Wishful Linguistics

A commenter on one of the republic vs. democracy threads writes,

Perhaps my dictionary says different things, but “representative democracy” is a contradiction.

“Democracy” is a system of government rule by the people–all of the people. Referring to a “republic” or a “democratic republic” as a democracy strikes me as improper. Even if the common usage today of the word “democracy” is a form of government similar to ours, where representatives are democratically elected, this still strikes me as incorrect. “Democratic” is not the same as “democracy.”

A “republic,” on the other hand, need not even be “democratic” in nature, although ours unquestionably has democratic methods of choosing representatives.

I suspect, as the resolution did, that this was intentional by the framers. I don’t approve of their methods of asserting it, but I do think that their basic reason for doing so was correct. No state government in this country is a “democracy,” although it’s arguable that methods like the one used in Proposition 8 reek of the democracy that the framers feared.

Now when on one side we have John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and St. George Tucker using the phrase “representative democracy,” and on the other side a commenter saying that it’s “a contradiction,” it seems to me that the presumption of validity is on Adams et al.’s side. After all, the “contradiction” is present only if democracy indeed means “rule by the people directly.” Obviously it didn’t mean this to Adams et al., as their use of “representative democracy” reflects. Obviously it doesn’t mean this to most English speakers today, as the dictionaries reflect. The asserted “contradiction” is based on an assumption about the meaning of a word that does not seem to be borne out in actual English usage.

What is the basis of this assumption? As I said, it’s not actual usage. It’s not the authority of eminent commentators. It’s not logic, since there’s nothing illogical in defining democracy to mean government by the people, directly or through representatives.

I think what we’re seeing is what one might call “wishful linguistics” (or perhaps “wishful semantics”): The only basis I can see for the commenter’s statement is that he thinks it would be good if democracy were defined a particular way — it would make things clearer for people, or would better advance some worldview, or some such. I’ve certainly often heard such arguments about other usage matters: It’s wrong to use word X to mean Y, because that will cause confusion or will eliminate a useful distinction or what have you.

Now as it happens I don’t think that using “democracy” to mean only direct government by the people is going to help foster clear thinking. Certainly the term “direct democracy” is available to mean that; and the umbrella term “democracy” meaning government by pretty much all the adult citizens, whether directly or through their representatives, reflects a pretty important concept for which it’s useful to have a single term.

But that, it seems to me, is a tangent, because wishful linguistics can at most tell us what we want words to mean, not what they actually mean. The meaning of a word is what that word means to actual users of the language. To say that “Georgia … is not a democracy” cannot mean (at least under any standard definitions of “is” and “mean” that I know of) “Georgia is a democracy under the standard modern meaning of ‘democracy,’ but we think that the definition of ‘democracy’ should [for these reasons] be changed to mean something else.”

If you want to say that you think it would be better if people used words in a different way, go ahead and say that. I suspect your attempt to change usage will be futile, but who knows? Sometimes some such campaigns succeed. But make clear that you’re engaged in wishful linguistics, rather than actual assertions about logic or contradictions. If a term is a “contradiction” only under your wishful definition, and is perfectly consistent under the actual usage of the term, then it’s not really a “contradiction.”

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