John Locke was the first political philosopher to advocate strongly for democracy. Before his Second Treatise of Government was published in 1689, political philosophers had generally considered a monarchy or 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 opinion 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 inspired Thomas Jefferson as he wrote the Declaration of Independence:
Pronouns modified to be more inclusive.
Locke’s ideas were revolutionary. Demonstrably so. They provided the justification for the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and numerous other revolutions. They have inspired, and continue to inspire, people around the world.
Any time the people of a nation are allowed to choose their form of government, they choose democracy. The people are seldom allowed to choose, of course, and nations that claim to be democracies, are rarely as democratic as they claim to be.
Unfortunately, more than three centuries after Locke wrote his Second Treatise of Government and nearly two and a half centuries after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the world has yet to see Locke’s vision fully realized – in America or anywhere else.
Democracy has a great many false friends and true enemies who have actively and successfully sought to prevent us from developing a shared understanding of the essential elements that make a government a democracy or even agree upon a clear definition of democracy.
George Orwell addressed this problem in his essay “Politics and the English Language”. 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.
George Orwell (1903-1950)
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.
In other words, democracy is –
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 with regard to being the birthplace of democracy in the modern world. The democratic ideals that John Locke had 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, as well as 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 and Italy, that conduct frequent referendums – a form of direct democracy; and those where the people elect representatives using some form of proportional representation – which is nearly all of the other democracies in the world today.
The Intelligence Unit of The Economist publishes 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 fell out of the full democracies category in 2016 and has remained in the flawed democracies category ever since. Ranking 30th in the world in terms of the state of our democracy in the 2022 Democracy Index.
Robert Dahl in his book How Democratic is the American Constitution? thoroughly documents the fact that there are noother nations anywhere in the world that have modeled their constitutions on ours.
We, the people of the United States of America, will find that we have the power to address the flaws in our political system and become a “full democracy” once again. When we unite in support of the ideals upon which our nation was founded, we will find that we have the power to make America a perfect democracy.
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 – any time and any place that it takes root and manages to blossom. The drafting and ratification of the Constitution of the United States was the most successful assault on democracy in the history of America.
Meeting behind closed doors and having taken a vow of secrecy, the Framers of our Constitution were free to speak openly. As documented by James Madison, in his Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, the majority of the men who drafted our Constitution were openly hostile to democracy. Nineteen of the fifty-five delegates spoke out strongly against democracy. Only four delegates spoke in defense of democracy. And the remaining delegates generally sided with the nineteen 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.
Any provision or practice that enables a minority (or a single person in the form of a president or governor) to overrule the majority is antidemocratic. There are numerous such antidemocratic provisions embedded in our 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.
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 was in attendance at 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 also the last to pass away.
Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 fully accomplished his stated objective - preserving a record of what passed in the Convention – “the process, the principles, the reasons & the anticipations, which prevailed in the formation of” our Constitution.
Speaking privately and behind closed doors, the delegates were 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. Only four of the delegates spoke out in favor of democracy. Nineteen of the delegates spoke out harshly against democracy. And the remaining delegates consistently voted in line with those denouncing 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: “A limited Monarchy he considered as one of the best Governments in the world. 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.”
Elbridge Gerry: “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue but are the dupes of pretended patriots. In Massachusetts, it had been fully confirmed by experience that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute.” [Note: It was Elbridge Gerry who once drew an electoral map that contained district lines so convoluted that some seeing them thought that one district resembled a salamander, which gave birth to the term “gerrymander.”]
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 fifty-five men who drafted our Constitution, with few exceptions, were not fond of democracy. They did not trust we, the people, to vote wisely. (And this was at a time when only white males over the age of 21 were allowed to vote.). 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." So they gave the "people" the power to elect one-half of the legislative branch (Congress) and then put three "checks" on the will of the people in place: the Senate, the presidential veto, and the Supreme Court. They also made it extremely difficult to amend the Constitution.
If we want the "consent of the governed" to determine the "just powers" of our government, we need to make the House of Representatives truly representative of the will of the people and remove the "checks" on the "consent of the governed" 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 is in conflict with our ideals. If we want to make America a perfect democracy, we need to amend our Constitution to bring it in line with our ideals.
In the end, the document that was drafted – our Constitution – gave “the people” the right to elect one-half of one branch of the newly empowered federal government (the House of Representatives) and then gave the Senate (with equal representation for states, not people), and the president (elected by the Electoral College) “checks” on the will of the people as expressed in the House of Representatives. The Supreme Court soon gave itself the power to nullify acts of Congress through “judicial review” (a power not mentioned in the Constitution).
We, the people of the United States, need to remove the antidemocratic provisions from our Constitution and enact the additional reforms needed to -
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