence over government.

Representative democracy was supposed to be based on wisdom of the best of us to represent the rest of us, but it's evolved into a dominant two-party system of elections and government that smacks of the wrong kind of republic. Clearly, the political system of powerful interests have compromised our representatives, eroded democracy and betrayed the people.

Thomas Jefferson wisely and prophetically observed, "That government is best which governs least." Indeed, activist government growth has been largely responsible for the rise of social dependency and aggression, political terrorism, legal anarchy and media-driven chaos. And it has nearly turned our public schools into factories of ignorance and warehouses of violence.

America has been assaulted by selfish interests and battered by the failures of good intentions long enough. The people have tried to exercise more democracy, with efforts like voter initiatives and spontaneous support for Ross Perot's presidential candidacy based upon his electronic townhall and government by the people, but the imbalance persists. Perot turned out to be a fraud and most ballot initiatives have been frustrated by state legislatures and the courts or dominated by moneyed interests.

Alas, those in power call America a democracy when they want the people's support, and a republic when they don't. Certainly, major problems like unrestrained government, failing education, inadequate voting systems, social and economic stress, and the energy crisis cry out for truth, real solutions and more democracy, not less.

After all, we don't want to become anything like a "People's Republic," do we? Fortunately, democracy and education are experiencing welcome reforms thanks to the information technology revolution and the Internet...

Daniel B. Jeffs, founder
The Direct Democracy Center