American Democracy in Practice
Democracy in the United States of America
The relationship between democracy and government in the United States of America has long been tentative and sometimes even contradictory. Truly, democracy has been a strong current in the river of American political thought, experience, and political culture. Undoubtedly, the hope for, and pursuit of, democracy have been major contributors to the very popular notion that the U.S. A. is a democratic nation. From the beginnings of the American republic, democratic ideas have persisted and been influential. Unfortunately, despite their persistence and influence, democratic ideas have taken a back seat to other ideas and institutional frameworks.
Democracy may not prove in the long run to be as efficient as other forms of government, but it has one saving grace: it allows us to know and say that it isn’t.
Political scientist Michael Parenti, wrote in his essay, A Constitution for the Few: Looking Back to the Beginning, (International Endowment for Democracy, www.ifed), “To understand the U.S. political system, it would help to investigate its origins and fundamental structure, beginning with the Constitution. The men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 strove to erect a strong central government. They agreed with Adam Smith that government was “instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor.” He cites sources that show that by 1760, fewer than five hundred men in five colonial cities controlled most of the commerce, shipping, banking, mining, and manufacturing on the eastern seaboard. In the period from the American Revolution to the Constitutional Convention (1776-1787), the big landowners, merchants, and bankers exercised a strong influence over politico-economic life, often dominating the local newspapers which voiced the ideas and interests of commerce. In twelve of the thirteen states (Pennsylvania excepted), only property-owning white males could vote, probably not more than 10 percent of the total adult population.
“The specter of Shays’ Rebellion hovered over the delegates who gathered in Philadelphia… They were determined that persons of birth and fortune should control the affairs of the nation and check the ‘leveling impulses’ of the propertyless multitude who composed ‘the majority faction.’”
“To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction,” wrote James Madison in Federalist No. 10, “and at the same time preserve the spirit and form of popular government is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.”
Here Madison touched the heart of the matter: how to keep the “form” and appearance of popular government with only a minimum of the substance; how to construct a government that would win some popular support but would not tamper with the existing class structure—a government strong enough to service the growing needs of an entrepreneurial class while withstanding the democratic egalitarian demands of the popular class.
The framers were of the opinion that democracy was “the worst of all political evils,” as Elbridge Gerry put it. For Edmund Randolph, the country’s problems were caused by “the turbulence and follies of democracy.” Roger Sherman concurred, “The people should have as little to do as may be about the Government.” According to Alexander Hamilton, “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the wellborn, the other the mass of the people. . . . The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.” He recommended a strong centralized state power to “check the imprudence of democracy.” And George Washington, the presiding officer at the Philadelphia Convention, urged the delegates not to produce a document “merely to please the people.”
Parenti further argues that, “In keeping with their desire to contain the propertyless majority, the founders inserted what Madison called “auxiliary precautions,” designed to fragment power without democratizing it. They separated the executive, legislative, and judicial functions and then provided a system of checks and balances among the various branches, including staggered elections, executive veto, the possibility of overturning the veto with a two thirds majority vote in both houses, Senate confirmation of appointments and ratification of treaties, and a bicameral legislature. They hoped to dilute the impact of popular sentiments. Also, they contrived an elaborate and difficult process for amending the Constitution, requiring proposal by two-thirds of both the Senate and the House, and ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures. To the extent that it existed at all, the majoritarian principle was tightly locked into a system of minority vetoes, making swift and sweeping popular action less likely.
...Second, not only must the majority be prevented from finding horizontal cohesion, but its vertical force, its upward thrust upon government, should be blunted by interjecting indirect forms of representation. Thus, the senators from each state were to be elected by their respective state legislatures rather than directly by the voters. The chief executive was to be selected by an electoral college elected by the people but, as anticipated by the framers, composed of political leaders and men of substance who months later would gather in their various states and choose a president of their own liking. It was believed that they would usually be unable to muster a majority for any one candidate, and that the final selection would be left to the House, with each state delegation therein having only one vote.
In sum, the Constitution was consciously designed as a conservative document, elaborately equipped with a system of minority locks and dams in order to resist the pressure of popular tides.”
But the case is not that one sided, even for Parenti. He underscores the American ambivalence toward democracy in the same essay when he writes, “For all its undemocratic aspects, the Constitution was not without its historically progressive features. Consider the following:
(editor’s note: election for a finite term is not the same as term limits which limits the number of terms that can be won by an office holder.)
Following Parenti’s advice to look at the origins of the U.S. political system in order to understand it, I observe a fundamental ambiguity toward democracy in America on the part of citizens of the time as well as the constitution writers. On the one hand, drawing on their perceptions of direct democracy in Athens and in some Swiss cantons and their desire for self-government, early New England settlers from Europe developed a participatory form of local decision making which culminated in a fairly widespread practice of annual town meetings in which the assembled citizens made the town’s laws. This tradition of New England-style town meetings still survives in some local governments in the region, albeit with the modern imposition of city managers and other administrative devices. It also re-surfaced in the Progressive movement of the early 20th century and led to many local and state limitations on centralized power.
However, despite the prevalence of New England town meetings in early U.S. history and the strength of the Progressive movement, it is clear from a reading of the historical record that the philosophical soil of the colonies was far more hospitable to republicanism than democracy. To the extent that the emerging political culture reflected a democratic bent rather than being purely republican in eschewing a monarchy, it tended to embrace the presidential form of representative democracy. A plausible explanation lies in the founders’ experiences as colonial subjects. Their bad experiences under the British caused them to steer away from monarchy and led them to adopt a form of indirect presidential representative democracy as a conservative alternative to direct democracy or straightforward representative democracy. Along with this, and undoubtedly stemming from the same colonial experiences, they promoted a strong set of civil liberties that ensured minority rights since they distrusted majorities and feared them economically and politically.
The U.S. Constitution, as originally adopted, reflected this ambiguity, although a good case can be made that, in the main, it tilted against democracy. The original document incorporated the straightforward democratic elements of the direct election of the U.S. House of Representatives. Balancing this was the indirect election of the President and the Senate and the enfranchisement of only propertied white males. The democratic currents in U.S. political culture have led us to enfranchise all adults and elect the Senate directly, although the indirect election of the President still is the case, since the Electoral College is more than an historical artifact and has, indeed, led to awarding the office to a candidate who actually received fewer votes than his opponent four times, in the 1824 selection of John Quincy Adams, the 1876 selection of Rutherford B. Hayes, the 1888 selection of Benjamin Harrison, and the 2000 selection of George W. Bush.
The Constitution of the United States of America was not penned as a democratic document. Article IV Section 4 of the Constitution states: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government.” As understood by political scientists, this means a government that is not a monarchy or dictatorship, but not necessarily a democracy. The founders of this nation wanted to free themselves from the British monarchy but did not intend to turn significant power over to the citizens. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution even mention democracy. In fact, the founders’ writings make it abundantly clear that they feared giving too much power to the people, the major reason why they created a constitutional system of separation of powers and checks and balances system that is designed (and works) to prevent general elections. Americans cannot vote to change (or re-elect) the entire government in one election or even in a series of elections.
The present constitution (as amended over the years) allows Americans to vote for the House of Representatives every two years, but we vote only indirectly (given the electoral college) for the President every other election. We also vote for only one third of the Senate at a time (originally, the founders had the state legislatures appoint Senators) and we never vote for the federal judiciary. Frequently, we are left with a divided government with a different party (and a majority from a different election) holding each house and/or a Congress controlled by one party and the White House controlled by another. While this is firmly entrenched as desirable in the American civic ethic, it is also a recipe for gridlock and frustration of majority opinion. No matter how united on a cause the U.S. electorate may be, most of the government remains untouched and the will of the electorate is not brought to bear in a given national election.
Looking at these numbers, powerful and well-funded interests use this divided government to their advantage by being aware of the de facto veto points in the system and exploiting them to block legislation that they do not like. Toward this end, they concentrate their resources to bankroll and elect just enough sympathetic Senators to stop a majority in that house or support a President who will appoint sympathetic Supreme Court judges, thereby effectively holding the entire political system hostage to their wants. That is much harder to do in a system where it takes an absolute majority of the entire government to block legislative action, such as in a parliamentary system.
As previously mentioned, a profoundly undemocratic element in our system is the Electoral College with its winner-take-all awarding to a candidates who might only win 50.1% of the vote in a given state. Also undemocratic is our campaign finance system and the little-remarked but very significant two-from-each-state apportionment of the Senate which gives people from Wyoming (population 576.412) a staggering 67 times the per-capita representation in the U.S. Senate than California (population 38,041,430), or 33.5 more representation than Florida (population 19,317,568).
A parliamentary system such as is found in Canada, Britain, and much of Europe comes much closer to the representative democratic model than the hybrid model of the U.S.A. Voters in parliamentary systems can, and occasionally do, change their governments at a single election. Moreover, since the executive in a parliamentary system is, by definition, the leader of the majority party, there is no divided government and resulting gridlock that is common in the U.S. The winners have a majority and use it to enact their platform and answer to voters at the next election about the popularity of their policies. In some cases (rare in Canada and England where rules discourage rather than outlaw a proliferation of multiple political parties), no party gets a majority at a general election and the largest vote-getter forms a coalition government.
The conclusion is that, despite beliefs to the contrary, the U.S. has evolved into a hybrid partially-democratic republic and not a representative democracy. The stark reality is that the American people can never go to the ballot box and elect or un-elect a whole government, which is a requirement for indirect democracy and an incentive for government adherence to public opinion. Perhaps low voter turnout is due to the sense (even unconsciously) that voting seldom changes things in a fundamental manner.
Our founders’ vision of a checks and balances system that frustrates the will of the majority persists today. We have democratic elements in the system such as the bi-annual election of the entire House of Representatives. We have also abolished property qualifications for voters, enfranchised women and racial minorities, and allowed the direct election of the Senate (albeit, one third at a time). But these laudable reforms have not transformed us into a democracy.
Clearly, the U.S.A. in the 21st century is not governed by a huge town meeting or online referendum (although New England Town Meetings still persist and people are asked to vote on state and local policy referenda from time to time), so it is not a direct democracy. It does not qualify as a representative democracy either because of staggered elections and unevenly apportioned districts. We elect an independent President (with veto power) every four years, one third of the Senate every two years, all of the House of Representatives every two years, and never elect the judiciary which is appointed for life.
Fortunately, our governmental model works for us more often than not because of our history and shared culture. Many who analyze contemporary American culture, journalism, and education observe that it is a fundamental and pervasive civic belief of Americans that the United States is a democracy. Americans also widely believe that American democracy works so well that it constitutes a worthy model for other nations to emulate in their constitutions and government.
However, history has not borne this out. It has not been particularly exportable because of its unique roots in our history, and it is not very often emulated as a form of government by nations with a different culture and history. Moreover, it is an open question whether it works for us in the current environment of mass communication, and whether alternative forms of self-government might serve our nation better.
Understanding how most of the world views democracy and the extent to which the U.S.A. fits that definition is an important task because definitions and the shared cultural understandings that emanate from them have consequences. They color our political and civic expectations of each other and have a significant impact on how our government views and treats us as citizens. They are also important drivers of both domestic and foreign policy and play a role in how we are viewed by other nations as well as how we view them.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish