This quotation by Walt Whitman is from Democratic Vistas, which was published in 1871. Whitman's statement that the history of democracy “has yet to be enacted” might be confusing to anyone who was taught in school that ancient Athens was the “Cradle of Democracy” or that America sparked a rebirth of democracy in 1776 with our Declaration of Independence and subsequent victory in the American Revolution. Whitman clearly did not believe that ancient Athens or America at its founding were true democracies and felt that most people did not understand “the real gist” of democracy.
“Democracy” is a word that is used frequently, often used a bit too casually, and sometimes deliberately misused. Democracy has, and has always had, a great many false friends and true enemies who have actively, relentlessly, and successfully sought to prevent people from developing a shared understanding of democracy or even agree upon a clear definition of democracy.
The work of making America a perfect democracy begins with agreeing upon a clear definition of democracy and developing a shared understanding of the elements that make a government a true democracy - and a perfect democracy.
George Orwell addressed the problem of defining democracy in his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946). He made the point that "the great enemy of clear language is insincerity”, resulting from “a gap between one's real and one's declared aims”. In that context, he identified some political words that have been “abused” to the point that they have “several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another”. Regarding democracy, he said:
“In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic, we are praising it: consequently, the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.”
It is true that the term democracy has come to mean different things to different people but attempts to define democracy are not “resisted from all sides” – only by the defenders of other kinds of regimes – the false friends and true enemies of democracy.
For anyone who is sincere and feels no need to hide their real aims, defining “democracy” is a simple matter. The word is derived from the Greek word demokratia, which was formed from two other Greek words: demos (meaning “the people”) and kratia (which means “have power”). A democratic government, therefore, is one in which the people have power. Another Greek word – kratos, which means “to rule” – is also relevant here. In a democracy, the people rule.
With all due respect to George Orwell, there has been some agreement on a definition of democracy. Several enlightened theologians and politicians have defined it, with slight variations, as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”.
We can define it more succinctly. Government of the people is a given. The people of every nation-state are governed. Government being “for the people” is rare. Most of the governments around the world today and throughout history have served the private interests of a ruling class or a “power elite” rather than promoting “general Welfare”. If we want government of the people to be government for the people, we must have government by the people. Democracy is -
In this passage from his Second Treatise of Government, Locke used the term “perfect democracy” in the same way the term “pure democracy” is sometimes used to describe the form of government commonly known as direct democracy. Locke devoted much of the rest of his Second Treatise to discussing the elements that make “the consent of the people” the only “lawful basis” for government.
Locke identified majority rule as the essential element that makes the form of a government a perfect democracy. He asserted that the majority have “the whole power of the community naturally in them” because “every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation, to everyone of that society, to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be concluded by it". Locke also identified two other elements that flow from majority rule: an equal vote (or equal representation) for every citizen and the supremacy of the legislative power.
It is impossible to accurately determine the will of the majority unless every citizen has an equal vote and/or equal representation. Locke stressed the importance of maintaining “a state…of equality wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another…for it is the interest as well as the intention of the people to have fair and equal representation.”
Regarding the supremacy of the legislative power, Locke stated that “there can be but one supreme power, which is the legislative, to which all the rest are and must be subordinate.” The supremacy of the legislative power is established and maintained by having the laws that are made by the people executed by “officers of their own appointing”.
When we consider that the “real gist” of democracy is that all these elements must be in place to make a government a true democracy, Walt Whitman’s assertion, in 1871, that the history of democracy “has yet to be enacted” is easier to understand.
Majority rule, an equal vote and equal representation for all, and the supremacy of the legislative power make a government a true democracy and put the form of a perfect democracy in place. Several additional elements must be in place to make a government a Perfect Democracy. Among the citizens who choose to be politically active, a majority must be well-educated, well-informed, and, most importantly, must respect the rights of others. In other words, a majority of politically active citizens must understand that (as Locke put it) “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom”.
The argument could be made that for a government to be a perfect democracy, in the strictest sense of the term, all politically active citizens should meet those criteria. However, just as Locke pointed out that democracies act upon “the consent of the majority” because “it is impossible” to obtain the “the consent of every individual”, we may bestow the honorific of “Perfect Democracy” on a government where most of the citizens who choose to be politically active are well-educated, well-informed, and respect the rights of others.
Within a government with the form of a perfect democracy, a government is as good or bad as the majority of politically active citizens. As the percentage of politically active citizens who are well-educated, well-informed, and respectful of the rights of others increases, a government comes closer and closer to being a perfect democracy.
If we revisit Aristotle’s division of the types of government into “true” forms and “perversions” of those forms with these criteria in mind, we can say that: If a majority of politically active citizens are well-educated, well-informed, or respectful of the rights of others, a government is a true democracy and a good form of government. Conversely, if a majority of politically active citizens are not well-educated, not well-informed, and not respectful of the rights of others, the result is a government that is a perversion of true democracy and a bad form of government.
John Locke seemed to be aware that the form of government he advocated was best suited for small, local governments. He consistently used the terms “community” and “society” rather than nation or country. He also acknowledged the right of a majority of the members of a community to “put the power of making laws into the hands of a few select men, and their heirs or successors; and then it is an oligarchy”.
The fact that he used the term “oligarchy” (rather than “aristocracy”) to describe a government where the people “put the power of making laws into the hands of a few select men” is significant. Locke was clearly familiar with Aristotle’s system of classifying governments. Aristotle used the term “aristocracy” to describe the “true” form of government by the few (where those who share power “govern with a view to the common interest”) and “oligarchy” to describe the “perversion” of government by the few (where those who share power “govern with a view to the private interest”). Locke’s use of the term “oligarchy” may reflect the belief (shared by others) that if the power to enact laws is delegated to “a few select men” the resulting government may be more likely to represent private interests, rather than the common interest.
From the dawn of civilization until the end of the 19th century (when referendums and the initiative were introduced in some states in America and some countries in Europe), the sort of direct democracy Locke described was not considered possible on a large scale. As John Adams observed, “In a large society, inhabiting an extensive country, it is impossible that the whole should assemble, to make laws. The first necessary step then is to depute power from the many to a few of the most wise and good.”
The term “representative democracy” has come to be commonly used to describe a government where the people have delegated the legislative power to a representative assembly. However, to be a “representative democracy” a government must be a true democracy. If citizens delegate the power to enact laws to “a few select men”, they must have equal representation, and both the people at large and the few to whom the power to enact laws is delegated must, again, understand that (as stated in the Declaration of Independence) we are all “endowed by (our) Creator” with “certain unalienable Rights” and that the primary purpose of government is “to secure these rights”.
In his Thoughts on Government (1776), John Adams offered his description of the ideal "Representative Assembly":
This description of the ideal representative assembly remains as useful and relevant today as it was in 1776. Congress and state legislatures in America have, however, fallen far short of this ideal. Common sense tells us, and research confirms, that “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” [From a study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page]
Providing “equal representation” for every citizen in large, populous nation-states has proven difficult. When the people have chosen to “depute power” to "a few of the most wise and good”, experience has confirmed Lord Acton’s well-known observation that “Power tends to corrupt.” Even if those chosen as representatives are “wise and good” and intend to “govern with a view to the common interest” at the time they are elected, they tend to be corrupted by power over time. This is especially true in the United States, where getting elected and remaining in office requires continually raising enormous amounts of money.
At the time Walt Whitman wrote Democratic Vistas, slavery had finally been abolished in America and Black males had been given the right to vote but were routinely threatened with violence or the threat of violence when they attempted to exercise their right to vote. Women’s right to vote had not yet been recognized. And legislative assemblies in both Europe and America fell far short of providing equal representation for all the “governed”.
Democracy began to awaken about a quarter of a century after Whitman wrote Democratic Vistas. Between 1898 and 1920, women gained the right to vote in Europe and America, various forms of proportional representation were implemented in Europe, and 23 of the states that made up the United States at that time amended their constitutions to adopt two powerful forms of direct democracy – referendums and the initiative.
Although these were significant and enduring victories for democracy, the point that Whitman made in 1871 remains valid today, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent. Many people still do not understand that “the real gist” of democracy is that all major political decisions, including the form of a government, the “just powers” of a government, what laws are enacted, what rights are secured and protected, and what public policies are put in place, are made with “the consent of the governed”.
That consent is properly obtained in one of two ways: Through referendums with each citizen having an equal vote and the votes of the majority determining the outcome, or through a representative assembly, with every citizen having equal representation. Votes taken in a representative assembly should correlate strongly (ideally perfectly) with how the people would have voted, if voting directly.
Whether exercised directly by the people, or indirectly through representative assemblies, the legislative power should be supreme. The veto power should reside with the people, not with a president or a governor. The role of the executive is to carry out (execute) the laws and polices put in place by the people or the representative assembly. The role of the courts is to determine if laws have been broken, and to determine an appropriate penalty when laws have been broken. If the Supreme Court believes legislation violates the Constitution, they should advise Congress or a state legislature of their opinion. The Supreme Court should not have the power to unilaterally strike down legislation supported by a majority of the people (the governed).
Even though Americans today are deeply and bitterly divided, and despite all the anger, animosity, fear, and hatred being sown by media in search of profits and some politicians in search of votes, America is much closer to being a perfect democracy than most people realize.
Thanks to technology, beginning with the printing press and, more recently, the Internet, it is no longer necessary for the people of a large, populous nation to assemble in one place to discuss the issues of the day, share ideas regarding the best solutions to the problems we face as a nation, and vote on what solutions should be implemented. At the same time, the mundane, yet essential, business of keeping a modern nation state functioning involves detailed decision-making on matters that of are of little interest to most citizens. Implementing and maintaining a Perfect Democracy in the 21stcentury requires establishing and sustaining a delicate balance between direct democracy and representative democracy.
Most Americans are familiar with two phrases from the Declaration of Independence: that “all men are created equal” and that we have “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. Many Americans are less familiar with one additional right that is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence: that "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [securing our Rights], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
We need to exercise our Right to alter the form of our government. We need to build on the victories of the Progressive Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries combining John Locke’s vision of pure (direct) democracy and John Adams’ vision of the ideal representative assembly.
We should put a system in place that ensures that when Congress or a state legislature has failed to enact legislation supported by a majority of the voters, it should be relatively easy to enact that legislation through the initiative. And whenever it appears likely that Congress or a state legislature has enacted legislation that is opposed by a majority of the people, it should be relatively easy to call a referendum to find out if that is the case.
Three elegantly simple, yet incredibly powerful, reforms will accomplish that goal:
These reforms are foundational and transformative. They will make it much easier to enact the other reforms that are needed to make America a perfect democracy.
This website is a condensed version of a soon to be published book (Government by the People: A Citizen's Guide to Making America a Perfect Democracy). This website and the book are intended to serve as educational resources that will help concerned citizens develop a shared understanding of democracy and the reforms needed to make America a perfect democracy. And, most importantly, to unite in support of a plan to get those reforms enacted.
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The material on this website is adapted from a soon to be published book: Government by the People: A Citizen's Guide to Making America a Perfect Democracy by Winston Apple.
This website was created by, is maintained by, and paid for by Winston Apple, Content is Copyright 2024 Gary Winston Apple, unless noted..
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