It is common and natural for people to exhibit a noticeable bias in favor of their own country when assessing how their country compares to other countries in various ways. And since “it is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic, we are praising it”, one form that bias 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. The democratic ideals that John Locke advocated were the cornerstone of the Declaration of Independence and were incorporated (albeit imperfectly) in the constitutions of most of the thirteen “free and independent” states that were established by the Declaration of Independence and by victory in our War for Independence.
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 well-known examples of American exceptionalism.
There have been, and are, other countries in the world that are more “democratic” than the United States. Especially those, like Switzerland, that make greater use of direct democracy by conducting frequent referendums and those where the people elect representatives using some form of proportional representation – which is nearly all the other democracies in the world today.
In 2006, the Intelligence Unit of The Economist began publishing a Democracy Index annually, 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 as the 30th most democratic country in the world.
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. Other nations have learned from our mistakes. It is time for us to do the same.
Our greatest blessing, as Americans, is that we can change the form of our government with ballots instead of bullets. When we unite in support of the ideals upon which our nation was founded, we will find that we have the power to address the flaws in our political system and become a “full democracy” once again. We can make America a pure democracy. We can make America a perfect democracy.
Armed with a clear definition of democracy and a shared understanding of the essential elements that make a government a perfect democracy, we can identify the flaws in our political system and agree upon a plan of action to address and correct those flaws.
The English philosopher John Locke deserves a great deal of the credit for the rebirth of democracy in the modern world. Prior to the publication of John 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:
John Locke (1632-1704)
“The Independence of America, considered merely as a separation from England,
would have been a matter of but little importance,
had it not been accompanied by a Revolution in the principles and practice of Governments.
She made a stand, not for herself only, but for the world.”
- Thomas Paine
The Declaration of Independence stated that, “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States”. Victory in the American Revolution made that declaration a reality. And thus began what was considered by Americans and much of the rest of the world to be a great experiment – were people capable of self-government. The citizens of the newly formed “Free and Independent” states had the unique opportunity “of beginning Government anew from the Foundation and building as they choose”. [John Adams]
The fact that the former colonies remained sovereign and independent of one another was reinforced by the first written document under which “The United States of America” was organized. The “Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union” was adopted by the Continental Congress in November of 1777. With the primary focus being on winning our independence, the Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union was not ratified until March 1, 1781, when the revolution was nearly over.
A “confederation” is a union of sovereign states. The terms of the Articles of Confederation and the nature of the union it created makes it clear that there was no “national” government created in any meaningful sense of the term. The powers given to Congress were extremely limited and Congress had no means of enforcing even the meager powers it was given.
The union formed by the Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union has proved, so far, to be perpetual (preserved by the defeat of the Confederate States of America in the Civil War) but the document itself did not last long. It became apparent almost immediately that revisions were needed.
The primary concerns of those pushing for revisions were:
Although there was general agreement that these flaws in the Articles of Confederation needed to be addressed, supporters of democracy and small government did not want to go so far as to replace the “firm league of friendship” with a single, larger nation. The opinion of Thomas Jefferson in this regard, is exemplary:
"Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government. Public servants at such a distance, and from under the eye of their constituents, must, from the circumstance of distance, be unable to administer and overlook all the details necessary for the good government of the citizens; and the same circumstance, by rendering detection impossible to their constituents, will invite public agents to corruption, plunder, and waste."
It is nearly certain that a majority of the citizens of the states that were united by the Articles of Confederation agreed with Jefferson. That did not stop Alexander Hamilton and James Madison from pushing the idea of a convention to address the acknowledged flaws.
Just five short years after the Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union went into effect, efforts were launched to call a convention to address these flaws. And in February of 1787, Congress passed the following resolution:
"Resolved that in the opinion of Congress it is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several states be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions there as shall when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the states render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government and the preservation of the Union." [Emphasis added.]
Even with Hamilton’s (false) assurances, the fact that the carefully worded call was coming from Congress, and the clearly stated limitation on the convention doing nothing more than revising the Articles of Confederation, only twelve of the thirteen states sent delegates. Rhode Island did not send any delegates. And nineteen of the seventy-four delegates who were named as delegates by the states that did send representatives chose not to attend. Patrick Henry was among those who were appointed as delegates but chose not to attend. He stated that he “smelt a rat” and went on to speak loudly against ratification once his suspicions had been confirmed.
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 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.
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 copious notes, using a system of shorthand he devised himself. 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 a record of what took place at the Convention – “the process, the principles, the reasons & the anticipations, which prevailed in the formation of” our Constitution.
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 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.
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. Here is a sample of what some of the delegates had to say:
Elbridge Gerry once drew an electoral map that contained district lines so convoluted that some seeing them thought that one district resembled a salamander. That is the origin of the term “gerrymandering”. At the convention, Gerry stated that: “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.”
Roger Sherman referred to “the inconveniencies of democracy” and “opposed the election by the people, insisting that it ought to be by the State Legislatures. The people, he said, immediately should have as little to do as may be about the Government. They want (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." He asserted that "It was not certain that the same blessings were derivable from any other form. It was certain that equal blessings had never yet been derived from any of the republican form.”
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.” Charles Pinkney agreed, saying that “An election by the people being liable to the most obvious and striking objections. They will be led by a few active and designing men.”
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."
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.
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 and giving the president the power to veto legislation. The Supreme Court soon gave itself the power to nullify acts of Congress through “judicial review” (a power not mentioned in the Constitution).
Those antidemocratic provisions created a form of government that is in conflict with the essential elements of democracy and with the democratic ideals upon which our nation was founded. If we want to make America a perfect democracy, we need to resolve this conflict in favor of the democratic ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
If we truly believe that the "just powers" of governments are derived from the "consent of the governed", we need to make the House of Representatives truly representative of the will of the people and remove the "checks" on the will of the people that were put in place by the men who drafted our Constitution.
Our Constitution has long been revered by most Americans, very few of whom have ever 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.
Our Constitution and our ideals are in conflict. If we want to make America a perfect democracy, we need to amend our Constitution to resolve that conflict in favor of our ideals.
The Preamble to our Constitution.
The Preamble was arguably the best part of our Constitution, as it was originally drafted.
As the business of the convention began to wind down, a Committee of Style was charged with taking all the motions that had been adopted during the four-month long convention and turning them into the actual text of the Constitution. One member of that committee, Gouverneur Morris, is believed to have been responsible for composing much of the text, including the revised Preamble.
Morris took full advantage of the opportunity to add a clear, concise, and inspiring statement of the reasons for forming the federal government, which also carved out a very active and significant role for the new government.
The Bill of Rights.
The lack of a Bill of Rights was a concern raised in several states during the ratification process. Some state ratified the Constitution conditionally pending the addition of a Bill of Rights in some states. Twelve amendments were proposed in the first Congress elected under the Constitution and submitted to the states for ratification on September 25, 1789. Ten of those amendments were promptly ratified and became known as “The Bill of Rights”.
Amendments that have made our government more democratic:
The 17th Amendment provided for direct election of senators by the people, replacing election by state legislatures.
Several amendments made our government more inclusive and democratic by expanding the right to vote:
Section Two of the 14th Amendment encouraged the expansion of the right to vote to all male citizens over the age of 21, stating that, “when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
The 15th Amendment extended the right to vote to black males, stating that, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
The 19th Amendment extended the right to vote to women, stating that, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
The 24th Amendment abolished the use of poll taxes or other taxes to discourage people from voting in national elections: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.”
The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18: “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”
The 24th Amendment abolished poll taxes.
Absent universal suffrage, a government is not a true democracy. All the amendments listed above made America more democratic. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought us even closer to universal suffrage. With the notable exception of felons not being allowed to vote in some states (even after they have served their time) and the lack of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, we now have universal suffrage.
Direct Democracy in the states.
One of the major victories for democracy in America was won when the populists and progressives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries got two powerful forms of direct democracy (referendums and/or the initiative) implemented in various forms in twenty-three states.
With a few more victories for democracy, we can --
If you want to get involved in our grassroots efforts to make America a more perfect democracy, please provide your email address. You will receive occasional emails with calls to action and updates regarding our progress. You will never be asked for a financial contribution. Your contact information will not be shared.
This website was created by, is maintained by, and is paid for by Winston Apple, a private citizen. Copyright © 2023 Gary Winston Apple - All Rights Reserved.
Powered by GoDaddy