The work of making our government our own begins with some shared understandings:
This website is intended to foster these shared understandings and propose two foundational reforms that would make our government more democratic and make it easier to enact the additional reforms that are necessary to make America a true democracy. You will also find an overview of those additional reforms along with an Action Plan detailing exactly what we need to do to get these reforms enacted.
The clearest and most concise summary of the ideals upon which our nation was founded can be found in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all (people) are created equal, that (we) are endowed by (our) Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among (Us), deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, 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 affect their Safety and Happiness.
Thomas Jefferson was clearly inspired by John Locke as he wrote the Declaration of Independence. The ideas espoused by Locke in his Second Treatise of Government make a compelling case that no government is legitimate unless it enjoys the consent of the governed, and that consent is rendered by majority rule.
The word "democracy is not mentioned anywhere in the Declaration of Independence (or our Constitution), but the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, in reflecting the ideas of John Locke - that we are all born with natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that we institute governments to secure and protect those rights, that governments derive their "just powers" from the "consent of the governed" and we retain the right to change our form of government - all point to democracy.
Democracy has a great many false friends who have worked very hard to create the illusion of democracy while avoiding a clear definition of democracy and rejecting majority rule. A clear definition of democracy and a shared of understanding of democracy is essential to working together to establish a true democracy.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell makes the point that "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity". In that context, he addresses the difficulty of defining democracy:
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."
For anyone with sincere intentions, defining “democracy” is a simple matter. The word was formed from a combination of the Greek words “demos”, which means “the people” and “kratia”, which means “have power”. A democratic government, therefore, is one in which the people have power.
Working with a clear definition of democracy, judging whether a government is truly democratic is a simple matter. In a true democracy the will of a majority of the people determines public policies and what laws are passed.
In a “direct democracy” the people vote directly on public policies and laws. For this reason, direct democracy is sometimes referred to as "pure democracy". In a “representative democracy” citizens elect some of their fellow citizens to act and vote on their behalf. Representative democracy is rarely "pure" but has been seen as a necessary compromise when the territory to be governed and/or the population of a country grow beyond a limited size. The goal for representative democracies should be for the elected representatives to reflect the will of the people as accurately as possible. ay something interesting about your business here.
One of the best examples of direct democracy is also the earliest. The main democratic body in Athens was the assembly, which met from one to three times per month. All of the male citizens of Athens over the age of 18 had equal political rights, including freedom of speech, the right to address the assembly, and the right to vote. After each issue was discussed, a vote was taken by a show of hands with the majority determining the outcome. The decisions of the assembly were final – not subject to veto.
The primary flaw in Athenian democracy was the fact that the right to participate in governing was limited to male citizens. That flaw was shared by governments in America during the colonial period and in the early years of government under our Constitution. Amendments to our Constitution gradually expanded the right to vote and hold office but those rights have been, and are, continually under attack and other anti-democratic elements are still present in our version of democracy. The result has been a wide gap between the will of the people and the acts of Congress and most state legislatures.
In the "Democracy Index" (which is issued annually by The Economist) the United States is currently ranked as the 25th most democratic country in the world - in the upper range of the second tier in the index: "flawed democracies". We will reap considerable benefits, individually and as a nation, if we pass the legislation needed to make America a true democracy.
Any provisions within a Constitution or flaws in the manner in which elections are conducted that allow a minority to overrule the majority are, by definition, anti-democratic. There are numerous such flaws in the way we conduct elections and several such provisions within our Constitution.
Most of the 55 men who drafted our Constitution were not fond of democracy. They knew that the Declaration of Independence had stirred the passions of Americans with the promise of democracy, but they were determined to protect the wealthy from what one delegate referred to as "the turbulence of follies of democracy". many of the delegates chimed in with similar assessments of democracy.
The men who drafted our Constitution did a masterful job of creating the illusion of democracy, while retaining most of the power for business interests and the wealthy. They gave the people the right to elect one-half of one of the three branches of government - the House of Representatives - and then gave the rest of the government three "checks" on any legislation passed by the House. The Senate had to concur on any legislation passed by the House. The president could veto legislation passed by Congress. And the Supreme Court could declare a law to be unconstitutional. And none of these other three branches were to be elected by the people. The Senate was originally elected by state legislatures. (That was changed by the 17th Amendment, which provided for direct election of senators.) The president was (and still is) elected by the Electoral College, not by popular vote. And Supreme Court Justices were (and are) nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Over time, the manner in which we conduct elections (winner-take-all elections combined with single-member districts for Congress and state legislatures) has led to a duopoly (a two-party system) and that has, in turn, led to other problems - the corrupting influence of money, gerrymandering, barriers to entry for minor party and independent candidates, negative campaigning, et cetera. Although the House of Representatives was designed to be the part of the federal government that represented the will of the people, as a result of these flaws in the way we conduct elections, even the House of Representatives often does a better job of representing corporate interests and tax-averse billionaires than it does of representing "we the people".
The work of making our government our own involves making the House of Representatives truly reflective of the will of the people and amending our Constitution to remove anti-democratic provisions . There are three specific pieces of legislation that need to be passed by Congress to make America more democratic and provide the foundation for the additional reforms needed to make America a true democracy:
The Declaration of Independence states that it is our right and our duty to alter the form of our government as necessary "to provide new Guards for (our) future security". Enacting these reforms will not be easy, but it is the task at hand. Democracy is under attack in America and we must do more than simply defend it. "The best defense is a good offense." We need to join forces, across party lines, and despite legitimate differences of opinion regarding many issues, to do the work of making our government our own.
It will take a movement of millions of concerned citizens to convince Congress and state legislatures to enact the reforms that are needed to make America a true democracy. To be successful, a movement must be broad and inclusive. We must look beyond our differences of opinion with regard to divisive issues and focus instead on our shared belief in the ideals upon which our nation was founded. If we succeed in making America a true democracy, we will make America greater than it has ever been. And we will make history.
This website, and the movement it is a part of, are works in progress.
If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for revisions,
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Most of 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 True Democracy) by Winston Apple. Permission to copy is granted provided that attribution is included. You are, of course, encouraged to share access to this website freely.