Being better than “all those other forms” is not difficult. All of the other forms of government have been (and are) based on various combinations of force, fear, fraud, and wealth (money). In his Second Treatise of Government, John Locke boldly stated that democracy is the only “lawful” form of government.
Locke didn’t claim that democracy was “perfect”, but he did use the term “perfect democracy” in the same way that the terms “direct democracy” or “pure democracy” are commonly used, to describe a form of government in which the people make the laws by voting directly, with an equal vote for every member of a community, state, or nation and majority rule:
Asserting that “the form of government (depends) upon the placing (of) the supreme power, which is the legislative”, Locke also described the form of government in which the people “put the power of making laws into the hands of a few select men” as an “oligarchy” (in the same way as the terms “representative democracy” or “republic” are commonly used). And he used the term “monarchy” to describe the form of a government in which the people delegate the legislative power to a single individual.
In deference to the “supremacy of the legislature”, Locke included having the laws that had been made by the community executed “by officers of their own appointing” as being part of making “the form of the government a perfect democracy”. If a president or governor can veto the laws enacted by a majority of the people, or if a court can declare laws enacted by a majority of the people to be “unconstitutional”, the legislative branch of the government is not “supreme”, it is, in fact, inferior to the other branches.
John Locke was the first political philosopher to advocate strongly for democracy. He argued that “the consent of the people” is the only “lawful basis” for government. He maintained that “all men by nature are equal” with regard to "natural rights" wihich included the rights to “life, health, liberty, (and) possessions”. And that the reason we establish governments is “not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom”.
These ideas were revolutionary – they inspired the American Revolution, as well as the French Revolution. They continue to inspire people today. They are the ideals upon which our nation was founded.
Thomas Jefferson was clearly inspired by Locke’s ideas as he drafted the Declaration of Independence. The self-evident Truths listed in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence are a summary of Locke’s main ideas:
John Locke (1632-1704)
Referendums are an exercise in pure democracy. The people vote directly, with everyone having a single, equal vote and the votes of the majority determining the outcome. One of the great successes of the Progressive and Populist Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was getting the constitutions of twenty-three states amended to provide for referendums and the initiative (which allows citizens to initiate legislation). The number of states that provide for referendums and/or the initiative has since grown to twenty-six states with referendums and twenty-four states with the initiative.
These powerful forms of pure democracy give the citizens of those states the power to propose and enact legislation, including amendments to the state constitution in some states, without the involvement or approval of the state legislature or the governor. The governors of those states cannot veto legislation enacted through the initiative and referendums. The courts cannot declare constitutional amendments to be “unconstitutional” because, once adopted by the people in a referendum, they become part of the constitution.
The initiative process and referendums are most commonly used in tandem, with proposals put on the ballot through the initiative approved or rejected in a referendum. The "veto referendum" also gives the people the power to repeal acts of the legislature in some states.
We need to build on these pockets of pure democracy to enact the reforms that will provide the foundation for making the form of our government a perfect democracy in America.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell 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 identifies some political words that have been “abused” to the point that they have “several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another”. With regard to democracy, he says:
"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" means 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. There is another Greek word – kratos (which means “rule”) – that is also applicable. In a democracy, the people rule. In a true democracy the will of a majority of the people determines public policies and what laws are passed.
James Madison offered this definition in Federalist Number 39: "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 " A true "republic" is a representative democracy. Madison and John Adams both emphasized that votes taken in a representative assembly should accurately reflect the will of the people.
That is rarely the case in Congress or in state legislatures in America. Research has shown that “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
Although the word “democracy” does not appear anywhere in the Declaration of Independence, a government in which the “just powers” of government are derived from “the consent of the governed” is a democracy. The word “democracy” also does not appear anywhere in our Constitution - although Article IV, Section 4 does “guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government” – in other words, a representative democracy.
The Declaration of Independence does not go into the details of how “the governed” give their consent, but traditionally it has been by voting – directly or indirectly – to determine what laws are enacted and what public policies are put in place. In a true democracy, when the votes are counted, the will of the majority must prevail.
John Locke’s ideas were put into practice (briefly) in the thirteen newly created “Free and Independent States” formed by the Declaration of Independence, but the “firm league of friendship” that was formed by those thirteen states under “The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” did not turn out to be perpetual. Six short years after the Articles of Confederation was formally adopted, twelve of the thirteen states sent delegates to a convention “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation”. The delegates decided to ignore that resolution and draft an entirely new document. When the Constitution was ratified, the thirteen formerly sovereign states merged into a single larger nation. Democracy in America suffered grievously in the transition.
As documented by James Madison, in his Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, a majority of the delegates to that convention, at which our Constitution was drafted, were strongly opposed to democracy. Meeting behind closed doors, and having taken a vow of secrecy, the Framers of our Constitution were free to speak openly. And Madison’s notes document the remarks of nineteen delegates who were openly hostile to democracy and four delegates who spoke out in defense of democracy. The remaining delegates generally sided with the nineteen antidemocratic delegates when votes were taken on the motions that became the Constitution.
A majority 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 recognized the necessity of allowing the people some voice in government in order to get the Constitution ratified.
The system of “checks and balances” that was put in place by our Constitution was intended to provide a series of “successive filtrations” of the will of the people in the form of numerous antidemocratic provisions explicitly designed to allow the wealthy and “well-born” to prevent any rash measures favored by the people from being enacted without their approval.
One of the most antidemocratic provisions they adopted was an amendment process that included super-majority requirements to both propose and ratify any changes to the document they drafted. That has made it very difficult for later generations of Americans to alter the form of government in the United States.
Any provision or practice that enables a minority to overrule the majority is antidemocratic. If we want America to be a perfect democracy (or even a true democracy) we must amend our Constitution, removing the antidemocratic provisions and empowering the people.
The antidemocratic provisions embedded in the Constitution created a form of government that is in conflict with the essential elements of a perfect democracy, as identified by John Locke, and with the ideals upon which our nation was founded, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
This website is dedicated to providing the citizens of the United States with the information needed to for us to work together effectively as we do the work of making our government our own – the work of making America a more perfect democracy.
This website is intended to serve as an informational and educational resource and an organizing hub for a broad and inclusive grassroots movement, involving numerous political organizations and millions of citizens, united in support of doing the work of making our government our own. Effective communication and coordination will be vital to our success as we work to fulfill our nation’s destiny and make America a perfect democracy.
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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 Perfect 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.