Democracy in America: What Does it Mean?

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

While the United States of America is many things to many people, it is not as is popularly conceived a Democracy and it never has been. This view is not coming from a perspective of politics, but one of stark reality. The thinking of the overwhelming majority of our Founding Fathers, as embodied in the Constitution they wrote, was certainly not to give power to the masses. I don’t believe this point is in dispute by the majority of Constitutional experts, despite their various positions on the political spectrum. Most politicians with self-awareness and intelligence have always known that we are not a Democracy as a country, despite the fact that most also proclaim it to be a Democracy. The problem with what I just wrote is that defining Democracy is a very slippery process and as I will show, the word means very different thing to many different people.

Permit me to begin by defining Democracy in terms of the myth that has been created around it in American parlance: “Democracy represents both the Will and the Rule of the People over their government. As such it is the best form of government for all”. Whether we believe it or not all Americans have grown up under this national myth and its’ use is ubiquitous to both domestic and foreign policy. The many wars this country has fought were prosecuted in the interests of this myth of Democracy, whether in destroying the Axis in World War II to save the world, or to nurture its creation and existence in numerous foreign lands. A student of history understands that the reasons for the wars America has fought are far more complex and ultimately self-serving than protecting Democracy. Nevertheless, to initially go to war, a populace must be energized by the belief that it will be fought for a higher purpose, in order to send it young adults to fight and potentially die. This energy in America usually has come from a combination of the myth of protecting democracy and a general threat to all the people. The simple rubric in my lifetime and in the history before it, is that we are fighting for Democracy. I will explore this myth, so central to our lives of citizens and discuss its implications.

In viewing the wide-ranging definitions of democracy I’ll begin by looking at a list of some made by famous people as compiled by Professor William M. Reisinger, of the University of Iowa. He introduces his list with these words:

“The basic sense of democracy as a form of governance rests on its etymology as rule by the entire people rather than, as Shapiro puts it, by any “aristocrat, monarch, philosopher, bureaucrat, expert, or religious leader.” Beyond that, actual definitions of democracy come in all shapes and sizes. On the next page are a variety of others’ definitions for your perusal, presented in chronological order. Each emphasizes one or more things thought to be true about democracy: 1) it is a dangerous form of government; 2) it includes genuine competition for power; 3) it permits mass participation on a legally equal footing; 4) it provides civil and other liberties that restrict the sphere of state power within the society; or 5) it promotes widespread deliberation about how to make and enforce policy so as to promote the common good.”

Some of the definitions he gives follow:

“A constitution [or politeia] may be defined as ‘the organization of a city [or polis] in respect of its offices generally, but especially in respect of that particular office which is sovereign in all issues. . . . In democratic cities, for example, the people [demos] is sovereign. . . . [W]hen the masses govern the city with a view to the common interest, the form of government is called by the generic name . . . of ‘constitutional government’. . . . Democracy is directed to the interest of the poor [only, not to the interests of everyone–WR].” (Aristotle 1995, 97-101)

“Democracy [is] not majority rule: democracy [is] diffusion of power, representation of interests, recognition of minorities.” (John Calhoun, as paraphrased by Roper 1989, 63)

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” (H.L. Mencken, quoted in Danziger 1998, 155)

Democracy is “the substitution of election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.” (G.B. Shaw, quoted in Danziger 1998, 155)

“Democracy is “government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them . . . or by officers elected by them.” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1933)

“Democracy is a competitive political system in which competing leaders and organizations define the alternatives of public policy in such a way that the public can participate in the decision-making process.” (Schattschneider 1960, 141)

Democracy is “a state where political decisions are taken by and with the consent, or the active participation even, of the majority of the People. . . . [L]iberalism, though recognizing that in the last resort the ‘legal majority’ must prevail, tries to protect the minorities as it does the civil rights of the individual, and by much the same methods. . . . Liberal democracy is qualified democracy. The ultimate right of the majority to have its way is conceded, but that way is made as rough as possible.” (Finer 1997, 1568-1570)

 “The fundamental idea of democratic, political legitimacy is that the authorization to exercise state power must arise from the collective decisions of the equal members of a society who are governed by that power.” Collective decisions can be either aggregative (based on counting preferences) or deliberative. “[A] decision is collective just in case it emerges from arrangements of binding collective choice that establish conditions of free public reasoning among equals who are governed by the decisions. In the deliberative conception, then, citizens treat one another as equals not by giving equal consideration to interests–perhaps some interests ought to be discounted . . .–but by offering them justifications for the exercise of collective power . . . .” (Cohen 1998, 185-6; italics in original)

These are eight of the twenty-five definitions that Reisinger listed. Just as he broke up these definitions into categories ranging from “dangerous” (dyspeptic) to positive views, I presented a selection from the entire range of views. The link to his article will bring you to a short piece, quickly read, that will give you the full range of choice of viewpoints. My particular preference is for the last two of the definitions, but I don’t believe that they currently define our system. For further, quick reference this Wikipedia link illustrates the difficulty of defining Democracy and the confusion everyone has had in doing so:

This illustrates the problem that America has with Democracy both as a rallying point and as a guiding myth. Most of us were reared and educated with the idea that “Democracy is the rule of the people”, even though in practicality that is simply not true. In the area of guiding mythology though, that particular myth has been used time and again, to justify many evils and sometimes even promote good.

In realistically looking at our country and Democracy, as with much else in life, I believe context is everything. The American Revolution was fostered by the wealthiest people in this country, who initiated it because they were economically and socially stifled by the rule of a Monarchic Empire. They were highly sophisticated and intelligent men, whose charisma and standing in their particular States, was unquestioned. They used the promise of a “free republic”, end to tyranny and even the inclusion of the populace into decision-making, to rally popular support. That support was far from universal, but nevertheless those we call the “Founding Fathers” prevailed. When I first learned America History my particular hero was the radical Samuel Adams. It always seemed curious to me that after the Revolution his role in the body politic became obscure. As my knowledge of history grew I came to realize that my hero was far too much a threat to the interests of the Founding Fathers, to be allowed a role in the Constitution and the governance of this new country.

The exclusion of Sam Adams and others of his radical ilk is the proof that this was not to be a country where the common people would have ultimate power over their government. The Constitution makes no mention of Democracy; it is a document that creates a particular type of Republic, where the power rests in the hands of those of wealth and property. It is nevertheless a magnificent document that was unprecedented for its time and well into the future, even today. Democracy, however, was the myth used to convince the masses to love and support their country. It has been used as mentioned to justify war and foreign interventions. The supposed protection of Democracy has even been used in the Patriot Act to actually threaten most American’s constitutionally granted freedoms.

When William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review and PBS fame first became prominent in the 1950’s, he was roundly chastised for insisting that our Country was a Republic, not a Democracy. In other words, Buckley, who in general I have no respect for, was correctly denying the unifying myth of our country. In the process of that denial and its effect on conservative thinking, it was seen at the time as scandalous. I think that the idea of the United States being a Democracy is a myth that needs to be de-mythologized. I believe, however, in the idea of the need for the populace to have a greater say in the processes that govern us. I’m tired of the oligarchy that has always ruled our country for its benefit and the citizens’ distress. A large part of the seeming legitimacy of that rule is the myth that we are a democratic society. To even begin to achieve this power for the people, we must educate us all on the real state of affairs and try to proceed with reality and not myth.

What do you the reader think about this and what are your preferences for how this country should be run?

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger


65 thoughts on “Democracy in America: What Does it Mean?

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