It is common and natural for people to exhibit a noticeable bias in favor of their own country when comparing countries in various ways. Since “it is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic, we are praising it”, one form that bias commonly takes is believing one’s own country to be more democratic than it is. This is certainly true in America.
We do have a reasonably legitimate claim to being the birthplace of democracy in the modern world, although a great deal of the credit for the rebirth of democracy rightfully belongs to our Founding Forefather - the English philosopher John Locke.
Prior to the publication of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government in 1689, political philosophers had generally considered a monarchy or an aristocracy to be the best form of government because they believed the people who shared power should be wise and virtuous and that wisdom and virtue were extremely rare. Locke had a more generous view of human nature.
A deeply spiritual man, Locke placed both individual liberty and political power within a moral framework informed by his theories regarding life in the state of Nature. He stated, as “self-evident” truths, that “all men by nature are equal”, endowed by God with natural rights to “life, health, liberty, (and) possessions”; that “the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom”, and that “the consent of the people” is the only “lawful basis” for government.
If these ideas sound familiar, it is because they were immortalized by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their 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 Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
These ideas were revolutionary. Demonstrably so. They provided the rationale and the inspiration for the American Revolution. They have been inspiring people ever since. They are the foundation upon which democratic governments are established.
The governments that were in place in the thirteen original states in 1776 suffered from the same flaw that kept ancient Athens from being a true democracy by the standards set by John Locke. The right to vote and hold office was extremely limited in both ancient Athens and in all thirteen of the states that made up the United States of America in 1776. In Athens, only males born of Athenian parents could participate in civic affairs. In the United States at its founding only males could vote and there were other requirements in place to be eligible to vote or hold office in most states (most commonly requirements related to owning a minimum amount of land or having a minimum net worth). A government with requirements of that sort is more accurately referred to as a “timocracy” rather than a “democracy”.
While both John Locke and Thomas Jefferson (in the Declaration of Independence) used some gender-neutral pronouns (“the governed”, “the community”, “the society”), masculine pronouns (most commonly “men”) were included more frequently in both Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and The Declaration of Independence. Excluding women from voting and holding office violates the element of an equal vote for all the “governed”, which in turn, violates the principle of majority rule. An otherwise democratic system that excludes women could be considered a “limited democracy” or a “patriarchal democracy” but is not a true democracy.
In America, at its founding, none of the essential elements of a true democracy were in place. The requirement of unanimous consent among the states under the Articles of Confederation violated the principle of majority rule. Within our system of representation, the principle of equal representation was lacking. And the supremacy of the legislative power was ignored in favor of a system of "checks and balances".
It is common and natural for people to exhibit a noticeable bias in favor of their own country when comparing countries in various ways. One form that bias takes is believing one’s own country to be more democratic than it is. This is certainly true in America.
Although we have now achieved universal suffrage, attempts are still made to deny some people the right to vote. And while we have enacted a few other pro-democracy reforms, our government is not as democratic as many Americans believe it to be.
We do have a reasonably legitimate claim to being the birthplace of democracy in the modern world. The Declaration of Independence, ratified by victory in the American Revolution, established a government based on democratic ideals for the first time since the fall of Athens. Most Americans also believe that our government is the most democratic in the world, the greatest democracy in the history of the world, and that other nations have modeled their constitutions on ours. The facts do not back up these other well-known examples of American exceptionalism.
There have been, and are, many other countries in the world that are more “democratic” than the United States. The Intelligence Unit of The Economist began publishing a Democracy Index annually in 2006, ranking the nations of the world in terms of the state of democracy in each country. Nations are given numerical scores on a total of 60 indicators and grouped into four categories based on their average score: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes. Of the 167 countries included in the 2022 Democracy Index (the most recent), there were 24 full democracies and 48 flawed democracies. The United States has never been ranked as the most democratic country in the world, fell out of the full democracies category in 2016, and is currently ranked among the flawed democracies, as the 30th most democratic country in the world.
The flaws in our democracy fall into two general categories: flaws in the way we conduct elections, which severely limit the choices of voters, and anti-democratic provisions embedded in our Constitution that allow minorities to consistently block the will of a majority of the people.
The fact that no other nations have modeled their constitutions on ours was thoroughly documented by Robert Dahl in his book How Democratic is the American Constitution? There are numerous provisions embedded in our Constitution that are in direct conflict with the basic principles of democracy, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, in John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, and elsewhere. Other nations have learned from our mistakes. It is time for us to do the same.
The Preamble is a clear statement of the reasons for forming a new government and a concise and inspiring summary of the proper role of government:
"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
The Bill of Rights that was added by Congress after our Constitution was ratified (at the insistence of several states as a condition of ratification) is arguably the best part of our Constitution and the part most worthy of the reverence most Americans have for our Constitution. It makes the role of government in securing our rights clear and sets proper limits of the powers of the government.
Most of the additional amendments have made America more democratic, expanding the right to vote, providing for direct election of senators, and eliminating poll taxes.
The form of government put in place by the body of the Constitution, however, contains many anti-democratic provisions that are in conflict with the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and does not fully include any of the essential elements of a true democracy. If we want to make America a perfect democracy, we must take a critical look at our Constitution, identify the anti-democratic provisions within it, and amend our Constitution to remove those anti-democratic provisions.
To fully understand why our political system is bad as it is, and why things are the way they are politically in America today, we must look back to the Federal Convention of 1787, where our Constitution was drafted.
There is a great deal of discussion these days about how democracy is under assault in America. That is true. It is also true that democracy is always under assault – anytime and anywhere it manages to take root and blossom. The most successful assault on democracy in the history of America took place over a long, hot summer in Philadelphia in 1787, as fifty-five men of commerce, many of them slaveowners, drafted our Constitution.
As the delegates debated the details of the form of the government they hoped to put in place, the pros and cons of democracy were hotly debated. That portion of the deliberations constituted the greatest and most consequential debate on democracy that has ever been conducted. Democracy lost. Many of the flaws that continue to plague democracy in America two and a half centuries later can be traced to the fact that most of the delegates to the convention that drafted our Constitution were strongly opposed to democracy.
One of the first decisions made by the delegates to the convention was to keep their deliberations private. Nothing spoken in the convention was to be repeated outside the convention or made public.
Despite the vow of secrecy that had been adopted, several of the delegates took notes. James Madison was far and away the most active in that regard. He attended every session and took comprehensive notes, using a system of shorthand he devised himself. His stated purpose was to preserve a historical record of the proceedings. He succeeded admirably. Thanks to his efforts, we have an excellent and reliable record of what was said at the Federal Convention of 1787.
The others in attendance knew that he was taking notes. In fact, he routinely checked with those who had spoken each day to verify that he had captured the essence of their remarks accurately. They knew that they could trust him not to share those notes publicly. And their trust was well placed. The notes that Madison took were not published until after his death and as the youngest of the delegates, he was the last to pass away.
Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 fully accomplished his stated objective of preserving for history a record of the debates that took place at the Convention – “the process, the principles, the reasons & the anticipations, which prevailed in the formation of” our Constitution.
Meeting behind closed doors and having taken a vow of secrecy, the Framers of our Constitution were free to free to share their true feelings about democracy. Madison’s notes are the most complete and most accurate record of what was said and who said it.
As documented by Madison, most of the men who drafted our Constitution were openly hostile to democracy. Only four of the delegates spoke out in favor of democracy. Nineteen of the delegates spoke out harshly against democracy. And the remaining delegates generally sided with the antidemocratic delegates when votes were taken on the motions that were made in the convention that then became our Constitution.
Most of the delegates did not want to allow “the people” to have any role whatsoever in the new government. In the end, the delegates reluctantly agreed to let the people elect the members of the House of Representatives because they knew that if they did not allow the people to have some voice in the government, it would be difficult to get the Constitution ratified.
Here is a sample of what some of the delegates had to say:
One of the most outspoken critics of democracy was Elbridge Gerry, who became the namesake of the term “gerrymandering” as a result of him drawing an electoral map that contained district lines so convoluted that some people thought one district resembled a salamander. Gerrymandering – drawing district lines to favor one political party - continues to corrupt our electoral system today. At the convention, Gerry stated that: “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.”
Roger Sherman “opposed the election by the people", insisting that it ought to be by the State Legislatures. "The people should have as little to do as may be about the Government. They (lack) information and are constantly liable to be misled.”
John Dickenson considered “a limited Monarchy" to be "one of the best Governments in the world."
Edmund Randolph observed that “the general object was to provide a cure for the evils under which the U. S. labored; that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy.”
Regarding the election of the president, George Mason, “conceived it would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper character for chief Magistrate to the people, as it would, to refer a trial of colors to a blind man.”
It may come as a shock to many Americans to learn that the men who drafted our Constitution, with few exceptions, were not fond of democracy. They did not trust “the people” to vote wisely. They knew, however, that they could not leave the people out of the government altogether. The Declaration of Independence had stirred the passions of Americans by stating that governments derive their "just powers from the consent of the governed."
In the end, the document that was drafted – our Constitution – gave “the people” the right to elect one-half of one of the three branches of the newly empowered federal government (the House of Representatives) and then put two "checks" on the will of the people in place: requiring the concurrence of the Senate to any legislation enacted by the members of the House of Representatives and giving the president the power to veto legislation. The Supreme Court soon gave itself an additional check on the will of the people - the power to nullify acts of Congress through “judicial review” (a power not mentioned in the Constitution).
Any provision or practice that enables a minority (or a single person) to overrule the majority is anti-democratic.There are numerous such antidemocratic provisions embedded in our Constitution.
John Locke referred to the “consent of the governed” as the only “lawful basis” for government and described, in considerable detail, the essential elements of a pure democracy: majority rule, an equal vote for all, and the supremacy of the legislative power. None of those elements are fully present in the form of our government, as established by our Constitution.
Checks and Balances = Gridlock by Design. "In American politics it is hard to get things done and easy to block them. With its multiple branches and hurdles, the institutional structure of American government allows organized and intense interests - even quite narrow ones - to create gridlock and stalemate." - Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (from Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class).
No part of the federal government clearly reflects the will of the people. Majority rule is the essential element in a democracy. Given the many problems with our elections, even the House of Representatives, with members elected directly by the people, rarely represents the will of the people. Combined with the fact that we have no provision for conducting national referendums, there is no part of our government designed to reflect the will of a majority of the people, which is largely rendered irrelevant by our system of government.
Super-majority requirements violate the principle of majority rule. Super-majority requirements for overriding a presidential (or gubernatorial) veto, proposing an amendment to our Constitution, ratifying proposed amendments, or impeaching a president, allow a minority to overrule the majority.
The legislative branch is not supreme at either the state or federal level. Presidents have the power to veto bills passed by Congress and governors have the power to veto bills passed by state legislatures. The Supreme Court has granted itself the power to nullify acts of Congress by declaring them unconstitutional. (A power that is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution.) Supreme Courts in the states have assumed similar powers. Far from being supreme within our political system, the legislative branch is the weakest branch of our governments at both the state and the federal levels.
Unequal Representation. The Preamble to our Constitution says that “We the people…ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”. [Emphasis added.] The body of our Constitution establishes a government where geographical areas are represented, not, people. States are represented in the Senate. Congressional districts are represented in the House of Representatives. As a result of significant variations in population among the 50 states and the 435 congressional districts that make up the United States, we the people do not have equal representation in either chamber of Congress.
In the U. S. Senate each state is represented by two senators. But the population of each state varies widely. Giving each state equal suffrage in the Senate makes the votes of citizens from the states with the smallest populations considerably more powerful than the votes of citizens from states with the largest populations. Wyoming, with a population of 576,851, is the least populous state. California has the largest population (39,538, 223). The vote of each voter in Wyoming is equal to 69 voters in California in the U. S. Senate.
In the U. S. House of Representatives each congressional district is represented by one representative. There is less variation, but are still significant variations, between the populations of congressional districts.
States, not the people, elect presidents. There are several provisions in our Constitution related to the method of electing presidents that are antidemocratic. Our presidents are elected by states, through the Electoral College, not by the people of the United States. Electors are appointed “in such Manner as the Legislature (of each state) may direct”. Between 1800 and 1876, more and more states moved to a system of choosing their Electors by means of a popular vote, but the provision allowing them to appoint Electors in whatever manner they choose remains in the Constitution. Some states are considering legislation that would allow the state legislature to set aside the results of the popular vote and appoint their slate of Electors.
The fact that each state is given “a Number of Electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled to in the Congress” means that the votes of the citizens of the smallest states are more powerful than the votes of the citizens of larger states.
And the votes of citizens who live in states where presidential elections are competitive are more impactful than the votes of citizens where presidential elections are not competitive.
The Electoral College system that is in place makes it possible for a candidate for president to get a plurality, or even a majority, of the popular vote and still lose in the Electoral College. That has now happened five times in our nation’s history – twice so far in the 21st century.
The fact that states, not the people of the United States, elect our presidents becomes even clearer if no candidate wins a majority of the electoral vote. When that happens, our Constitution provides for the House of Representatives to elect the president, with each state casting a single vote. That happened in 1824 and could happen again unless we amend the 12th Amendment before a viable third party or independent candidate wins enough electoral votes to send an election to the House of Representatives.
In his Thoughts on Government, John Adams observed that:
“Fear is the foundation of most governments; but is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men,
in whose breasts it predominates, so stupid, and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.”
And yet, the Framers of our Constitution, at least some of whom had clearly read and been influenced by Adams’ Thoughts on Government, drafted a document infused with fear. Fear of the tyranny of a monarch on one hand and fear of democracy (the tyranny of the majority and "mob rule") on the other. And still, a majority of the Americans who cast votes during the ratification process approved that Constitution.
Adams may have been wrong in predicting that Americans would reject a government founded on fear. He has, however, been proven right in another regard – fear has, indeed, proven to be “so sordid and brutal a passion” that a great many Americans from his time down to ours have been rendered “stupid” and/or “miserable” as a result of our government being founded on fear. And that stupidity and misery, as well as sordid and brutal passions are evident in the way we conduct elections in America.
Our Constitution has long been revered by most Americans, very few of whom have ever actually read it. Even fewer among us have taken the time to make a critical comparison of the form of government put in place by our Constitution and the democratic ideals expressed so clearly and powerfully in the Declaration of Independence.
The form of the government put in place by our Constitution conflicts with our ideals. If we want to make America a perfect democracy, we need to amend our Constitution to resolve that conflict in favor of our ideals. If we truly believe that the "just powers" of governments are derived from the "consent of the governed", we need to enact reforms that make the House of Representatives and “exact portrait” (in miniature) of “the people” of America and then remove the "checks" on the will of the people that were put in place by the men who drafted our Constitution.
Article IV, Section 4, of the Constitution of the United States guarantees every state in the Union a “republican form of government”, but “republic” is another political term that, like democracy, has “different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another”.
The word republic is derived from the Latin term res publica (meaning “public thing”). In a republic the government belongs to the people.
The original definition of a "republic" was a government with a chief of state who is elected, rather than a hereditary monarch, and with some system of representation.
A significant alteration of the definition of republic took place during the drafting of the Constitution of the United States and in the process of getting our Constitution ratified. The use of the terms “republic”, “republican”, and “republican form of government” was common among delegates to the Federal Convention of 1787. The fact that states (not people) were (and are) represented in the Senate and that congressional districts (not people) were (and are) represented in the House of Representatives lends credence to the statement that our Constitution established the United States as a republic, not a pure (direct) democracy.
In the decades following the Federal Convention of 1787, the terms “republic” and “republican form of government” came to be synonymous with “representative democracy”. James Madison played a key role, at the convention and thereafter, in making those terms synonymous.
During the debates at the Convention, Madison made the point that there should be a strong correlation between votes by representatives and how the people would have voted, if voting directly. In Federalist Number 14, he stated that “in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents.” In Federalist Number 39, he stated that “We may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people.”
Over the course of his life, Madison’s commitment to majority rule within a representative democracy became even stronger. In a letter he wrote in 1833, he stated clearly that “the vital principle of republican government is the will of the majority” and “every friend to Republican Government ought to raise his voice against the sweeping denunciation of majority Governments.”
According to the notes of James McHenry (a delegate to the convention), at the conclusion of the Federal Convention, a lady asked Dr. Franklin, ‘Well, Doctor what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?’ ‘A republic,” replied the Doctor, ‘if you can keep it.”
The false friends and true enemies of democracy in America are fond of proudly and confidently stating that “America is not a democracy; it is a republic.” That statement is supported by the inclusion of the guarantee of “a republican form of government” in the Constitution and by Dr. Franklin’s description of the form of government put in place by the Framers. All those statements may be accurate if we accept the original definition of a republic. However, by the higher standard set by Madison and John Locke’s description of a government the “form” of a “perfect democracy”, America is neither a democracy nor a republic.
With reference to Aristotle’s distinction between an “aristocracy” (as a “pure” form of government where those in power govern “with a view to the common interest”) and an “oligarchy” (as a “perverted” form of government where those in power govern with a view to their own private interest), a more accurate response from Dr. Franklin to the question of what form of government was being proposed by the Constitution would have been, “An aristocracy, if we can keep it.”
We have not managed to "keep it".
We have come to understand politics as a competition between Democrats and Republicans, or between liberals and conservatives. In Federalist Number 10, James Madison provided a broader and more accurate description of the “factions” that constitute the competing interests in “civilized nations”:
The most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.
He went on to say that: “The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.”
The competing factions within the American economy today can best be described as corporate interests versus the “general Welfare” of the people.
Although there are still a few sole proprietors among landlords (“a landed interest”), creditors (banks and other financial institutions, also known as “a moneyed interest”), manufacturers, and retail establishments (“a mercantile interest”), those interests have largely merged and now constitute corporate interests.
The interests of renters, borrowers (“debtors”), workers, and consumers constitute “We, the people”. And the will of the people constitutes the Populist Agenda.
There is a third “faction” competing for control of governments in America today – plutocrats. Plutocracy is government by the wealthy. Wealthy contributors to political campaigns in America today may promote a policy agenda consisting of other issues but are most concerned with avoiding progressive taxation. In America today, most plutocrats are, first and foremost, tax-averse billionaires.
There is no overlap between what corporate interests want the government to do and what the people of America want the government to do. None of the items in the corporate agenda have the support of the people. And corporate interests are adamantly opposed to all the legislation and programs in the populist agenda.
Because nothing in the Corporate Agenda has the support of the people, corporate interests know that they cannot get what they want from government within a true democracy. The CEOs of multi-national corporations and the army of lobbyists they employ are among the most committed and most effective of the false friends and true enemies of democracy.
Aristotle’s system of classifying governments was based on how many people share power and whether those in power govern “with a view to the common interest” or “with a view to private interests”. The relevant definition of power in a political context is the ability to get the government to do what you want it to do.
We have not managed to keep our government from devolving into an oligarchy. Although there are elements of democracy present in our form of government, at the present time our government is most accurately described as a corporatocracy, with elements of a plutocracy.
Despite the rulings of five dark robed Supreme Court Justices, corporations are not people. If they were, they would not be nice people. They would be selfish, inconsiderate, greedy people who will do whatever they think is necessary to get richer and richer.
Over the past century, as corporate interests have gained effective control of our government, the focus of most corporations has narrowed to maximizing profits to the exclusion of nearly all other considerations.
The corporate agenda is designed to help corporations take as much as they can from governments (and society) and give as little as possible in return.
The "pro-active" part of the corporate agenda is what corporate interests want from government:
The flip side of the Corporate Agenda is what corporate interests DO NOT WANT governments to do:
Gaining and retaining control of governments is the key to implementing the corporate agenda. Since no item in the corporate agenda has the support of a majority of the people, the promoters of corporate interests know that they cannot succeed within a true democracy. The CEOs of multi-national corporations and the army of lobbyists they employ are among the most dangerous and most effective of the false friends and true enemies of democracy.
With the people generally being denied the opportunity to vote directly on issues and not truly represented in Congress or state legislatures, we are left to rely on polling to determine the "will of the people". Polling is not an exact science, but polls have consistently shown support for some key proposals ranging from 60 percent to 90 percent. With support at those levels in poll after poll, there can be little doubt that the legislation in question has the support of at least a solid majority of the citizenry.
To mention just a few relatively non-controversial issues of concern to most American that have gone unaddressed by Congress: A public option for health insurance consistently polls at about 67 percent. A federal job guarantee has majority support in every state in the Union, ranging from 57 percent to over 80 percent and averaging over 70 percent. Two-thirds of Americans now understand the global warming is a serious, perhaps even existential threat, and support the legislation needed to respond appropriately to that threat. (Which would create millions of well-paid jobs.) The reason none of this legislation has been enacted is that corporate interests have gained effective control of our government.
The stakes in the contest between the corporate agenda and the will of the people are highest regarding the climate crisis. In This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein offered a succinct summary of the situation we find ourselves in at present:
“The real reason we are failing to rise to the climate moment is because the actions required directly challenge our reigning economic paradigm (deregulated capitalism combined with public austerity). They also spell extinction for the richest and most powerful industry the world has ever known – the oil and gas industry, which cannot survive in anything like its current form.”
Noam Chomsky put the struggle in terms that relate directly to the need to make America a perfect democracy: “In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured, they may well be essential to survival.”
It may seem like an overstatement to say that making America a true democracy may be the key element in averting human extinction, but it is not. The mere possibility that continued corporate control of our government may increase the chances of human extinction should infuse the campaign to make America a perfect democracy with a necessary sense of urgency.
We need to shift political power from corporate interests and tax-averse billionaires to ourselves- the people of the United States – and divide it equally among ourselves. Which is to say, we need to make the national government and the governments of all fifty states true democracies.
Our ultimate goal must be to -
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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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